We’re Not Quite Sure Just What We’re Dying Of*

If you’ve ever been ill, even with something relatively minor like a cold, you know how easy it is to be preoccupied about your health. And that has advantages. It’s important to take medication, especially things like antibiotics, as directed, to rest if needed, and so on.

But, like anything else, it’s possible to take that preoccupation too far. I’m emphatically not talking here of genuine chronic illness. That’s an entirely different matter. Rather, I’m talking of cases where preoccupation becomes hypochondria. In real life, it can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac. But hypochondria can add an interesting character layer in a novel. And, if it’s a crime novel, there’s just a chance that preoccupation with one’s health is justified…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by Mary Morstan. Years earlier, her father returned from India to London, and arranged to meet her. But he didn’t keep that appointment and hasn’t been seen since. Not long after his disappearance, Mary began receiving a set of pearls, one each year, from an anonymous person. Holmes and Watson discover that that person is Thaddeus Sholto, the son of a friend of Morstan’s. It turns out that Sholto has some important information about what happened to Morstan, and why he’s been sending the pearls. As it happens, Thaddeus Sholto is a hypochondriac, who can go on at great length about his health (and does). Even Dr. Watson finds his medical conversations tiresome.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) features the Abernethie family. When wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for the funeral and the reading of his will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone else hushes her up, and even she tells the others not to pay attention to her. But the seed has been sown, and everyone wonders whether she might be right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. One of the people concerned in this case is Abernethie’s younger brother, Timothy. He doesn’t attend the funeral because of ill health, and we soon learn that ill health is his status quo. He revels in his bottles of medicine, and is obsessed with his heart rate, his pulse, and so on. This hypochondria isn’t the reason for the two deaths, but it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Richard Jury will know that his assistant, Sergeant Wiggins, is also obsessed with his health. He’s constantly concerned about whether he’s well, and he keeps himself updated on all of the latest articles about health, whether they’re from responsible sources or they’re faddish. Wiggins can be tiresome about health matters, and that annoys Jury. But Wiggins is also a skilled police officer who knows his job. So, Jury tries to keep Wiggins’ hypochondria in perspective. It’s not always easy, though…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s amateur sleuth, Myrtle Clover, is a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. She originally gets involved in solving mysteries mostly to prove she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture,’ although that’s what her son, the local police chief, would like. Myrtle sometimes needs a ‘sounding board’ for her ideas, or some help putting them into action. One of the people she turns to is her friend, Miles Bradford. Like Myrtle, he’s retired. His idea of retirement, though, is quite different to Myrtle’s. He’d pictured a quiet retirement, without a lot of adventure. But that’s not what happens once he gets to know Myrtle. Miles is a germaphobe, and someone of a hypochondriac, although he’s not the whiny sort. Still, Myrtle doesn’t always have patience for his more cautious approach. He makes for an interesting contrast to Myrtle’s more adventurous nature.

Of course, there are times when it’s wise to pay close attention to, and to focus on, one’s health. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces us to her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In the main plot of the novel, she happens to be present when her friend, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, suddenly collapses and dies of poison. As a way of coping with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend. And, as she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about what happened to him. In another plot thread, she begins to lose weight and have other signs of illness. At first, she doesn’t pay much attention, as she’s not one to be obsessed about her health. But as time goes by and things get worse, she gets concerned and seeks medical attention. At first, there aren’t any clear answers to what’s going on, and that’s scary. It’s easy to see why, in cases like this, one would start getting very preoccupied with health.

It can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac in real life. But in fiction, hypochondria can make for an interesting layer of character. And there really are people like that, so it can be credible, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hotspur’s Hypochondria.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martha Grimes

28 responses to “We’re Not Quite Sure Just What We’re Dying Of*

  1. Keishon

    Interesting post. I can’t cite any at the moment but I did read The Sign of Four several years back and completely forgot about the hypochondriac in that one. It’s not something I think I see a lot at least in my reading. The annoying preoccupation to their health is a limited type of aspect to this type of fiction unless one reads medical thrillers and such which I avoid like the plague. No pun intended. Now, poisoning people, there’s a subject I can dig my teeth into as I always find that fascinating in crime fiction. Again, I have diarrhea of the mouth and ventured off track…my apologies.

    • No need for apologies, Keishon. A good poisoning mystery can be really engaging. And you’re not the only one who’s not fond of medical thrillers; a lot of people would rather not read them. I think you make an interesting point, too, that there aren’t as many hypochondriac characters, especially in really contemporary crime fiction. They can be interesting, though, when they’re done well.

  2. I suppose hypochondria can be the start of paranoia – which is a useul trait in a murder mystery!

  3. I’m always astounded at how you manage to give such a variety of examples for such a wide selection of starting points. I know I have come across a fair few fictional hypochondriacs but none that I can remember

  4. kathy d.

    Hypochondriacs — they are hard to live with, true.
    I have seen many movies with women being slowly poisoned by their husbands, but can’t think of that theme in books.
    But I can’t think of hypochondriacs. I read more contemporary fiction and haven’t seen characters with that trait. Maybe it’s more true in Golden Age crime fiction or earlier times.

  5. I can’t come up with any hypochondriacs to add to your list, but the post reminded me of Dr Marc Schlosser, the main character in Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool. Not exactly the most empathetic of doctors(!), he’s bitingly funny about his patients, and in particular the wealthy hypochondriacs amongst them…

    • Oh, that’s funny, FictionFan. I’m sure doctors really do get tired of patients like that. And I’m glad you’ve reminded me of that novel, too. Koch has a way of being darkly funny, and there’s something about the way he portrays his characters…

  6. Poor Miles–he has a lot of issues, ha! Thanks for the mention in your post. 🙂 I do think hypochondria can add to mysteries, and you’ve included some great examples.

    • It’s my pleasure, Elizabeth. And Miles is an interesting character. He does have his issues, but I think he makes a nice counterpoint to Myrtle. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Another really interesting post, Margot. 🙂 I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head but I do agree that hypochondria can make for an interesting plot in crime novels.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the appearance of hypochondria in crime fiction.

  9. As others have noted above, hypochondria in mysteries is a perfect combo! That hypochondriac nobody believed, who ends up dead? Perfect! It’s interesting that you started off with the Doyle example, because my default assumption generally is that of a female hypochondriac. Women are often thought to be exaggerating their health ailments, whether or not they are actually a hypochondriac. Again, perfect in a mystery fiction setting. Thanks for a fun post!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Kathy. And I absolutely love that plot point about the hypochondriac who actually ends up dead (*now busily figuring out how to work that into next novel*). It is interesting, isn’t it, how we think of hypochondriacs as women, and some are. But there are male hypochondriacs, too…

  10. I can’t remember any examples, Margot. But I do want to read some of the Myrtle Clover series, so that should be fun.

    • The Myrtle Clover stories are very well done, Tracy. They are fun, but they’re not so ‘frothy’ that there’s no substance. If you do try them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  11. kathy d.

    I can vouch for male hypochondriacs. I lived with one! A cold and they are so sick. Meanwhile, women work, cook, do laundry, help kids with homework and bedtime, whether healthy or sick.

  12. Col

    Not something I can recall in my reading. I’m reminded a bit of Adrian Monk from the TV series and the books by Lee Goldberg which I haven’t yet read, but there might be something else going on there.

  13. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 09-13-2018 | The Author Chronicles

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