Most 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’.