Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Case of the Flu

Sorry, feeling a bit under the weather myself today, so the topic will be illness in the Christie canon, specifically flu.

The story goes that young Agatha ran out of books when she was home with the flu, and her mother indicated that if she'd completed all the books in the house that she'd best write her own. Of course, it's no small matter that one of her early links to the world of writing came from the flu.

(Sidenote: I've read this story many times about mystery authors. Of course, Boucher was sickly and read voraciously. Margaret Millar was in bed at the time she decided to write, since she could do better than the authors she was reading. Fred Dannay was in bed with an ear abscess when he discovered the world of Sherlock Holmes. Not that I'm in the same stratosphere, but I have to wonder if my own ill health and reading didn't go hand in hand as well.)

So after that impetus from disease, it's not surprising that the flu crops up in a few stories. The first is "The Case of the Caretaker," where Doctor Haydock brings Miss Marple a puzzle to contemplate. She'd been ill and not back to her usual self yet. The solution of the puzzle helps her spirits and her health.

Then of course is "Yellow Iris," the precursor for Sparkling Cyanide. In both stories the victim is originally suspected of bumping herself off. "Yellow Iris" is a Hercule Poirot short story in which Iris dies of cyanide. The death is suspected to be suicide (though no reason is given.)

In Sparkling Cyanide, it is Rosemary who "commits suicide" as a result of post-flu depression, and Iris who is the younger daughter. While it sounds like a flimsy excuse, apparently the idea has been around for over 130 years, which means the diagnosis was available at the time of the book. Of course, later it's proved that Rosemary did not commit suicide (given that this is Christie, I don't think that's a particular spoiler.)

Curran has very little to say about this book, so we can't fill in many of the details here, but it would be interesting to know if the idea of post-flu depression came from a friend who suffered from it or just her knowledge of medicine.

Again Miss Marple has been under the weather in A Caribbean Mystery, which finds her on an island recuperating. It's quite possible that she has had the flu.

Have I missed other examples of illness (specifically flu) in the Christie books?


  1. ", it's no small matter that one of her early links to the world of writing came from the flu.... I've read this story many times about mystery authors"

    Not just mystery writers:
    Professor Housman was I think the first
    To say in print how very stimulating
    The little ills by which mankind is cursed,
    The colds, the aches, the pains are to creating;
    Indeed one hardly goes too far in stating
    That many a flawless lyric may be due
    Not to a lover's broken heart, but 'flu.

    said W.H. Auden, though Housman's poems were inspired by a broken heart. Perhaps, as with Keats, a fatal illness and a broken heart are most effective.

  2. From Letter to Lord Byron, which is well worth reading.

  3. the poirot short story the mystery of hunters lodge opens with poirot having the flu

  4. Dave, I knew there was at least one more instance of flu in the Christie stories and couldn't think which story it was. Thanks for mentioning it (so I wouldn't be wondering all night.... :-) )

  5. THanks Dave. I thought I recalled a Poirot story with the flu, but I kept mixing it up with his complaints of mal-de-mer...

  6. Thinking further about it, I'm beginning to think that "Christie inspired by flu" is a myth. Flu would leave someone in no condition to read, let alone write - especially to write a book with a complex plot, like a detective story. Perhaps when she was recovering but still physically weak she started writing.
    On the other hand the 1918-1920 flu pandemic was the most lethal illness in human history, so whether she had flu, knew people who had flu or saw it from a pharmacy it would have had a strong impact on Christie. The aftereffects in some cases lasted years - some of the cases in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings were people with illnesses caused by flu. According to one description "Many who survived their bouts with influenza were left with weakened bodies and minds prone to depression for years to come. " It's not surprising that Christie closely associated flu and depression and if the plot required someone to be depressed or listless she used flu as a cause/

  7. I've also been surprised by the flu-as-suicide-motive: the mind boggles somewhat.
    There is a book where Poirot pretends to be a lot less well than he really is.
    There are a few weak hearts around - it makes people easy to kill: eg Towards Zero.

  8. Roger, I had the swine flu in April, and all I did was read.. I went through about 10 books that week.

    1. That was a comparatively mild epidemic: take a look at accounts of the Spanish flu and you'll see why I'm sceptical of the claim that Christie was inspired by flu. Even if Christie had a mild attack, the fact that people could suddenly get worse and die wouldn't be good for her peace of mind.
      On the other hand, she might have had a different kind of flu before the 1918 pandemic, which does rather do for my theories. As I said, though, someone who went through the Spanish flu, as patient or observer, would associate flu and depression and if someone in a story had to have a reason to kill themselves it would probably come up as an obvious explanation.

  9. Roger, the quote was from when she was younger, so I'm thinking it was circa 1902-1907ish, which would predate the war and the Spanish flu. I would have thought that she saw a great deal of flu via the war and the hospital she worked with.