Somebody Get Me a Doctor*

ContagionThe human instinct for self-preservation is powerful. So it makes sense that we have a deep-seated fear of contagious disease. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that the recent news about Ebola in West Africa (and a few cases elsewhere) is so frightening. Ebola is a deadly virus and it’s contagious. So it’s only natural that we fear it.

That fear is certainly understandable, so it’s realistic when you see it in a novel. It can also add a great deal of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of more than I could anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ day, there were many illnesses people feared. One of them was smallpox, and we see that as part of the plot in Bleak House. The central plot of that novel concerns the Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. The novel traces the lives of some of the people concerned in that case, including philanthropist John Jarndyce, who’s distantly related to one of the original parties to the dispute. He takes an interest in the well-being of an orphan Esther Summerson, and arranges for her to be hired as companion to Ada Clare, who is also distantly connected to the Jarndyce case. The two women get on very well together, and Esther builds a solid life for herself. As it turns out, she is also connected to the Jarndyce case, and as the novel moves on, we see how the lives of these people, and some others also linked to that case, intersect. While this isn’t always considered a crime novel, there is murder involved, and a police inspector who investigates the case. There is also trouble in the offing for Esther. At one point in the novel, she helps nurse a sick young boy back to health. The result is that she becomes ill herself with what is likely smallpox. It leaves her with permanent physical scars, and while she goes on with her life, it’s a solid example of why so many people feared that particular contagious illness.

The worldwide influenza pandemic that broke out after World War I was also frightening to many people. We see a bit of that fear in Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He’s hoping for the chance to rest and heal from the physical and emotional wounds he’s suffered. But he finds that Flint is far from a peaceful place right now. The influenza pandemic has reached his home town and even touched his family, as his own mother has fallen ill. Everyone’s frightened by the illness. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in his own home in any case, since many people, including his father, believe that he’s responsible for the murder of his sister ten years earlier. So he hides out in an abandoned shack. There he meets a young girl Sadie Fox who’s also hiding. With her help, Walker starts to get past his scars and he discovers what really happened to his sister. He also finds the courage to get word to his mother that he’s alive.

Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd, also use the influenza pandemic as a theme in An Unmarked Grave. In that novel, World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has become accustomed to dealing with soldiers who’ve been wounded in combat. But as the pandemic begins in 1918, she finds herself and her colleagues overwhelmed with influenza patients as well. There’s special concern too because this illness has also spread to some of those caring for patients, which makes it all the more dangerous. Then, the body of a soldier who’s been hidden among the influenza patients is discovered. His identification’s been removed, so it’s hard to know who he is. But it’s clear that he’s been murdered. And it turns out that he’s a friend of Crawford’s family too. Moved by the death, Crawford wants to find out who killed the man and why, but now she faces a major complication: she’s caught influenza herself, and may not live long enough to solve the murder.

In Thomas N. Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. When Doohan learns of an outbreak of a virulant influenza-type virus, he volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to track down the source of the virus and try to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control, in the form of Dr. Suzanne Synge, join the local team and work begins in earnest to try to stop this outbreak. After patient interviews and other medical detective work, it’s established that many of those affected attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. The team also discovers that this particular illness was spread deliberately. Now Doohan is faced not just with the challenge of trying to contain the illness, but also with the challenge of finding out who’s responsible. And when he finds that out, he also discovers that there are people in important places who do not want anyone to know the truth.

Those who’ve read Robin Cook’s medical thrillers will know that several of his novels include the plot theme of a virus that’s deliberately spread. One example comes in Outbreak. Oh, and as a side note, the novel is nothing like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo. The plot of the novel is quite different. In it, a dangerous illlness seems to be spreading through the Los Angeles-based Richter Clinic. The Los Angeles health authorities ask for help from Atlanta’s Center’s for Disease Control, which sends Dr. Marissa Blumenthal. After a short time, Blumenthal and her team establish that these patients are dying from the highly contagious Ebola virus. The team manage to stop that particular outbreak, but soon there’s another, this time in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now it’s clear that someone or some group is spreading the illness deliberately. Blumenthal slowly tracks down the truth, and discovers a deadly conspiracy.

With today’s straightforward air travel and regular contact among people at gatherings, it’s quite easy to imagine a quick and deadly spread of illness. And as we know from recent news, it happens. The fear of that sort of contagion is real, and that’s part of why this plot point can add suspense to a crime novel as well.

On another note, the vast majority of you folks who are kind enough to read this blog are in no danger from the current Ebola outbreak. But thousands of people have already died from it, and more probably will. There are many health professionals who’ve donated their time to fight Ebola in West Africa, which is a lot more than I would have the courage to do. You can help them in their work. One of these groups is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). You can check them out and support what they do right here.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van Halen.


Filed under Caroline Todd, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Frank Robinson, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

24 responses to “Somebody Get Me a Doctor*

  1. Interesting – I am glad you have shared this information – This was good way to explore more!

  2. A very timely and scary subject, Margot. I admit that the first thing I thought when I was reading your post was the movie Outbreak.

    • Tracy – It is scary isn’t it? IT’s not just Ebola, either. I remember the SARS scare from a few years ago, and the ongoing MERS scare. There are contagious things that can be passed round, and with today’s travel it’s easier than ever to spread them quite far.

  3. The news on Ebola is horrible – thanks for the info on how we can help. On the lighter side, I don’t really go for medical thrillers, although I do remember a very strange Martin Cruz Smith book about some kind of deadly bats spreading a terrible disease. I think it was before he hit the bigtime with Gorky Park.

    • Moira – It really is scary about Ebola, isn’t it? Makes me grateful for the relative comfort and safety I enjoy. And thanks for mentioning Martin Cruz Smith. Are you perhaps thinking of Nightwing? That one came out before the Arkady Renko series, and has to do with bats that spread disease. Not a happy thought…

  4. kathy d.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful post about the tragic Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 4500 people in West Africa now. A doctor who’d treated people and just returned is now quarantined in New York with Ebola.
    This is a human tragedy and crisis that is ravaging the populations and the health care systems.
    Doctors without Borders has been dealing with this epidemic for a long time, and just announced they’re running out of resources. This post reminds me to send them a donation and pass along the word. Governments, which have much bigger treasuries, should be donating tons of money and health care workers.
    At any rate, there is also “Death and the Spanish Lady,” by Carolyn Morwood, which talks of the post-WWI Spanish flu which killed so many people.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the idea for this post. You’re quite right that Ebola is an international tragedy, and it’s so sad to hear that that MSF/DWB doctor has now tested positive for the virus. I hope they’ll be able to treat him and that he’ll be OK. I have so much respect for those doctors and other health care workers who take such personal risks to help others.
      Thanks also for mentioning Death and the Spanish Lady. I keep hearing good things about that one. Time I put it on my list…

  5. kathy d.

    Yes, time to put Morwood’s book on my list, and remember to order it for a retired nurse-practitioner friend for the holidays.

  6. Margot: Paul Goldstein’s book A Patent Lie deals with patent infringement litigation over a vaccine for AIDS.

    It was an interesting book for me because of my work on cases and a Royal Commission involving AIDS and Hepatitis C being transmitted through the Canadian blood system.

    I first heard about Ebola and Marburg Fever early in that work just over 20 years ago. One of the most frightening non-fiction books I have read was in the mid-1990’s called The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. She now appears prescient.

    I expect there are still dangerous unidentified viruses in West Africa.

    • Bill – I suspect you’re probably right, that there are plenty of unidentified viruses in West Africa (and other places too). I haven’t (yet) read The Coming Plague, but scenario has become all too eerily real.
      I didn’t know you’d worked on the issue of transmission of those viruses through the Canadian blood system. That in itself presents yet another frightening way in which a virus can be spread. I’m sure those cases presented all sorts of complex issues that had to be sorted out. And thanks for recommending the Goldstein book. I think the story of work on the treatment of HIV/AIDS is fascinating.

  7. Almost too topical to talk about Margot and I would never have thought to include BLEAK HOUSE, but you are absolutely right, as ever!

    • Sergio – Honestly, I think we’ve always had a natural fear of contagion. And the current Ebola outbreak is just the latest example of it. It’s quite scary…

  8. Col

    Topical post, Margot. I saw the film you mentioned I do like Dustin Hoffmann, most memorably in Tootsie! Not read any of these books highlighted though.

    • Scott – Oh, I liked Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. But then, I’m biased. And I think he did a terrific job in Outbreak too. It’s quite different to the novel, but still a good film.

  9. kathy d.

    Let’s not blame West Africa for harboring viruses. Near 5,000 people have died; the health care systems are so impoverished these countries can’t contain the epidemic without a lot of global assistance, especially personnel. They need everything. We should all help them.
    From a quick glance at the origins of other viruses, I note that the origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people is still discussed, but it certainly was not Africa. Some scientists say it was the U.S., ; others say France, and still others say China.
    SARS originated in China.
    And the terrible cholera epidemic in Haiti, which has killed at least 8,000 people, was brought by U.N. peacekeepers from Southeast Asia.
    Anyway, it’s easier to read about fictionalized accounts than to see the true story of the devastation in West Africa.
    Just the death of one person in Texas was tragic. Multiply that 5,000 times, and if it’s not contained so many more will die, a terrible loss of human life, and one result being many children being orphaned.

  10. The Ebola outbreak is scary isn’t it? Most chilling of all was the article I read a while back which said that while one way to contain it was removing human touch, people find it hard to do that to someone they love at a time when they are dying. Love is literally killing people, but can we really do otherwise –

    You are so right about air travel making them worse than they used to be earlier. A few years back it was SARS, and before that bird flu. Now ebola. What next?

    And Doctors Without Borders is a great organisation- they are always there where they are needed.

    • Natasha – Thanks for sharing that article. It is so sad – and yes, chilling – that the very touch that comforts people when they are very ill can spread Ebola. People want to tend to those they love, and their loved ones are eased by that touch, but that’s exactly what spreads the virus. As you say, it’s hard to break that cycle.
      And it’s true that air travel has the potential to spread disease faster, whether it’s bird ‘flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola or something else. All it takes is one person.
      And about MSF/DWB – I have so much respect for those people. They do work I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to do, and they make such a difference.

      • So many totally amazing people in the world, aren’t they? I know I would never be able to willingly put my life on line so I could help someone, and because I know I can can do it. But it is people like them who make the world such a glorious place to live in.

        • Natasha – That’s precisely how I feel. The people with MSF/DWB are so courageous! I couldn’t ever do it, but I am glad that someone does…

  11. A couple of my favourite books here: Bleak House and Bereft. And an aptly times post given the Ebola scares. Mass death is always a perfect situation in which to hide a murder.

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