I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

insomniaMost of us have circadian rhythms that guide us to be awake during the daylight hours, and asleep at night. We might be ‘morning people’ or ‘night owls,’ but we tend to get our sleep sometime during the night.

Not always, though. There are people who have insomnia, which means they cannot easily fall asleep or stay asleep. Anyone can have an occasional sleepless night; a worrying situation, not feeling well, or even being in a strange place such as a hotel can interrupt sleep. But people with chronic insomnia have frequent difficulty sleeping.

There are any number of possible causes of chronic insomnia. Some people who have it get treatment for it; others learn to live with it. Either way, insomnia can make for an interesting trait in a crime-fictional character. It can add a layer of depth, and can allow the author some flexibility in terms of the action in a story.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he often has an erratic sleeping schedule. When he’s working on a case, Holmes is able to stay awake, as Watson reports, for days at a time. At other times, he doesn’t do that at all. Holmes doesn’t seem to work very hard, either, to change his sleeping patterns to more conventional ones. He makes use of the nights when he’s wakeful.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we are introduced to Emily Arundell. She’s got a large fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate to get their hands on her money. Her usual response to them is that they’ll get their share when she dies. But some of them are finding it hard to wait that long. Miss Arundell has bouts of insomnia, and uses those late-night hours to check the household account books, write letters, and so on. She’s taken her inability to sleep in stride. One Easter weekend, her nieces, Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, visit. Also there are Theresa’s brother, Charles, and Bella’s husband, Jacob. While they’re visiting, Miss Arundell has one of her bouts of insomnia, and starts to go downstairs late one night. Someone’s laid a trap for her though. She trips over a piece of thread, and falls down the stairs. This unsettles her greatly, and she decides to find out who’s responsible. She writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate the matter. But she doesn’t specify what it is that she wants him to do. Still, he’s intrigued, and he and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing. They’re too late, though; by the time they arrive, Miss Arundell has died. Poirot feels a duty to his client, and he and Hastings investigate. In the end, they find that Miss Arundell was right to be worried…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover also has periods of insomnia. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Unwilling to be ‘put out to pasture,’ even though that’s what her police-chief son would prefer, Myrtle finds herself getting involved in murder investigations. When she has trouble sleeping, Myrtle sometimes takes late-night walks, or goes outside to sit for a while. But being outdoors isn’t always as soothing as you’d think. In more than one story, Myrtle’s habit of being awake very late at night puts her in real danger. Still, she’s taken her insomnia in stride, and works around it.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, we are introduced to Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec. He usually works in Montréal, but is sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, when James Cowell is murdered there.   Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, although he speaks fluent French. And, since most of the residents of Entry Island are also native speakers of English, it’s thought that he’ll be successful at getting information from them. Almost as soon as he arrives, Mackenzie feels a strong connection to the island, although he’s never been there. He also feels a connection to the victim’s widow, Kristy, although they never met. So, although a lot of the evidence points to Kristy as the killer, he decides to look into the case more deeply. Mackenzie has frequent periods of insomnia, and sometimes goes a few days in a row without sleeping. His insomnia doesn’t solve this case, but it’s interesting to see how it’s become a part of his life.

Insomnia plays an interesting role in Craig Johnson’s The Dark Horse. In that novel, Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, goes undercover as an insurance agent. It seems that Wade Barstad locked his wife, Mary’s horses in their barn and burned the barn. In response, Mary shot her husband six times. She’s even confessed to the crime. But Longmire isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So, he poses as an insurance agent to talk to people and find out who else might have wanted to kill Barstad. And he finds out that there are plenty of other people who might have wanted to see him dead. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Mary, who’s now about to be tried for a crime Longmire doesn’t think she committed, has been treated for chronic insomnia. It adds an interesting layer to her character, and interesting possibilities to the plot.

Chronic, clinically-diagnosed insomnia can be tricky in a character. It needs to be done authentically. But when it is done well, insomnia can make for an interesting character trait. It can also make for an interesting plot point.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Peter May

32 responses to “I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

  1. Nice one, Margot. Coincidentally, I just started reading Kwei Quartey’s first novel, ‘Wife of the Gods’ this morning and the main character, Darko Dawson, suffers from insomnia, too, though so far he spends his wakeful periods worrying, rather than working.

    • I’m so glad you reminded me of Quartey’s work, Angela. I want to do a spotlight on one of the Dawson novels, and haven’t yet. I appreciate the nudge. And yes, he does have insomnia, which I think adds to the interest of his character. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Margot: Harry Bosch more naps than sleeps when deep into a case. At times it feels unrealistic but he has such an intensity during an investigation it is credible that he should find it difficult to shuts his mind down so he could sleep properly.

    • That’s true, Bill. He is a very intense sort of sleuth, and it’s a credit to Connelly that his sleeping pattern seems believable. It fits in with his character, I think.

  3. I don’t know if chronic insomnia would really help investigators: it is very debilitating, making your brain feel like cotton wool, slowing down your reactions, sapping you of energy. So I’d be wary of any detections made or conclusions reached while in that state… Of course, for a short bout of intense ‘thinking’, it can work.

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Marina Sofia. Sleep is so critical to our mental and physical health. When we don’t get enough of it, all of the body’s processes are impacted. Thinking’s definitely one of them. As you say, short bouts are one thing, but chronic insomnia does have a lot of impact on a person.

  4. Brings to mind HOUSE OF SLEEP by Jonathan Coe and a Frances Fyfield novel.

  5. I would never read as many books as I do if I didn’t suffer with insomnia, so it has it uses. I have the type where I don’t stay asleep so I’m up reading in the early hours. It’s a funny thing because sleep does seem to have replaced the weather as a topic of conversation in the UK! That said I do enjoy books which feature insomniacs and how they adapt to the condition.

    • How interesting, Cleo, that sleep is such a popular topic of conversation in the UK now. Certainly we’ve devoted a lot of attention to healthy sleeping and its value lately, so perhaps that’s not surprising. And you have a point: not sleeping does give one more time to read. Hopefully you’re able to catch up on your sleep sometimes…

  6. Margot, I liked Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. She’s quite a gutsy and an enterprising woman, isn’t she? To put it mildly, worrying about not being able to fall asleep often makes the problem worse. It’s better to get out of bed and do something, like read a book or listen to music, instead of tossing and turning under covers.

    • You have a well-taken point, Prashant. Fretting about not being able sleep only makes it harder to drift off. The easier in one’s mind, the easier it is to sleep. And I agree with you about Myrtle Clover. She’s a terrific character!

  7. I don’t have insomnia as such but my sleep pattern has never been regular, so like Cleo I tend to get a lot of my reading done when the rest of the world is asleep. I do like to take walks in the middle of the night too – the world is so different at night. In Val McDermid’s latest, Out of Bounds, DI Karen Pirie is suffering from insomnia following a bereavement, and spends her nights walking the streets of Edinburgh until she exhausts herself. McDermid gives a great picture of how different the city becomes at night.

    • I need to read that one, FictionFan! Pirie sounds like a really interesting character. And you make a very interesting and well-taken point about how different places look at night. Even a place that one knows well takes on an entirely different personality at night. So I can understand why you might enjoy taking a walk at night. I remember feeling that way when I would come home from a late class at uni. The campus always looked so different at night.

  8. There’s the film Insomnia which was first filmed with Stellan Skarsgard and then re-made with Pacino. The original was set in Norway and there the Insomnia is caused both by the fact it’s light all through the night and because the main detective has done something he feels guilty about. They’re both worth checking out. I think it was an original screenplay and not based on a book but I could be wrong.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that film, Victoria. I’d heard of it, and I like Pacino’s work, but I’ve never seen it. It certainly fits in with this conversation, so thanks for filling in the gap.

  9. tracybham

    I feel like you wrote this post just for me, Margot. I do have problems sleeping, I very seldom get even 6 hours a night. So reading books about insomniacs sounds very interesting to me. Plus, I have a great example. The Evan Tanner series by Lawrence Block features a spy who is an insomniac. In fact, the first book is called The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. And now I have to read the rest of them.

    • Oh, so do I, Tracy! I’ve heard of that series, but I hadn’t read it (yet). I’m very glad you added that one in; that was a gap I left. And about sleeping? You’re not alone. A lot of people can’t fall asleep easily. Or, if they do fall asleep, they can’t stay asleep for long.

  10. Thanks for the mention, Margot!
    Sometimes writing about insomnia makes having it a little easier, ha! I wonder if these other writers are afflicted with it, too.

    • I wonder, too, Elizabeth. It’s really interesting to think about how many of our own issues/challenges/joys, etc… creep into our writing. As to your own excellent work, it’s always a pleasure to mention it!

  11. I sleep in fits and starts, never a full night through. If I didn’t wake up and find the need to fill in the time until I drop off again, I’d never read half the books I do Margot. I never dream about the books I am reading either. Just about to pop off and watch Inspector Lynley to try and tire myself.:)

  12. I agree. I’ve been meaning to read Longmire’s novels. Loved the show, but I bet the books are even better. Do you know which is the first in the series?

    • Very glad you’re interested in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, Sue. It is an excellent series, in my opinion. The first in the series is The Cold Dish, and that’s where I suggest you start. There are several story arcs that play out through the series, so it’s good to get to know the characters right from the beginning.

  13. Great collection of books. I’d add Celia Fremlin’s Hours Before Dawn – a marvellous book about a young woman who is not getting any sleep, though in this case it’s because of a baby. She has fears and problems – but is it just sleeplessness, or something more sinister… ?

    • Oh, that sounds deliciously creepy, Moira. And it’s a great example of what I was thinking of with this post. Thanks for the suggestion – and for the kind words.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…1/23 – Where Genres Collide

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