Fastidious and Precise*

OCDMost 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Mark Haddon, Ruth Rendell, Stephen Puleston

40 responses to “Fastidious and Precise*

  1. I’ve found a series I call Monk as a woman teamed with Neil Caffrey from WHITE COLLAR. I really enjoyed the first two books. A mini-review follows.

    THE GAUGUIN CONNECTION, Estelle Ryan.  Mystery. Book 1 of “The Genevieve Lenard” series.  Genevieve is a brilliant, highly-functioning autistic who can read body language and see the connection between random data and a mystery.  She and a conman whose main hobby is stealing stolen artwork and returning it to the original owners try to puzzle out who is murdering exceptional young artists and how this connects with a European security agency.  Good writing, and the premise and feel reminds me of Elisabeth Peters’ Vicki Bliss and John Smythe novels.

    • Oh, that does sound like a really interesting series, Marilynn. Thanks for sharing. I admit it’s not one I’ve dipped into yet, but it certainly is a great example of the kind of character I had in mind with this post – thanks.

  2. I always wondered if Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone was a little bit OCD – she certainly had issues of some kind, with her determination that certain things must be a certain way.

  3. Margot: I think Nero Wolfe would be considered as having OCD were those books and stories being written at this time. I expect he would say “pfui!”.

  4. A.M. Pietroschek

    What I found noteworthy, both in your article and the mentioned H. Poirot or A. Monk, is that the characters attempt to turn their flaw or idiosyncrasy into a benefit.

    But on Monk I think he is actually subliminally anti-social, as he does torment absolutely everyone around him.

    Stemming from roleplay instead of classic literature I can hint at some people being used to ‘character-profile’ by just using game terms.

    Example: H. Poirot in D&D; Raising Constitution by 2 points would mean he is a bit less fat, not always out of breath, and less sweaty (movie here).

    Or the concepts of hope. A character with OCD could improve or degenerate, depending on inner and outer (social & environmental) factors:

    A skilled therapist would support improvement chances in the proverbial long run. Us roleplayers just say one point in contacts_therapist, and are done with it. x-)

    A neighborhood with less traffic, no gangs, and few erratic pets would mean much more undisturbed sleep. A matter of finances, or a hint at where a suspect might be living or hiding, when it comes to profiling the culprit.

    But I am spamming your site here. Feel free to delete my babbling. And my apology on forgetting to wish you the ‘Happy Easter’!

    • You have a well-taken point, André, about both Poirot and Monk. In both cases, their compulsions are used for a good end result – solving a crime. They turn what can be a negative into a positive outcome. And perhaps it does give them certain insights into other characters; that’s an interesting possibility.

      And thanks for the good wishes. I hope you enjoyed Easter.

  5. Kathy D.

    Oh, gosh, other than Hercule Poirot Nero Wolfe with their habits and obsessions, I can’t think of anyone who fits this category. I can think of several messy detectives who keep everything imaginable in their cars, or those male investigators who have spouses or housekeepers to keep everything in order: Guido Brunetti and Salvo Montalbano.

    • That’s true, Kathy. There are certainly plenty of fictional messy detectives, aren’t there? It makes one wonder how they find anything. Maybe I’ll do a post about that at some point.

  6. I was really quite taken with Eilzabeth Haynes’ debut novel ‘Into the Darkest Corner’, in which the protagonist (not a detective) has OCD and it controls her life to an extent that is often unbearable. I thought it sounded very believable and was well-written.

  7. When a character has OCD, I think it adds a bit more depth. Makes me wonder if there’s a story where both the killer and the cop had OCD and if so, would that be overkill for readers. Happy Belated Easter, Margot. Another fascinating post.

    • Thank you, Mason – and to you. And thanks for the kind words. You’re right, too, that OCD in a character can add a certain depth. You ask a really interesting question, too, about stories where both the sleuth and the killer have OCD. I can’t think of any right immediately, but I wonder, too, whether that might be too much.

  8. A.M. Pietroschek already mentioned Mr. Monk in his comment. Yes, I’d like to see him and Poirot work on a case together, Margot. I can suffer one at a time — Both of them together? I don’t think so!

  9. In many ways Agatha Christie was ahead of her time, detailing Poirot’s obsession when it wasn’t a recognised condition is just one example – odd how many detectives in crime fiction are incurably messy, including their cars…

    • That’s quite true, Cleo. There are a lot of messy fictional detectives, aren’t there? And you’re right about Christie. In several ways, I think she was ahead of her time. Poirot’s obsessions/compulsions is one example, and I think you see it in other places, too.

  10. I think half of the people I know suffer from OCD. It is a very useful character trait in both detective and victim, I think.

    • It really is useful in creating characters, isn’t it, Patti? There’s a lot you can do with it. And I know my share of people, too, who have some form of OCD.

  11. Very interesting article, Margot. When I was twenty or so, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which is, from a clinical standpoint, a bit more serious than OCD (not to minimize those who suffer from the ladder). Personality Disorders, in general, are deeply woven into the fabric of a person’s psyche and are much more difficult to “deal with”; frequently, a person’s OCPD (or other personality disorder) drastically affects his or her personal and/or professional life in a negative or even self-destructive way. This, regrettably, has certainly been the case with me, even though I now take medication for the problem. Adrian Monk, for example, has OCPD, not OCD. As would Jack Nickolson’s character in the movie As Good As It Gets. I see elements of personality disorders in Sherlock Holmes, too. Thanks!

    • Thanks, MMO, for sharing your own experiences. OCPD and other personality disorders really do weave themselves into a person’s psyche, so that they are integrated into everything. And they certainly can cause self-destructive choices. Thanks, too, for shedding some light on Adrian Monk’s character. He’s greatly impacted, of course, by his personality disorder, and as I think about it, he absolutely wouldn’t be the same person without it. He shows just how integrated personality disorders are into everything a person is.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Great post, margot, on an interesting topic, and as pointed out OCD is a useful trait in a detective. Cleo got there first with her comment, but still: fastidious and precise in a sleuth makes for a nice counterpoint to the clichéd slovenly,(frequently) alcoholic, barely functional PI in the American tradition. Of course I immediately thought of Poirot and Monk as exemplars of the OCD detective. Thanks for mentioning them.

    • Thanks, Bryan. I agree completely that the OCD sort of detective makes a very interesting counterpoint to the stereotype of the (especially) American PI. That’s in part why I think sleuths such as Monk and Poirot (and you’re right – they’re great examples) are so interesting.

  13. oops! sorry for the lower case in your name…

  14. Col

    I did think of the Haddon book as I started reading the post.

  15. I’ve always found it distracting to read a novel where the main or first secondary characters have too many hangups or OCD characteristics. If the condition defines the character, it can still be mentioned once or twice without overdosing the reader. Character-drive mysteries still need to focus on story without yanking the reader off the page too many times with quirky character behavior. That said, I love Poirot and don’t mind his fastidious quirks one bit.

    • You’ve got a very well-taken point, Pat. Personality disorders, character quirks, and other things that make a character distinctive can be interesting. They can add character depth, too, I think. At the same time, if they overshadow the plot, that can distract the reader. Just like real life, I think those things are part of a person, but they do not define that person.

  16. I explored this issue in a killer I wrote recently. It was a lot of fun, and I hope it raises story questions. Why he is obsessed with cleanliness?

    • Oh, interesting, Sue! And you’re right; OCD, personality disorders and so on can really raise some interesting questions. And that can lead to more reader engagement.

  17. Lots of interesting suggestions for reading, Margot. I have Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me and I should get around to reading it.

  18. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…4/4/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  19. Connor Parish

    I see that you believe Poirot to be OCD, could you see Sherlock as OCD as well or not?? I am doing a Extended Study on the mental health of Poirot and Sherlock and was wondering if they both could be seen as having OCD or not??

    • That’s a very interesting question, Connor. I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t have any background at all in diagnosis. So I can’t speak from any real knowledge or sophistication. But that said, I don’t don’t think Holmes is OCD. He is particular about some things (when he’s doing experiments, for instance, things need to be just so). But he doesn’t strike me as compulsive about keeping things orderly, about performing certain rituals, and so on. He is, arguably, obsessed with finding out the truth. He doesn’t let go of cases until he knows. But I don’t see that as the same thing. Again, I’m no expert…

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