The Lady With the Lamp, You Know She Understands*

Live-in NursesWe don’t see it as much these days, but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a family to hire a live-in nurse if they had a relative who needed regular medical care. For the person with health issues, it means being cared for at home, rather than a hospital. For the family, it’s much more convenient, if they have the means. Live-in nurses get to learn a lot about a family, and they add an interesting dynamic to a household. So it makes sense that they’d find their way into crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie chose a live-in nurse as the narrator in Murder in Mesopotamia. Famous archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner hires Nurse Amy Leatheran to help care for his wife, Louise. They’re on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and this is the first time Louise has joined the team. She’s been having difficulty with anxiety, and reports seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Leatheran’s task will be to allay her fears and help with her anxiety. At first, things go well enough, although the atmosphere is a little tense. But Leatheran soon notices friction, carefully covered up with politeness, among some of the members of the excavation team. Then, Louise confides her reasons for being afraid: she believes that her first husband, Frederick Bosner, may be planning to kill her. According to her story, they were married for a brief time, but he was killed. It might be, though, that he didn’t die; and he’s always said that she would be his and no-one else’s. At first there doesn’t seem a whole lot of merit to that story. But one afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. Among other things, this novel offers a look at the life of a live-in nurse of the times. Yes, indeed, fans of Appointment With Death and of The ABC Murders. Oh, and of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we are introduced to Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who moves to the UK to be near her lover Mark Douglas. She’s hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. On the surface, it looks like a good arrangement for everyone. But soon after her arrival Kvist begins to suspect that something is very badly wrong. For one thing, the family still seems to live in the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. What’s more, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has ordered that her son be kept heavily sedated. Kvist is sure that he doesn’t need to be medicated in that way. So, bit by bit, she withdraws the medication her patient is on, but doesn’t tell anyone. That decision leads to real tragedy, which is documented in the diary that Kvist keeps.

Minette Walters’ novella The Tinder Box is the story of the murders of elderly Lavinia Fanshaw, and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins. Everyone in their village of Sowerbridge is convinced that the murderer is an Irish worker named Patrick O’Riordian.  He is duly arrested, and it seems that the case will be settled. But Siobhan Levenham, who also lives in Sowerbridge, believes that Patrick is innocent. She thinks that he’s been ‘railroaded’ because of local prejudice, and wants to clear his name. But the more she learns about the accused’s past, the more she begins to wonder what really happened. Is O’Riordian guilty? If so, what went on among him, Lavinia Fanshaw and Dorothy Jenkins? As she looks for the truth, Levenham begins to question her own thought processes.

Anne Perry’s historical series features Hester Latterly, a nurse who’s recently returned from service in the Crimean War (the series takes place in Victorian London). At first, she works in a free hospital, but she is dismissed for insubordination. She treated a patient in crisis without a doctor present, something she’s not permitted to do. After that incident, Latterly takes up a career as a private nurse, working in homes where a patient is recuperating (or, at times, is chronically ill). She meets Detective William Monk (in The Face of a Stranger) through her sister-in-law, who swears by Monk’s PI skills. As the series goes on, Latterly and Monk work together on cases, and later become partners in life as well. Among other things, this series shows the life of a private nurse shortly after Florence Nightingale’s reform efforts began to make nursing a higher-status and more skilled profession.

And then there’s James Ellroy’s historical (1950’s) novel, L.A. Confidential. The novel’s focus is three L.A.P.D. officers, each of whom gets drawn into solving the case of a group of murders at the Nite Owl Café. One of these cops is Jack Vincennes, who is acting as a technical advisor for a television show called Badge of Honor. The set designer, David Mertens, has a rare form of epilepsy, and needs regular nursing attention and medication in order to function. For that, he’s hired a live-in nurse, Jerry Marsalas, to look after his needs. Marsalas also accompanies Mertens to the studio set, to be available as needed. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that these characters play important roles in the novel.

See what I mean? Live-in nurses have all sorts of crime-fictional jobs, from classic and Golden Age novels to modern noir, and a lot of other types besides. This is just a small dose (I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford); which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Country Joe McDonald’s Lady With the Lamp.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Barbara Vine, Charles Todd, James Ellroy, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

30 responses to “The Lady With the Lamp, You Know She Understands*

  1. Tim

    And do we dare forget and underestimate housekeepers? Consider Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell. Now there is evidence that you really need to know how to read people!

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  3. Nice post, Margot. Murder in Mesopotamia was the first novel that came to mind on this topic, especially given Christie chose to make the nurse the narrator. It strikes me that private nurses offer authors great scope in terms of characterisation, as professional and independent women.

    • I think they do, too, Angela. It’s one of those extra layers that the author can add to a story. And I agree: Murder in Mesopotamia is a great example of that. Thanks for the kind words –

  4. All of these books sound interesting, Margot. Especially the Christie. I have a few more Poirot books to read before that one though.

  5. When I first read live-in nurse I thought of the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffery Deaver even though Rhyme’s nurse doesn’t live with him all the time. Interesting topic, Margot.

  6. kathyd

    Talk about live-in housekeepers: The classic example must be Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca. Brrr.

  7. Margot: With a grandmother, mother, wife, sister, aunt and sister-in-law as nurses there has always been a live-in nurse at my house! Fortunately, they have not needed to solve any crimes.

  8. Great topic, Margot. Such a staple of GA crime fiction. I’m thinking of Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch (made into the film, The Spiral Staircase) and her splendid short story, ‘An Unlocked Window,’ both of which feature live-in nurses and young women in peril.

    • Thanks, Christine. You’re right; the live-in nurse is a fixture in GA/classic crime fiction. And Ethel Lina White’s work is a great example of that, so thanks for mentioning it. Perhaps at some point, I’ll do a spotlight on some of her work.

  9. Margot, I thought L.A. CONFIDENTIAL was a terrific film with some fine performances by its three lead actors. I’m glad you mentioned James Ellroy’s novel on which the film is based. I do want to read it.

  10. kathyd

    Ethel Lina White was just featured at Crime Segments, very positive review.
    Never heard of her; the post made me want to read the book featured if I can find it. I guess it’s set in a village on a dark, stormy night. Another brrr, but it sounds good.
    But there is also the live-in nurse, housekeeper as the evildoer.

  11. As always I really enjoyed your examples, Margot. Nice to see L.A. Confidential here. That’s immediately what sprang to mind.

  12. Col

    Amazing recall, I’ve read that Ellroy book twice and wouldn’t recall that example.

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  14. I’m with Col – I can’t recall the epilepsy or the nurse, although I recall Jack Vincennes adoring the fact he’s a TV adviser! I’d advise Prashant to definitely read the book, as there’s lots in it that isn’t in the film. I even had to watch the film twice to pick up on the full storyline. I like the way Guy Pearce (sorry I can’t recall his character name!) uses the mikes in the interview rooms to get the (innocent!) Mexican boys to turn against each other. And how Guy got word to Jack Vincennes who was a bad apple was very clever. I’m irritated I can’t recall Minotaur, as I know I’ve read every Barbara Vine book – time to re-read them I think! I enjoyed Asta’s Book and The Blood Doctor best, although they’re all fantastic. Great post, as ever Margot. You’d be wonderful on Mastermind – I don’t know if you get that in the US?

    • Thank you, Crimeworm. We don’t get Mastermind in the US, but I’ve heard of it. And I agree with you about the film version of LA Confidential as opposed to the book. I think it’s true of most books, though, that they’re more complex, nuanced and detailed than film versions. As to The Minotaur, I do recommend you re-read it when you get the opportunity. In my opinion, it’s worth it.

      • Her Barbara Vine novels were, I think, the best – the books out now labelled “psychological thrillers” do not have a patch on these books! She was a huge talent. I’ve still got her last two to read, and quite a few Wexfords, which I weren’t so keen on. I had hoped she might have left piles of unpublished work (how selfish of me, to think only of my future reading!) but it seems not, as Val McDermid had to do the last of the work on Dark Corners (I think that’s the title!) I’ve assembled a few earlier ones from my 50p charity shop, as it’ll be the 80s since I’ve read them. I’ll re-read them, note their names, return them to the shop and look for more! I’m a rare re-reader, but her backlist is definitely worth a second look!

        • I agree, Crimeworm, about Rendell/Vine’s work. She was such a master of the psychological thriller. Her novels could chill you to the bone without gruesomeness. And I’d always rather have that sort of thing left to the imagination, to be honest. I know what you mean, too, about those books you pick up at a charity/secondhand shop. You never know when you’ll find an absolute gem.

  15. Chrissie Poulson got there first – I was going to mention exactly that Ethel Lina White book. Christie’s Sad Cypress has the elderly invalid Mrs Welman, and I think there is a live-in nurse as well as a visiting district nurse. Important to keep these two straight.

    • Right you are, Moira, about the difference between the visiting district nurse and the live-in nurse. They are different, and both play a role, as you say, in Sad Cypress. I’m glad you mentioned that Christie, too, as it certainly shows the role of nurses. That was a gap that needed filling.

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