Still These Allergies Remain*

AllergiesAutumn (or spring, depending on which hemisphere you call home) is upon us. And that means one important thing: allergies. If you’re subject to allergy attacks, you know how miserable they can make you. Seasonal allergies can be very annoying, but some allergies are more than that: they’re deadly. Some people have such severe reactions to certain foods, stings, etc. that they are at risk for death from anaphylaxis if they come in contact with that allergen.

For a crime writer, anaphylactic shock can make for a very handy murder weapon. The killer doesn’t need a special skill, a lot of medical knowledge or a great deal of pre-planning.  Anaphylaxis is also a handy ‘cover’ for certain kinds of poisoning. There are plenty of examples of the way allergies are woven into crime fiction; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane is one of the later Holmes stories, taking place after he’s retired. In this story, he’s on a seaside holiday at Sussex when he runs into a friend Harold Stackhurst, headmaster of an exclusive preparatory school. As they’re chatting, one of Stackhurt’s employees, science master Fitzroy McPherson, staggers towards them, suddenly collapsing. The only thing he’s able to say before he dies is something about a lion’s mane. At first it makes no sense, but it’s soon suspected that McPherson was murdered. And the most likely possible culprit is mathematics master Ian Murdoch. In fact, Stackhurst fires him. But Holmes doesn’t believe that the case against Murdoch is iron-clad. For one thing, Murdoch has a solid alibi. For another, there are puzzling things about McPershon’s death that aren’t consistent with the theory that Murdoch is the killer. In the end, Holmes finds that the real murderer was a Lion’s Mane jellyfish which stung the victim and to which he had a fatal allergic reaction.

More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories feature allergies to wasps, bees and other stinging insects. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a wasp is blamed for the death of Marie Morisot, who is killed on a flight from Paris to London. There is a wasp on the flight; several passengers comment on it and one kills it. There’s a small sting mark on the victim, too. So at first it looks as though she died from a severe allergic reaction to a sting. But soon enough, Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, discovers that the victim was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look among them to find out who the killer is. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None

Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss Macrimmon is a former Scottish dancer who’s had to end her career because of an injury. Now she’s returned to her hometown of Moosetookalook, Maine. In Scone Cold Dead, she learns that her former dance troupe Strathespy is on tour in the area, and arranges for them to perform at the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. One night, she throws a party for the troupe. One of the guests is company manager Victor Owen. During the event, Owen suddenly dies after eating a scone stuffed with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. Macrimmon has a not-very-amicable history with the victim, and she was the one who hosted the party and arranged for the food. So as you can imagine, she falls under immediate suspicion. Determined to clear her name, she works to find out who the real murderer is. And it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also features food allergies. In that novel, herb and spice shop owner China Bayles and her police-officer partner Mike McQuaid are invited to the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off. McQuaid is even persuaded to serve as one of the judges. Bayles thinks this will be a good opportunity for him to ‘rejoin the human race’ as he starts to cope with life after a devastating line-of-duty shooting. On the day of the cook-off, insurance executive Jerry Jeff Cody, who’s serving as another judge, suddenly collapses and dies. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a sudden heart attack. But before long it’s shown that he died of anaphylactic shock brought on when someone slipped crushed peanut shells into a sample of chili he was tasting. Now Bayles works to find out who knew about Cody’s severe peanut allergy, and who would have wanted to kill him.

I’ve actually used peanut flour as a fiction murder weapon myself. In B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is killed just after having won a major musical competition. It turns out that someone knew about her severe peanut allergy and took advantage of it. Serena’s death is devastating to her partner Patricia Stanley, so Patricia asks her academic advisor Joel Williams to help find out the truth.

Of course, allergies can serve as useful clues, too. Just ask Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she discovers the body of beautiful but malicious Parke Stoddard in a local church. She wants to prove, mostly to her police-chief son Red, that she’s not ready yet to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So she decides to find out who killed the victim. And in this case, an allergy gives her important information.

Whether mild or severe, allergies are a part of life for millions of people. And they’re also a very useful tool for crime writers. These are a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Allergies.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kaitlyn Dunnett, Susan Wittig Albert

28 responses to “Still These Allergies Remain*

  1. Love using someone’s allergies against them! Of course you’d then need to empty their Epi-pen, too. I didn’t realize you used this as a murder weapon in B-Very Flat– another one for my pile. 🙂

    • Thanks, Sue :-). I hope you’ll enjoy it if you get to it. And you’re right; the epi-pen has to be dealt with, both as a fictional killer and as a writer (how do you legitimately make sure your character doesn’t have access to it?). When you manage that, allergies can definitely be handy weapons…

  2. Allergies are also present in Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, which I’m finishing reading right now :-).

  3. The wonderful Marshall in Magdalen Nabb’s Florentine series has eyes that are very sensitive to sunlight. He’s constantly mopping them and this is part of what leads people to underestimate him.
    And like you, Margot, I have used an allergy to get someone into deadly danger in one of my novels. Don’t think I’ll say which one . . .

    • Oh, so you have,Christine! Folks, if you’re not familiar with Christine Poulson’s Novels, I recommend them. 🙂 – And thanks for mentioning the Nabb series. I need to try that one.

  4. Margot, the breadth and depth of your knowledge of crime fiction and apt pop music lyrics never ceases to amaze me!

  5. I just love the name Moosetookalook! I did read one of the Liss Macrimmons books a few years ago and enjoyed it, and really intended to read more, so thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • That’s a terrific name, isn’t it, FictionFan? I actually think the Liss Macrimmon stories are nicely done. I only wish I could make the time to read all of them (and every other book I’d like to read! *sigh*).

  6. I have had one episode of anaphylaxis – it is very very scary. I carry my epi pen with me -most of the time:)

    • It is a very frightening experience, I’m sure, Carol. You were lucky you got treated in time. And yes, I’d imagine that the epi-pen usually goes wherever you go…

      • Thankfully the hospital was only about a 12 min drive away …the itchy palms/soles of feet, upper body rash and the swollen tongue …scary stuff (especially the swollen tongue) …once experienced you never want to have that again. So if you want first hand info for your next book Margot – I can share my experience with you 🙂

  7. Kathy D.

    What a topic. I have very bad allergies. But I lost a dear friend to anaphylactic shock years ago. That’s an awful story really about medical malpractice. And it contained lessons about not taking anything — herbs, medication, holistic remedies, nothing, even if prescribed by a doctor or recommended by a “holistic practitioner” — without being tested first if one has allergies.
    But, getting back to fiction, everyone must see the BBC’s TV production of The Escape Artist, with Sophie Okonado and David Tennant — battling barristers, a psychopath, and finally, anaphylactic shock. It’s a brilliant show, full of action, great dialogue and mental gymnastics between barristers, which as a fan of legal mysteries, I loved. But it’s also got action. It’s all so clever the viewer feels he/she will burst.

    • I’m very sorry to hear about your friend, Kathy. Losing a person one cares deeply about is so very painful. And yes, it’s a sobering reminder that anyone could have an allergic reaction to something. Thanks also for mentioning The Escape Artist. It sounds well worth watching!

  8. The prospect of murdering someone using an allergy is raised in A Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson but I’m liking the look of some of the examples you’ve chosen especially the good old favourites of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

    • Oh, yes, Cleo, I remember your fine review of A Kind Worth Killing. I’ve had that one on my radar and I’m looking forward to reading it. In the meantime, it is interesting to see how knowing a person’s allergies can give a fictional murderer rich opportunities. Authors, too…

  9. Allergies do seems like a good opportunity to be able to hide a murder. It would be scary to have allergies that could be that damaging.

  10. Kathy D.

    Yes, books could be called “Death by Dander,” “Hay Fever Hitman,” “Fatal Felines,” etc.

  11. Kathy D.

    And “Poisoned by Pollen,” and “Felonious Feathers.”

  12. Col

    Nothing to add example-wise. Enjoyed the post as usual 🙂

  13. To Fear a Painted Devil, an early Ruth Rendell, has someone who dies shortly after being attacked by wasps. It’s quite a complex plot….

    • Yes! Thank you, Moira. I’m glad you mentioned this one. I’d thought about including it in the post; in the end, I didn’t, but it’s a good examples of how allergies can fit into crime novels…

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