Within 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.