Autumn (or spring, depending on which hemisphere you call home) is upon us. And that means one important thing: allergies. If you’re subject to allergy attacks, you know how miserable they can make you. Seasonal allergies can be very annoying, but some allergies are more than that: they’re deadly. Some people have such severe reactions to certain foods, stings, etc. that they are at risk for death from anaphylaxis if they come in contact with that allergen.
For a crime writer, anaphylactic shock can make for a very handy murder weapon. The killer doesn’t need a special skill, a lot of medical knowledge or a great deal of pre-planning. Anaphylaxis is also a handy ‘cover’ for certain kinds of poisoning. There are plenty of examples of the way allergies are woven into crime fiction; here are just a few.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane is one of the later Holmes stories, taking place after he’s retired. In this story, he’s on a seaside holiday at Sussex when he runs into a friend Harold Stackhurst, headmaster of an exclusive preparatory school. As they’re chatting, one of Stackhurt’s employees, science master Fitzroy McPherson, staggers towards them, suddenly collapsing. The only thing he’s able to say before he dies is something about a lion’s mane. At first it makes no sense, but it’s soon suspected that McPherson was murdered. And the most likely possible culprit is mathematics master Ian Murdoch. In fact, Stackhurst fires him. But Holmes doesn’t believe that the case against Murdoch is iron-clad. For one thing, Murdoch has a solid alibi. For another, there are puzzling things about McPershon’s death that aren’t consistent with the theory that Murdoch is the killer. In the end, Holmes finds that the real murderer was a Lion’s Mane jellyfish which stung the victim and to which he had a fatal allergic reaction.
More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories feature allergies to wasps, bees and other stinging insects. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a wasp is blamed for the death of Marie Morisot, who is killed on a flight from Paris to London. There is a wasp on the flight; several passengers comment on it and one kills it. There’s a small sting mark on the victim, too. So at first it looks as though she died from a severe allergic reaction to a sting. But soon enough, Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, discovers that the victim was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look among them to find out who the killer is. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None…
Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss Macrimmon is a former Scottish dancer who’s had to end her career because of an injury. Now she’s returned to her hometown of Moosetookalook, Maine. In Scone Cold Dead, she learns that her former dance troupe Strathespy is on tour in the area, and arranges for them to perform at the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. One night, she throws a party for the troupe. One of the guests is company manager Victor Owen. During the event, Owen suddenly dies after eating a scone stuffed with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. Macrimmon has a not-very-amicable history with the victim, and she was the one who hosted the party and arranged for the food. So as you can imagine, she falls under immediate suspicion. Determined to clear her name, she works to find out who the real murderer is. And it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects.
Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also features food allergies. In that novel, herb and spice shop owner China Bayles and her police-officer partner Mike McQuaid are invited to the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off. McQuaid is even persuaded to serve as one of the judges. Bayles thinks this will be a good opportunity for him to ‘rejoin the human race’ as he starts to cope with life after a devastating line-of-duty shooting. On the day of the cook-off, insurance executive Jerry Jeff Cody, who’s serving as another judge, suddenly collapses and dies. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a sudden heart attack. But before long it’s shown that he died of anaphylactic shock brought on when someone slipped crushed peanut shells into a sample of chili he was tasting. Now Bayles works to find out who knew about Cody’s severe peanut allergy, and who would have wanted to kill him.
I’ve actually used peanut flour as a fiction murder weapon myself. In B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is killed just after having won a major musical competition. It turns out that someone knew about her severe peanut allergy and took advantage of it. Serena’s death is devastating to her partner Patricia Stanley, so Patricia asks her academic advisor Joel Williams to help find out the truth.
Of course, allergies can serve as useful clues, too. Just ask Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she discovers the body of beautiful but malicious Parke Stoddard in a local church. She wants to prove, mostly to her police-chief son Red, that she’s not ready yet to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So she decides to find out who killed the victim. And in this case, an allergy gives her important information.
Whether mild or severe, allergies are a part of life for millions of people. And they’re also a very useful tool for crime writers. These are a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Allergies.