In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested for the murder of Mary Gerrard. She’s got motives both personal and financial, and there’s enough circumstantial evidence against her that she is a very likely suspect. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Mary, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to do just that. Poirot agrees to look into the case (‘though not to fabricate evidence), and begins investigating. In the meantime, Elinor remains in prison, and has to endure a trial. Needless to say, by the end of the book, she’s mentally and emotionally devastated. So Lord arranges for her to go for a rest cure. Christie doesn’t outright say it, but you can certainly imagine Lord’s referring her to some sort of mental institution. Christie doesn’t tell us, but one could wonder what happens to Elinor when she leaves that place? How will she be received? The hint is that Lord intends to be there for her. But it does raise the question of how others will receive her.
We continue to learn more and more about the human mind and how it works. But there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding and, sometimes, downright fear about those who’ve been in mental health care. Certainly it makes for a lot of awkwardness, especially when one’s going back to work after a time way, or otherwise trying to reconnect with people. It’s true in real life, and we often see it reflected in crime fiction, too.
In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to Jon Moreno. He’s recently been released from a mental institution where he was dealing with severe anxiety issues. He’s still fragile, and not everyone’s comfortable interacting with him. Thinking that he could use a little cheering up, Jon’s friends Axel Frimann and Philip Reilly take him to spend the weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, the three young men decide to go out on the lake. While they’re there, a tragedy occurs, and only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate what happened. They try to get the two survivors to tell what they know, but that proves to be much more difficult than they thought it would be. Then, another body is discovered, this time in Glitter Lake. Now, the police have to cases on their hands, which may or may not be related. Among other things, this novel touches on what it’s like when someone returns to a group of old friends after having been in a mental health facility.
At the beginning of Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is under psychiatric care, mostly due to events detailed in Sun Storm and The Blood Spilt. She’s released from the hospital and returns to her home town of Kiruna, where she’s decided to stay for a while and start to rebuild her life. The main plot of The Black Path concerns the murder of Inna Watrang, Director of Communications for Kellis Mining. The key to the murder may be some of the legalities behind the company’s activities, so Martinsson gets involved in the case. As she does, we see at some points that it’s very awkward for her and for others to talk about her experiences in the hospital and accept her as ‘ready to re-join the world.’ There’s some of that awkwardness in The Blood Spilt, too, actually.
Certainly New South Wales DS Kate Farrer feels it in Kathryn Fox’s Skin and Bones. She’s just returning to work after three months’ medical leave of absence that became necessary after she went through a traumatic experience (you can read about it in Malicious Intent). During her leave, Farrer got psychological treatment, and was on the way to healing. She would have liked to take more time away, but staffing shortages have made it necessary for her to return, so she’s still a bit fragile. She’s dropped right back in it, so to speak, when the charred body of a woman is discovered in the remains of a house fire that seems to have been caused by arson. Also discovered is a bag full of baby clothes. What’s more, it’s soon revealed that the victim had recently given birth. But no child’s body is discovered, and no-one reports having found an abandoned infant. It’s a difficult and painful case, and there was awkwardness already as Farrer returned to work. But she does her best to focus and work with her new partner, Oliver Parke, to find the truth behind the fire, the death, and the baby.
And then there’s Matthew Wyman, whom we meet in Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead. A highly intelligent and talented artist, he’s always been somewhat mentally fragile. But matters come to a head when he gets mixed up in the death of seventy-year-old Emma Kost O’Neal. It comes out that he discovered the body. Moreover, he was involved with the victim’s great-niece, Emmanuelle ‘Manny’ Whitman, who stands to inherit a good deal of money. So there are pieces of evidence to link him with the case. And it’s not long before the police fix on him as a suspect. But it’s equally possible that he’s being framed. He’s a good target because of his mental health history. In fact, in the course of the novel, he has complete breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. As the police try to get to the truth about the case, it’s interesting to see how different people react to Wyman’s situation. His family doesn’t want to discuss it, or accept the fact that he needs mental health care. Other characters in the novels react in other ways, some awkward, and some less so. That plot thread adds a layer of complexity to the novel.
Mental health care still remains one of the more complex issues we face. And, for a lot of people, it’s too awkward to discuss. It makes some people downright uncomfortable. But it’s a fact of life, and it’s interesting to see how it’s woven into crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s How You Gonna See Me Now?