I Need Attendance From My Nurse Around the Clock*

NursingWithin the last fifty years, the nursing profession has become a highly skilled and demanding field. Today’s nursing is far more than just checking blood pressure and giving medicines that the doctor orders. And yet, most people pay a lot more attention to the doctor than they do to the nursing staff. In part that’s because of the way society has traditionally viewed physicians. But the fact is, nurses are vital members of the health care team. Among other things, they get to know their patients very well and have a better idea of their health and their responses to treatment than a doctor might. And a wise detective, whether real or fictional, knows that nurses often have valuable insights that can help solve a case. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I’m not going to mention novels that are considered ‘medical thrillers’ (e.g. the work of Michael Palmer). That would be too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot gets quite a lot of information from Amy Leatheran, a nurse who is engaged to help look after Louise Leidner. Louise is the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, and goes with him to an excavation a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, Louise is murdered in her bedroom. At first, everyone thinks that a stranger must have committed the crime, but it’s soon shown that no strangers were at the house where the dig team is staying. So Poirot has to look among the members of the team to find the killer. One of the first people Poirot interviews is Amy Leatheran, who tells him that Louise had been fearful and had seen faces at her window, heard hands tapping and so on. It turns out that Louise was afraid because she’d gotten threatening letters from her first husband, whom she thought long dead. She was convinced her former husband had returned to kill her. This angle to the case gives Poirot some important information and he’s able to use it to find out who really killed the victim. What’s very interesting about this story too is that Poirot pays close attention to what Amy Leatheran tells him, but not in the way she (or first-time readers) may think.

Nurses also feature in Christie’s Sad Cypress. When Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous letter about her wealthy Laura Welman, she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman travel to the family home Hunterbury. When they get there they discover that Aunt Laura has had a stroke. District nurse Jessie Hopkins and private nurse Eileen O’Brien take charge of the patient under the supervision of Dr. Peter Lord. While Elinor and Roddy are at Hunterbury, they renew their acquaintance with a childhood friend Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Roddy soon finds himself besotted by her and almost before Elinor knows what’s happened, he’s in love with Mary. Then Aunt Laura dies without having made a will and as her next of kin, Elinor stands to inherit a fortune. One afternoon, Mary Gerrard is poisoned while having lunch at Hunterbury. Elinor becomes the prime suspect. She’s arrested for the crime and is about to go on trial. But Peter Lord wants her name cleared, so he visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the case. Poirot discovers that there were several things about Mary Gerrard that weren’t generally known, and that her past is the reason she was killed. The two nurses turn out to have valuable information about the case, and we can see from their interactions with each other and with Poirot how being closely involved with a patient gives them a lot of ‘inside information.’

That’s also true in Barbara Vine (AKA Ruth Rendell’s) The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist is hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. She’s eager to take the position because it will allow her to be closer to her lover Mark Douglas. Soon after arriving at the family home Lydstep Old Hall, Kerstin gets the feeling that something is very, very wrong. For one thing, the family seems to live and behave as though it were still the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. Kerstin also finds that her patient is kept under heavy sedation by order of his mother, the family matriarch. Kerstin is convinced that he doesn’t need such heavy medication so, concerned for his health she begins to withhold the dugs without telling his mother. Her decision leads to real tragedy and we learn about that tragedy and about the inner workings of this family through a diary that she keeps.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we meet investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn, who makes arrangements with noted cosmetic surgeon George Chandler-Powell to have a facial scar removed. For that, she’ll be treated at his private Dorset Clinic Cheverell Manor. Soon after her arrival though, Rhoda is brutally murdered. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team are named to investigate the murder and they begin to look into both the victim’s life and what goes on at the clinic. Then there’s another murder. Now the team has to try to find out what might connect the two victims. It turns out that part of the truth can be found in the past, and that one person who knows more than she is saying is a nurse. Giving her name would give away part of the plot, but it’s an interesting example of the way nurses can know things that other people might not get to know.

Nurses play pivotal roles in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. One night there’s a blackout at Löwander Hospital, a private facility. During the blackout, a nurse Marianne Svärd is murdered. Göteborg detective Irene Huss and her team are just beginning their investigation when another nurse Linda Svensson disappears. Her body is later found in an unused hospital attic, hung in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Tekla Olsson committed suicide. It’s soon clear that something is going on at the hospital, so the investigation team looks into the history of the facility and the people who work there. In doing that they get some valuable information from another nurse Siv Persson, who’s been at the hospital for a long time and who knows its history.

Wendy James’ The Mistake shows exactly how observant and alert nurses can be. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow goes to a Sydney hospital in a panic when she gets word that her daughter Hannah has been admitted there. Hannah’s been in an accident and although it’s not life-threatening, she needs medical care. While Jodie’s there, she has a reunion of sorts. Debbie West, a nurse-midwife at the hospital, remembers Jodie from a visit she made there years ago. At that time, Jodie gave birth to a girl Elsa Mary whom she’s never told anyone about – not even her husband Angus. Debbie asks Jodie about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But then Debbie takes it on herself to do some searching and finds that there are no records of such an adoption. Now questions are raised, first privately and then very publicly, about what happened to Jodie’s first baby. There is even a strong possibility that she might have killed the baby. As the questions continue Jodie becomes a social pariah. Little by little, we learn what really happened when Ella Mary was born and we learn that things are not as simple as they seem.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. That novel begins with the disappearance of Vigatà police sergeant Giuseppe Fazio. His boss Salvo Montalbano is eager to find out what’s happened to one of his best team members, so he begins to look into what happened just before Fazio went missing. It turns out that Fazio was working on a major case involving illegal trafficking, a vicious murder and some highly-placed Mafia people. Montalbano and his team know they’ll have to go up against some dangerous enemies, so when they find a wounded Fazio, they arrange for him to be transported to Fiacca Hospital where it’s hoped he’ll be kept safe. That’s where Montalbano meets Angela, a hospital nurse who ends up proving to be very important to this case.

Nurses are smart, educated and observant professionals; they are integral to good medical care. Little wonder they have so much knowledge about what goes on around them. Little wonder too that they are so often central to a crime fiction case. Now it’s your turn. What gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Barbara Vine, Helene Tursten, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

30 responses to “I Need Attendance From My Nurse Around the Clock*

  1. One of my favourite scenes in all Dorothy L Sayers comes when Miss Climpson stages a fake séance in order to find a missing will – I think it’s in Strong Poison. It is of course for the most virtuous reasons, but requires a gullible fallguy, and that is the nurse employed by the old lady with all the money. So she doesn’t show up that well, but I’m sure she was a good nurse! I love the way Miss Climpson tracks her through the local village, using her choice of teashops as a guide to character, so she can judge the best approach….

    • Moira – Oh, yes, that is a great part of that book even if it doesn’t show nurses in perhaps the most favourable of lights. And you’re right about the teashop scenes too. You know, I must do a post on teashops one of these times. Such an interesting setting and there’s a lot of crime fiction that uses it..

  2. I totally agree about the importance of nurses. When I lived in London during the late 90s, a couple of my friends were NHS nurses. They worked incredibly long hours for rubbish pay and they were amazing. I’m still in touch with them although sadly the profession lost them as it was difficult to juggle family life with the demands of the job. This is really sad.

    On another note nurse Leatheran is such a prude. I love her character but Christie really did create a class A snob.

    • Sarah – LOL – she did indeed! Amy Leatheran is a skilled nurse and as you say, a well-drawn character, but I can’t say I’d want to be her friend… It is sad to hear that your friends ended up having to leave nursing. We need dedicated people like that in the profession. As you say, as important as nursing is, it’s not a particularly highly-paid field and it’s high-stress so it’s understandable that people feel the need to leave it. Still, it’s a shame when they do.

      • Ah Nurse Leatheran, what a classic! I loved how everyone in Murder in Mesopotamia was a foreigner–the German, the ‘Arabs’, even Poirot himself–except for the British. Her total lack of imagination did make her the perfect source, though.

        • Angela – She really is a classic isn’t she? And you’re right; in her attitudes and lack of imagination her character makes for a great POV. I wonder if it would have occurred to her that to the Iraqis she met, she was the foreigner…

  3. Mignon Eberhart (PATIENT IN ROOM 18) comes to mind. Read it as a teenager.

  4. Margot: Getting away from the lit aspect, I agree that nurses are extremely important to our health care. Sometimes, I believe they are more on top of patients’ needs than the doctors. Another category often overlooked is that of Physician’s Assistant. They are extremely valuable in diagnoses and treatment. From my point of view, all these experts need more support in order to encourage them to remain in their professions. Yours truly, Toe.

    • Toe- You have a well-taken point. Physician assistants also have demanding jobs that require skill and years of preparation. And as you say, we don’t always think of how important they are to the health care team, but they are. You’re right that she should have our support.

  5. Margot: As the son of a nurse and the husband of a nurse and the brother of a nurse I have spent my life surrounded by nurses.

    In crime fiction I thought of Maisie Dobbs being a nurse during WW I before she turned to becoming a psychologist and investigator.

    There was another nurse as sleuth I had read. After some thought I recalled Bess Crawford, another WW I nurse, who is featured in a series by Charles Todd.

    • Bill – Ah, so you have first-hand knowledge of the value of nurses. Thanks for mentioning both Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. They are both terrific examples of nurses in action, and they highlight the vital role that field nurses have played in battlefield medicine.

  6. I was leafing through my copy of PD James’ SHROUD FOR A NIGHTINGALE just this weekend and thinking was a great book it was, especially for its depiction of the nursing profession as it once was – thanks for all the great food for thought Margot.

    • Sergio – Oh, that’s a good one! And I didn’t think of it when I was writing this. Thanks very much for filling in that gap and mentioning it; it does indeed depict what nursing once was. And thanks for the kind words.

  7. Scottish writer A.J. Cronin, a doctor by profession and one of my favourite authors, has written about the nursing profession with sensitivity. The NHS, I believe, owes its origins to his famous novel, “The Citadel,” a book I read some years ago and a copy of which found its way into my hands just last month.

    In “The Iron Tiger” by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson), a book I read and reviewed recently, a beautiful nurse flies all the way down to the Tibetan region to escort an ailing boy prince out of the region and, predictably, falls in love with the hero, an ex-Royal Navy pilot. She is depicted as a brave and compassionate nurse, as many of them are in fiction, especially WWII novels.

    • Prashant – Oh, yes, I remember The Citadel. I have a copy of that too and read it years ago. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I didn’t know the NHS was an idea that came from that book. And thanks for the mention of The Iron Tiger. I’ll confess that’s one I haven’t read, but Higgins has written some solid thrillers and that sounds like one of them.

  8. You always make me look at the books I’ve read in different ways Margot.

    Funnily enough the book I’m reading right now features nursing. It’s Chris Grabenstein’s latest novel FREE FALL and it opens with a home care nurse being attacked by her patient’s mother — no one’s dead (yet) but the nurse appears to be being drawn into the middle of some sort of family drama – she was asked to spy on another patient of hers and refused and things got very nasty – I’m looking forward to finding out how things go – hope the nurse doesn’t get brutally murdered – we do need good nurses 🙂

    • Bernadette – Thank you. And I’ve heard good things about Free Fall (haven’t got to it yet myself). I hope you’re enjoying it; I really like Grabenstein’s wit and the stories too. It certainly sounds as though that nurse is getting involved in some serious family dysfunction and I hope she makes it through. You’re right; good nurses are worth quite a lot… 🙂

  9. Gosh, you’ve listed some of my favorite mysteries here…and I hadn’t even thought about the fact they have a common thread! Thanks for this…and for reminding me to do some re-reading!

    • Elizabeth – Glad you enjoyed the post. Funny isn’t it how books will have things in common that you never really think of. Nurses populate novels just as they do in real life: important and valuable, but you don’t always think about them… 😉

  10. You always make me scratch my head and try to dig into my memory banks. I think I remember a Ngaio Marsh mystery set in a nursing home. Have just done a search and it is, indeed, called ‘The Nursing Home Murder’.- and involves an MP who has an affair with a nurse… with all the consequences that entails.
    And I also remember a school library full of Cherry Ames stories when I was a child – not strictly speaking crime fiction, but isn’t she a bit Nancy Drewish but within the nursing profession?

    • Marina Sofia – Right you are indeed about Cherry Ames. It’s funny; I planned to include her in this post, but somehow when I got to the final draft of it, she wasn’t there. I’m really glad you mentioned her. Those mysteries were a part of my childhood… And thanks too for mentioning The Nursing Home Murders. Another terrific example of the nursing profession in crime fiction, and it’s actually mentioned obliquely in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia.

  11. col

    Only notable example I can recall is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which probably doesn’t cut it as crime fiction, mount TBR as well as I’ve only ever seen the film.

  12. kathy d.

    Yes, good to remember Cherry Ames, whose books I read as I discovered Nancy Drew. Nurses do appear in mysteries often in all different roles. Angela is a pivotal character in The Dance of the Seagulls featuring Montalbano. Often they are inconsequential when in real life they are crucial in medical care and do not get enough credit.
    A friend who was an ER nurse for more than 30 years fought a landmark legal case when she became a nurse practitioner. Her employer wanted her to start as a new employee in her salary but she bought for her seniority rights in court — and won. This set a legal precedent for all nurses in our state who became nurse practitioners, that they would not lose seniority rights, salaries, health insurance and pensions.
    To this day she is the most energetic person I know and puts the rest of us mere mortals to shame. She lives every day to the fullest — and all of her friends consult her with their medical problems.

    • Kathy – Your friend sounds like a terrific person and I’m very glad for NPs that she made such a successful case for their rights. You’re right that nurses and NPs are absolutely crucial to good medical care. We don’t always notice them (although we should) but we need them. I’m glad you shared that story.
      And as for Angela? Yes, she does play an important role in that story. I have to admit I kind of like her character….

  13. kathy d.

    I liked Angela, too, but was a bit disappointed and disgruntled at the Sicilian detective’s behavior. He has forsaken Livia obviously but he seems to have lost his scruples and professionalism.
    In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec Commissionaire Adamsberg “lusts in his heart” but not in his actions. He at least retains his professionalism. and scruples.
    What is becoming of the Vigata curmudgeon? I guess we’ll see in future books.

    • Kathy – I’m beginning to wonder about Montalbano too. I’ll be interested to see what happens to him in the next books. I hope that he resolves whatever needs to be resolved; I like him with Livia.

  14. Margot, I am late to comment. A busy week at work… I have only read one of your examples… The one by P.D. James. I will have to seek out the rest.

    Nurses do have an interesting and important profession and don’t get enough credit. Like doctors, they are mostly overworked. The example that came to me was Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand. Set in a military hospital in WWII, the main characters are mostly nurses and doctors.

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