Most of us would probably say that we like to keep things in some sort of order. Even people whose desks look like bombsites generally have a sense of where things are. But for some people, the urge to keep things orderly and neat goes much farther than what we’d call ‘normal.’
I’m not a clinical psychologist, so I’m not sophisticated about the most recent definition of and treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But for those who have it, neatness and routine are much more than just that ‘I really should clean up that desk!’ impulse, or the regular housework most people do. Those with OCD are hypersensitive to anything that’s out of order and, sometimes, to any change in their routines. OCD can take different forms, and many argue that it’s a continuum. But it nearly always includes a need for order and cleanliness, and often for a strict routine.
There’s an argument that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would very likely be diagnosed with OCD if he were a contemporary character. Fans will tell you that he’s obsessed with neatness and tidiness, both in dress and in his surroundings. In fact, sculptor Henrietta Savernake mentions it in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). She’s a ‘person of interest’ in the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, so they have several conversations. At one point, she pays him a visit:
‘Poirot ushered her into his sitting room…
‘Nice,’ she said, ‘two of everything. How you would hate my studio.’
‘Why should I hate it?’
‘Oh, a lot of clay sticking to things – and here and there just one thing that I happen to like and which would be ruined of there were two of them.’’
Poirot’s obsession may be annoying at times, but in more than one case (no spoilers!) it gives him vital clues.
In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. His clinical diagnosis is autism, which carries with it a similar obsession with routine and order. He depends on a very specific schedule, and his possessions have to be kept in a certain way. He’s also very particular about the way his food is presented. One day, he discovers the body of the dog that lives next door. He’s suspected of being responsible, but knows that he’s not guilty. So he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes, and find out what really happened. As he does, he finds out some surprising things about himself.
There are other protagonists, too, who have OCD in one of its forms. For example, there’s Stephen Puleston’s Inspector Ian Drake. A member of the Wales Police Service, he’s based in the northern part of Wales. Drake is a skilled police detective who is affected by OCD. He’s very sensitive to any hint of feeling dirty or sweaty. He washes his hands often, and keeps toothbrush and toothpaste in his desk drawer. In fact, he gets counselling for his symptoms to keep them manageable.
And of course, no discussion of OCD and similar disorders would be complete without a mention of television’s Adrian Monk, whose role is acted by Tony Shalhoub. Monk is a former homicide detective with the San Francisco Police Department. Grief over the murder of his wife worsened his already-existing OCD symptoms, making it ultimately necessary to suspend him from the department. Now, he operates as a homicide consultant, with his ultimate goal being to return to regular police work. In this case, as in other cases of detectives who have OCD, it’s Monk’s very symptoms that often give him important clues.
Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me introduces readers to Minty Knox. As a result of the terrible 1999 train crash near London’s Paddington Station, she loses her lover Jock Lewis. It turns out that Jock was a good-looking but manipulative con artist, and that Minty isn’t the only victim. As her life intersects with the lives of two other women, we see how powerful psychological manipulation can be. Minty herself is fragile in many ways. She has an obsession with cleanliness that Rendell doesn’t specifically call OCD, but that certainly is reflective of that disorder. And she has an increasing difficulty with distinguishing between fantasy and reality
Sometimes, it’s the fictional criminal who has OCD. For instance, in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. In that novel, Chief Nico Sirsky, Head of the Paris CID La Crim’, is faced with a disturbing series of crimes. First, the body of Marie-Hélène Jory is discovered in her Paris home. The body has been mutilated, but very precisely. And everything else is particularly neat – not a thing is out of place. Then there’s another murder. And another. Among other things, this killer seems to focus on being neat, even making sure that slippers belonging to one of the victims are put very neatly in a specific place. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the killer’s penchant for tidiness is not the reason for the murders. But it’s a fact that the CID team has to deal with as they investigate.
Most of the time, we don’t think too much about combing our hair or washing our hands after using the restroom. But for some people, neatness, cleanliness and tidiness mean much more than that. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.