I’m Kinda Awkward and Afraid*

Reactions to Mental IllnessIn Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested for the murder of Mary Gerrard. She’s got motives both personal and financial, and there’s enough circumstantial evidence against her that she is a very likely suspect. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Mary, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to do just that. Poirot agrees to look into the case (‘though not to fabricate evidence), and begins investigating. In the meantime, Elinor remains in prison, and has to endure a trial. Needless to say, by the end of the book, she’s mentally and emotionally devastated. So Lord arranges for her to go for a rest cure. Christie doesn’t outright say it, but you can certainly imagine Lord’s referring her to some sort of mental institution. Christie doesn’t tell us, but one could wonder what happens to Elinor when she leaves that place? How will she be received? The hint is that Lord intends to be there for her. But it does raise the question of how others will receive her.

We continue to learn more and more about the human mind and how it works. But there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding and, sometimes, downright fear about those who’ve been in mental health care. Certainly it makes for a lot of awkwardness, especially when one’s going back to work after a time way, or otherwise trying to reconnect with people. It’s true in real life, and we often see it reflected in crime fiction, too.

In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to Jon Moreno. He’s recently been released from a mental institution where he was dealing with severe anxiety issues. He’s still fragile, and not everyone’s comfortable interacting with him. Thinking that he could use a little cheering up, Jon’s friends Axel Frimann and Philip Reilly take him to spend the weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, the three young men decide to go out on the lake. While they’re there, a tragedy occurs, and only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate what happened. They try to get the two survivors to tell what they know, but that proves to be much more difficult than they thought it would be. Then, another body is discovered, this time in Glitter Lake. Now, the police have to cases on their hands, which may or may not be related. Among other things, this novel touches on what it’s like when someone returns to a group of old friends after having been in a mental health facility.

At the beginning of Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is under psychiatric care, mostly due to events detailed in Sun Storm and The Blood Spilt. She’s released from the hospital and returns to her home town of Kiruna, where she’s decided to stay for a while and start to rebuild her life. The main plot of The Black Path concerns the murder of Inna Watrang, Director of Communications for Kellis Mining. The key to the murder may be some of the legalities behind the company’s activities, so Martinsson gets involved in the case. As she does, we see at some points that it’s very awkward for her and for others to talk about her experiences in the hospital and accept her as ‘ready to re-join the world.’ There’s some of that awkwardness in The Blood Spilt, too, actually.

Certainly New South Wales DS Kate Farrer feels it in Kathryn Fox’s Skin and Bones. She’s just returning to work after three months’ medical leave of absence that became necessary after she went through a traumatic experience (you can read about it in Malicious Intent). During her leave, Farrer got psychological treatment, and was on the way to healing. She would have liked to take more time away, but staffing shortages have made it necessary for her to return, so she’s still a bit fragile. She’s dropped right back in it, so to speak, when the charred body of a woman is discovered in the remains of a house fire that seems to have been caused by arson. Also discovered is a bag full of baby clothes. What’s more, it’s soon revealed that the victim had recently given birth. But no child’s body is discovered, and no-one reports having found an abandoned infant. It’s a difficult and painful case, and there was awkwardness already as Farrer returned to work. But she does her best to focus and work with her new partner, Oliver Parke, to find the truth behind the fire, the death, and the baby.

And then there’s Matthew Wyman, whom we meet in Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead. A highly intelligent and talented artist, he’s always been somewhat mentally fragile. But matters come to a head when he gets mixed up in the death of seventy-year-old Emma Kost O’Neal. It comes out that he discovered the body. Moreover, he was involved with the victim’s great-niece, Emmanuelle ‘Manny’ Whitman, who stands to inherit a good deal of money. So there are pieces of evidence to link him with the case. And it’s not long before the police fix on him as a suspect. But it’s equally possible that he’s being framed. He’s a good target because of his mental health history. In fact, in the course of the novel, he has complete breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. As the police try to get to the truth about the case, it’s interesting to see how different people react to Wyman’s situation. His family doesn’t want to discuss it, or accept the fact that he needs mental health care. Other characters in the novels react in other ways, some awkward, and some less so. That plot thread adds a layer of complexity to the novel.

Mental health care still remains one of the more complex issues we face. And, for a lot of people, it’s too awkward to discuss. It makes some people downright uncomfortable. But it’s a fact of life, and it’s interesting to see how it’s woven into crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s How You Gonna See Me Now?


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Karin Fossum, Kathryn Fox, Michael Hogan

31 responses to “I’m Kinda Awkward and Afraid*

  1. It is interesting to see how such issues are interwoven into a crime drama. If I find myself unable to read the story, then I know it is WELL DONE because it is TOO REAL, i.e., too painful. I get involved with my stories! HA. I wonder how an author would feel if I said, “Your book is top notch. I couldn’t read it…” A back-handed compliment if there ever is one!

  2. Tim

    One of the most interesting studies I read (following your theme) was Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone, a book I recommend to everyone interested in disturbed criminal minds in otherwise ordinary people.

  3. One of the more interesting detectives with mental health issues of recent years is Fiona Griffiths, created by Harry Bingham. She often claims she feels like an illegal alien on Planet Normal (whatever that may be) – she has Cotard’s Syndrome or delusion – she believes she is dead, for example. And, although it would be easy to overdo this in a crime novel, at the expense of the story, it acually fits in very well, making her a unique but also vulnerable character.

    Another example of mental health issues I really enjoyed (although that is perhaps the wrong word under the circumstances) recently is Elizabeth Hayne’s psychological thriller Into the Darkest Corner, in which the main protagonist suffers from OCD.

    • Those are both such great examples of characters who have to deal with mental illness, Marina Sofia. And I think you’ve put your finger on one part of the reason they’re so well-done: the authors don’t overdo it. They don’t go for the melodramatic or the lurid. Instead, they are matter-of-fact about it.

  4. It’s still such a taboo, isn’t it? Though at least it’s discussed these days. Can’t think of any detectives who’ve had treatment for mental health issues (though I can think of several who probably should…) but your post reminded me of Tom Vowler’s book ‘That Dark Remembered Day’, which centres on what we have come to call PTSD, in this case caused by being a serving soldier in the Falklands War. Part of the issue he was highlighting was the expectation of society that soldiers should be able to simply shrug off their experiences once the war is over – a subject familiar to the veterans of any war, I should think.

    • Oh, I’ve heard of the Vowler, FictionFan. In fact, I remember your excellent review of it. And you have a well-taken point that PTSD is a really good example of the kind of thing that we at least talk about now, even if, as you rightly say, it’s still a taboo. Oh, and about fictional sleuths who ought to have mental health treatment? Erm – yeah, I can think of a few…

  5. Isn’t it wonderful when hard to discuss topics are explored in crime fiction? If the author does it right (no soap boxes), it can really add so much to the storyline.

  6. Great post.
    It remains a taboo but at least these characters go to mental health care, come out of it better and try to resume their lives.

    Authors don’t make it as if their characters are never affected by their grueling jobs. That’s already a progress, in a sense. It makes them more human.

    • Thanks, Emma. And you have a well-taken point; these characters do get the mental health care that they need, and that’s progress. It’s true, too, that most readers want their characters to be fully rounded ‘real’ people. And that means, as you say, that they’d be affected by the wear, tear and pressure of their jobs.

  7. Col

    Not familiar with any of your examples, but the Hogan book appeals the most.

  8. Hi Margot! Sometimes the references to those mental health issues are subtle at first so it takes a little time to understand who a character is and what her motivations are. I’m thinking of Rachel from The Girl on the Train. I like that kind of suspense and I admire the authors who dig into their characters’ psyche so well. The main thing to recognize with writing about mental health issues is the wide range of illnesses and the fact that no two seem to be exactly alike. I guess that’s one of the reasons mental illness is so hard to diagnose and so hard to treat.

    • You have a really important point, Pat. There’s a great deal of variety in mental illness and in the ways in which different mental health problems are addressed. That does make it more complicated to deal with in one’s writing. But as you say, when it’s done well, and subtly enough so that it doesn’t take away from the story, that sort of issue can add an interesting layer to a story and to a character.

  9. A very interesting theme, Margot. I had no idea the issue figured in so many novels. Once, when I asked my spiritual teacher why more and more people in urban cities were afflicted with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, he said, “People have stopped living. They are merely existing.” It is worse today in the digital age. I think, what he meant was that, we need to get out of ourselves, be less self-centered, slow down in the way we think and act, and spend a little time each day with our inner selves. Mystics say the cure for mental illness lies within us rather than with psychiatrists and anti-depressants.

    • Your spiritual teacher has a lot of wisdom about today’s world, Prashant. I think people do rush around so much, and worry about things so much, and try to do so much, that it’s easy to forget to stop and just be. I suspect that you’re right that this is especially true in crowded urban areas, but it’s easy to slip into those patterns everywhere. Being excessively busy, and not having a positive work/life balance is almost seen as a badge of honour, rather than a source for concern. It’s little wonder that so many people face mental health issues.

  10. I always thought the end of Sad Cypress was rather worrying – a book could easily start like that, with rich Eleanor being put away by sinister Dr Lord – it just takes a difference of emphasis, a slightly different view….

    • You know, it could, couldn’t it, Moira. I wonder if Christie thought of that scenario when she was writing that book. Likely so, as she was such a brilliant plotter. But still….

  11. P M Newton subtlety weaves some similar issues into her books: “On the inside, Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly is a mess. Stitched up after being shot, her brain’s taking even longer to heal than her body. On the outside, though, she’s perfect, at least as far as the top brass are concerned ” (from Beam Falling)

  12. So many authors that I have not read here, Margot. I will have to look into them when I can afford to add to my stacks. I have one by Fossum, but the others are all new to me.

    • I know the feeling, Tracy. I have such a very long list of ‘books I really – no, really! – want to read. There’s just never enough time to read it all, I don’t think.

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