She Blinded Me With Science*

As this is posted, it would have been Marie Curie’s 151st birthday. Her contributions to our understanding of the world are too numerous to mention (and I’m not sophisticated enough in science to do them justice, anyway). And, of course, she made those contributions at a time when it was very unusual for a woman to be accepted as part of the scientific community.

Scientific breakthroughs are, of course, double-edged swords, as the saying goes. They are the basis for much of our progress. At the same time, they have consequences. We’ve certainly seen that in real life, including the work that the Curies did. And we see it in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet atomic scientist Alec Legge. He and his wife, Peggy, are staying in a cottage on the property of Nasse House, which belongs to Sir George Stubbs. When Sir George and his wife, Hattie, host a charity fête, the whole household, including the Legges, get involved in preparing for it. So does their guest, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, who’s preparing a Murder Hunt competition for the event. She’s not typically a fanciful person, but she gets the feeling that something is very wrong with this fête, and that more is going on than it seems. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to visit and investigate. He (and Alec Legge) are both on hand on the day of the fête, when there is a murder. And it turns out that Legge’s profession has gotten him into a difficult situation that figures into this plot.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow features Smilla Jaspersen, a Greenlander who now lives in Copenhagen. She is upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in her building, dies from what seems to be a terrible accident – a fall from the roof of the building. She soon begins to suspect that this fall was not accidental and decides to ask questions. The trail leads back to Greenland, and to some scientific discoveries there that have serious consequences.

Robin Cook has written more than once about scientific breakthroughs and the risks and benefits they offer. In Seizure, for instance, we are introduced to Dr. Daniel Lowell. He’s been conducting some promising stem cell research and is hoping to make his procedure a viable option. But his interest in such research is not universal. There are several people, including powerful US Senator Ashley Butler, who are opposed to stem cell research. In fact, Butler supports a ban on studies such as the ones that Lowell has been conducting. So, it’s a real shock when Butler actually contacts Lowell with a proposal. Butler has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If word of this gets out, he will have no chance to pursue his ambition of becoming president. He offers to withdraw his objections to stem cell research (thus giving Lowell’s work a vital boost) if Lowell conducts his procedure on Butler. Lowell agrees, and plans are made. But neither man knows that this breakthrough will come at a terrible price.

Scientific breakthroughs have meant that we can now test water to determine whether it’s safe and what particular toxins are or aren’t in it. And that means that companies and other entities are now accountable for what they put in local water. And municipalities are now accountable for the way they clean (or don’t) clean it. Carl Hiaasen takes a look at how water testing can be (mis)used in Skinny Dip, which features Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. On paper, anyway, he is a marine biologist. His real interest, though, is himself. So, he’s all too open to an ‘arrangement’ with agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. It seems that Hammernut’s company has been accused of polluting the local water. He needs to prove that his company isn’t responsible or face huge fines or even worse. Perrone has developed a technique for making water samples appear clean and toxin-free, even if they aren’t. So, Hammernut hires Perrone to ‘prove’ that his company is not a polluter. When Perrone’s wife finds out what he’s doing, he decides that the only way to deal with that situation is to get rid of her. He tries to do just that by throwing her overboard during a cruise. But Joey survives, and that’s just the beginning of Chaz Perrone’s problems…

And then there’s Christine Poulson’s Katie Flanagan. She is a laboratory researcher whom we meet in Deep Water. In that novel, the laboratory she works for is on the point of a breakthrough control for obesity. But a suspicious death, and other troubling events raise some real questions. And, when Katie looks into them, she finds herself and her career in real danger. In Cold, Cold Heart, she travels to Antarctica, grasping at an opportunity to do research there in an attempt to salvage her career. There, she gets involved in a mystery that ties a murder on that outpost with some hidden secrets that a patent lawyer, David Marchmont, discovers. In both of these novels, there are high-stakes scientific breakthroughs that could make a major difference in people’s lives. But they’re also both risky and in high demand. And that can spell trouble…

That’s the thing about scientific breakthroughs. They move our lives forward, and they have saved millions of lives. But that doesn’t mean they have no consequences…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Christine Poulson, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook

21 responses to “She Blinded Me With Science*

  1. Christine Poulson

    Thanks so much for the mention, Margot! I am fascinated by the ethical dilemmas that science sometimes throws up and I really enjoy reading about them as well as writing about them.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your work, Christine. And I agree with you about those dilemmas. Science brings us so much good. But it also does pose challenges and dilemmas that can be terribly difficult.

  2. Andre Michael Pietroschek

    Well, my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, the best lesbian-kiss I ever got was with a woman… Can’t say the historical part of it was proper science, but I enjoyed watching the Internet special of ‘Sherlock, the abominable bride (on female rights, as a cult-like secret movement)’.

    Germany’s latest water trouble was nitrate in the drinking water. And I remember the ‘shock’, when the ten seconds boiling of water, which we learned as children, had become 3 minutes by scientific standards, as the difference must mean there is more bacteria to kill-off. E-coli bacteria scored several headlines.

    These abstract forms of crime fiction remind me of bordering horror themes, but work splendidly well as pure crime fiction, or sadly so, even as real life crimes.

    Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow… I only know the movie… Sorry, once more I merely comment, with not much to offer.

    Right now the closest I got on true crime fiction is:

    • If you ever do get the chance to read Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Àndre, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And it’s interesting that you’d mention drinking water. That’s another way in which scientific breakthroughs have helped us understand how to keep the water and food supplies safer.

      • Andre Michael Pietroschek

        I am happy you are doing well, and I think your ‘new focus’ is really a conceptual keystone.

  3. Peter May used to have a science gone wrong theme in his early China thrillers, and he went back to that in his more recent Coffin Road, where the protagonist has found out that the pharmaceutical company he worked for has made a breakthrough discovery, but it’s inadvertently adversely affecting bee colonies. They’re attempting to cover this up so as not to impact their profits…

    • Oh, I must read some of those China thrillers, FictionFan. I like his Lewis trilogy quite a lot, and I am embarrassed I don’t know his other work as well. Coffin Road sounds like a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post, so I’m very glad that you mentioned it. Now, off to wedge some room in my TBR for those China novels…

  4. Col

    I’ve just finished an old Tess Gerritsen novel, Whistleblower where some scientific research has been used to develop possible biological weapons for a rogue governmental official.

    • That sounds like an interesting premise, Col. And it’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. I know Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles novels, but I’m not familiar with her standalones. This one sounds like a good ‘un, though.

  5. Bill Selnes

    In Last Days of Night by Graham Moore there is an exploration of the patent battles between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over the invention of the light bulb and then whether AC or DC should be the means of electrical current. The battles had huge implications for every home in the world that has access to electricity.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    On the thriller & mystery end of science, Michael Crichton has brought us many well known stories including Westworld, Andromeda Strain & Jurassic Park.
    There are also a good many historical crime novels that feature scientific, medical & engineering developments – sometimes with a considerable amount of detail about the difficulties & social impact of these new technologies/techniques. For example, I really enjoyed Imogen Robertson’s Crowther & Westerman series (in 1780’s England) & Ariana Franklin’s The Mistress of the Art of Death series (in Medieval England) featuring early forensic medical examiners.

    • You’re quite right about Michael Crichton, Spade & Dagger. He explored some fascinating (and potentially disastrous) scientific breakthroughs. And he had a way of drawing the reader in, which I always admired. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Mistress of the Arts of Death series. Franklin was a skilled writer who left us much too soon. And those historical novels really do evoke the reactions of the time to those new technologies.

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

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

  9. As a scientist ( now writing) I tend to avoid science in fiction – the scientist’s curse to be too analytical – but I find myself intrigued, and wanting to take a look at some of the books you’ve mentioned in your post – an enjoyable and interesting read. Thank you. Eric.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Eric. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You make an interesting point about being analytical about what you read. Scientists are taught to do that, so I’m not surprised you feel that way. If you do try any of these books, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  10. tracybham

    I loved both of Christine Poulson’s novel featuring Flanagan. I have read Smilla’s Sense of Snow but recently bought a copy so I can reread it. It has been long enough since I read it that I forgot it had any science-related connections.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy, about re-reading a book after a long time. You always find something new you didn’t see before, especially if the book’s well-written. And as for Christine Poulson, she’s a very talented writer, and I’ve richly enjoyed her work.

  11. Frances Crane’s Applegreen Cat, a 1940s mystery, contains a scientific development of a specially strong thread. This might make for very hard-wearing stockings – but why is everyone being so secretive? Might it also have implications for wartime materials? Well what do you think…!

    • Oh, sounds like a good one, Moira (I admit I’ve not read it). And a great example of what I had in mind here, so thanks for that. I need to pay more attention to Frances Crane’s work, but just…haven’t yet.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s