Medicine, Madness and Murder
(First published in Red Herrings, CWA, February 2022)
‘Write what you know,’ that’s what they say to aspiring authors, isn’t it?. It might be hackneyed advice but I believe as crime writers, we all do it. We all bleed unintentionally into our characters. Perhaps we prefer to mentally distance ourselves from our most dangerous psychopathic creations but in truth, the more convincing ones will undoubtedly have an element of us in them.
I have possibly taken this a step further. The protagonist in my medical murder mystery series is a doctor, as I used to be myself. I hope that my knowledge of a clinician’s life will give the books a satisfying authenticity. The setting of a semi-rural Scottish medical practice, allows Dr Cathy Moreland to meet a multitude of interesting and diverse people and she is placed in many potentially perilous situations, having to make life or death decisions about her patients, and herself, if I’m feeling particularly cruel!
But added to this, I have gifted her an alternative way of thinking that I am personally only too familiar with. You see, Dr Cathy Moreland, like me, has bipolar disorder. Through this tilted logic or genius, she goes on to solve even the most perplexing puzzles that I set her.
Maybe writing about the illness is a form of therapy for me. In fact, there’s no ‘maybe’ about it. I know from both a medical standpoint and that of a patient, that writing is a wonderful tool to overcome trauma - and giving up my career as a general practitioner due to mental illness was certainly that. But I hope that as the series progresses (I have signed a seven-book deal with Bloodhound Books) Dr Cathy’s own demons are put to bed and her psychiatric issues less prominent. Of course, she’ll have relapses. Having committed to writing from such a personal perspective, I feel it only fair that the readers realise how debilitating the disease can be.
When my protagonist is unwell, her mind will race and her thoughts will be scattered. She might suffer paranoid delusions and be deathly scared to sleep, fearing the shadowy figures that visit her in night-terrors. But through this reckless and desperate time, her senses will be heightened and her powers of deduction refined. She will see things as no other can. These episodes will not consume her and may not even last that long but they will scar her so she both dreads and welcomes them.
Of course, I am in the enviable position of being able to offer Dr Cathy Moreland a neat and happy ending at the close of each murder mystery. In turbulent times such as these, I hope that the promise of justice will allow my readers a little respite from a world otherwise filled with uncertainty.
But I am not the first to use psychiatric illness in crime writing by any means. Just consider Sherlock Holmes. The debate continues to run about his mental health status. Was Conan Doyle bestowing on him bipolar, or was it autism, or maybe neither? Then, there is Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey who battles post-traumatic stress disorder with the assistance of his manservant, ever-faithful Bunter.
My reason for making Dr Cathy as flawed as myself is mainly to highlight the disorder and work through the ordeal of it. Perhaps other authors write mental illness into their books for a variety of additional reasons though. Some may have experienced psychiatric disorders first-hand themselves and others might simply reflect on the society around them. Conan Doyle is said to have based Holmes on Joseph Bell, an eccentric but brilliant physician who used his skills of observation to diagnose. At that time, bipolar and autism were not even possibilities but symptoms of these as yet unheard of illnesses might well have been evident. When Sayers wrote Whose Body?, PTSD or ‘shell-shock’ would have been very much at the forefront of people’s minds following the first world war.
Certainly, if an author elects to make their detective imperfect, many succeed in uniting their audience. Faultless individuals are quite disagreeable and although a reader may want to be as smart, orderly or amusing as the protagonist, it is dangerous on the crime writer’s part to deny their readers at least half a chance. Hindering the protagonist with some failing is an excellent technique to overcome the issue.
As a caveat, some care should be taken in introducing mental illness to a regular character and it would be foolish to do so without extensive knowledge of the subject. Undoubtedly, creating an unreliable narrator due to psychiatric disorder might well be seen as at best, insensitive and, without understanding, quite inaccurate and crass.
I hope that my mission to destigmatize mental health disorder is a fruitful one. After all, if our fictional heroes live with psychiatric issues, so too can we, and perhaps we might also go on to do inspiring things like them.