The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: X-Rays and Other Medical Procedures

X-Rays and Medical ProceduresThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is in the closing weeks of our dangerous trip through the letters. Thanks as ever go to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and safe – well, to this point anyway… 😉  X marks the spot where we’ve stopped this week. The X-El Health Centre, that is. Oh, no need to worry; everyone’s just fine. But the good folks at X-El were kind enough to invite us for a tour, since so many crime fiction novels take place in medical facilities. Everyone’s interested in seeing what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in such places, and is getting questions ready. While the others are deciding what to ask, I’ll make my contribution for this stop: X-Rays and other medical procedures.

Most health care professionals work very hard to ensure that all goes well during any procedure. But you never know what can happen even if there’s no malicious intent. And when there is, well, anything is possible. Just have a look at these examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the shooting death of a dentist Henry Morley. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why anyone would want to kill him, as he had no obvious enemies and no fortune to leave. One possibility is that someone was trying to get to one of Morley’s patients Alistair Blunt, and that makes sense. Blunt is a powerful banker who’s made several political enemies. But then, one of Morley’s other patients Mr. Amberiotis is found dead of an overdose of anaesthetic. So another possibility is that Morley made a tragic mistake with the amount of anaesthetic he gave his patient during the procedure, and killed himself as a result. Then another of Morley’s patients disappears. Now it’s clear that much more is going on at Henry Morley’s surgery than anyone thought possible…

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted to a military facility for wartime use. Postman Jospeh Higgins has been brought to the hospital with a broken femur. He’s scheduled for a fairly routine procedure in which his leg will be set and treated. The operation turns out to be anything but routine though, and Higgins dies during the surgery. At first, his death is put down to tragic accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police is called in to make an official report, and it’s not long before he begins to wonder about Higgins’ death. First Higgins’ widow suggests he was murdered, then other little hints surface. One night at a party, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. She also says she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is found stabbed in the operating theatre and her body displayed in a very theatrical fashion. Now it’s clearer than ever to Cockrill that Higgins was murdered, and he slowly finds out what the connections were between all of the suspects and Higgins, and he gets to the truth about the killer.

MP Sir Derek O’Callaghan finds out how dangerous medical procedures can be in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder. He’s about to introduce the Anarchy Bill, which would allow for strong action against those identified as anarchists. This of course earns him some strong support, but at the same time, it makes him some powerful enemies. Sir Derek also makes personal enemies. For instance, he has a short fling with a nurse Jane Harden, who isn’t nearly as willing to pass the whole thing off as he is. And one of her admirers is Sir Derek’s own physician Sir John Phillips. When Sir Derek has a severe case of abdominal pain, he is rushed at his wife’s insistence to Sir John’s private nursing home, where he undergoes surgery. When he dies during the procedure, it’s thought at first that this was a tragic but accidental death. But soon enough, Sir Roderick Alleyn begins to suspect otherwise and starts a more serious investigation. And a reconstruction of the surgical procedure helps Alleyn figure exactly who killed the victim and how.

In Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson, Boston pathologist Dr. John Berry gets mixed up in a very dangerous case. His good friend Albert Lee has been arrested for performing a then-illegal abortion on Karen Randall. The procedure went wrong and the patient died of complications. What’s more, Karen Randall was the daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most influential doctors at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, where both Berry and Lee work. Lee insists that he’s innocent and is being framed because he’s Asian-American. Berry isn’t sure of that, but he does know that there are some questions about what really happened. There is a great deal of pressure to let Lee be the scapegoat for this death, but Berry is loyal to his friend and what’s more, he’s scientifically interested in what happened. He begins to investigate and finds out that Karen had a secret life quite apart from her life as the ‘blueblood’ daughter of a powerful doctor. He also finds out that this case is mired in power politics and cover-ups. In the end, Berry uncovers what really happened to the victim, but not before he himself becomes a target.

A good deal of the action in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds takes place at the Löwander Hospital, a private facility. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which one of the nurses Marianne Svärd is murdered. What’s more, the blackout has cut off the respirator providing oxygen to one of the patients Nils Peterzén. He’d been a patient of special concern anyway, because there were complications in the operation he had. The Göteborg Violent Crimes Unit is looking into the nurse’s murder and the patient’s death when another nurse Linda Svensson disappears. Her body is later found in an unused attic of the hospital, in the same place where, fifty years earlier, another nurse hung herself. Now the team has to find out who would have wanted to kill Peterzén and the two nurses.

You see? Surgical procedures usually save lives. But they aren’t always safe. And did you notice that I didn’t mention any of the many medical thrillers in which surgical or after-surgery procedures go murderously wrong. Too easy! 😉   Now, if you’re ready, we’ll head over to the health centre. Won’t it be fascinating to see some of what they do there???  😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Helene Tursten, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Ngaio Marsh

18 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: X-Rays and Other Medical Procedures

  1. I was wondering what you’d do for X… looking forward to Z… Green for Danger is one of the best hospital books ever, such atmosphere, such a great story. I like the bit in the Godfather when Vito Corleone is in hospital after an assassination attempt, and Michael suddenly realizes that he is not being protected properly, the guard has been removed and he is an open target, so he rushes into action to protect his father. I think that’s a superb scene.

    • Moira – Oh, that is a great scene isn’t it? So tense!! And it reminds me in an odd way of a scene in Cat Connor’s Killerbyte where the protagonist is trying to protect someone who’s in hospital and realises that there is one important point of vulnerability. Very suspenseful…
      As for the last letter of the alphabet? You’ll have to wait and Zee. 😉

  2. One of my favorite novelists of all time is Robin Cook who wrote many really suspensful medical mysteries. Your post reminded me of his books.

    • Clarissa – When I was writing this post, I was thinking of a few of Cook’s novels (Acceptable Risk and Fatal Cure among others) in which the plot features procedures or operations that go wrong. Some of them really are suspenseful.

  3. Very interesting topic, Margot. Green for Danger is a favorite book and movie. An Agatha Christie with three titles, not just two. They really like to confuse us. It will be a while before I get to that book, since I am reading the Poirot books in order. And I am looking forward to reading Night Rounds by Tursten.

    • Tracy – Thanks. I think you’ll like the Tursten. It comes second chronologically (after Detective Inspector Huss and before The Torso), but for some reason the series wasn’t published in order. At any rate, I agree about Green For Danger – a really suspenseful novel actually. And I give you credit for reading the Poirot novels in order – It’s not, strictly speaking, necessary, but it’s a good way to follow Christie’s style through the years.

  4. I love ‘Green for Danger’ so thanks for reminding me of this book. I have a few other Christianna Brand books on my shelf to read but I keep reading poor reviews of them. I must make up my own mind…

  5. The medical side of crime fiction I love is usually when the victim is already dead. Books like Patricia Cornwell and Tess Gerritson where you’re taken into the mortuary and everything is clearly explained. I find it so fascinating. You’re away from the street and emotion of the crime but your interest is still completely held. Hospitals really are great settings.

    • Rebecca – They are indeed very effective places for a crime fiction novel. I’ve read some good stories like that too, where the medical professionals are making sense of forensics information. Belinda Baur’s Rubbernecker has that aspect to it, for instance. And a lot of other novels have the police going into the mortuary to talk to the people who are doing the post mortem examination.

  6. Great idea for X, Margot! You’ve been very creative during this meme. 🙂

  7. kathy d.

    Not a favorite topic — death in hospitals nor the forensics of autopsies. Avoid them like the plague.
    However, Robin Cook’s books can be quite educational. I remember learning more about the awful effects of E Coli than I’d ever known, and also the lack of inspections and governmental actions of facilities that deal with meat production and slaughterhouses. Cook maintained that it’s consumers whose actions have made a difference.
    However, I can’t wait for “Z.” Will a wild zebra herd’s galloping be a murder method?

    • Kathy – We’ll just have to ‘zee’ what happens for the last letter of the alphabet… ;-). It’s interesting that you mention the information in Robin Cook’s novels. Some of them really do give interesting backgrounds, histories, and facts. I don’t mind reading about forensics if the information is done well (e.g. Elly Griffiths’ novels). Gory details I don’t need, but some information adds to a story for me.

  8. kathy d.

    Agree wholeheartedly that Elly Griffiths’ novels are fine with forensics. It’s other books’ gory details that I don’t need. I tend to skip autopsy descriptions and get queasy along with the new detectives who may be required to watch them.
    Now, to ponder “z”; there is the crashing zeppelin, defective zipper, being hit by a zither or poisoned via zucchini in addition to rampaging zebra. The mind boggles.

    • Kathy – There are definitely some novels that give a lot more detail about autopsies than I prefer to read. And yes, there are a lot of possibilities for the last letter of the alphabet. Perhaps I’ll look at murders by poisoned ziti or something.. 😉

  9. kathy d.

    Well, a zucchini is multi-purpose: One could hit a victim over the head with it or lace it with arsenic or put on a flight of stairs and trip someone. Or cause an anaphylactic reaction in someone allergic to it. (It’s hayfever season; during it those allergic to ragweed are supposed to avoid zucchinis, so, voila! A murder method for allergy sufferers.)

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