Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
From time to time I am asked to a weekend intellectual conversazione in a beautiful country house, where I confess that my first thought is not for the topic under discussion but that the house would make a wonderful setting for a crime novel. By the time each of the participants has spoken he has given all the others a motive to kill him, and so the conditions are just right.
The murder weapon has to be poison, of course, for as Professor Glaister put it at the beginning of his book, The Power of Poison, published in 1954, “Murder by poison is a crime of devilish wickedness and inhumanity which no language can adequately describe,” and is therefore entirely and uniquely appropriate for intellectuals to commit.
I prefer old-fashioned murder books to modern ones because they are really fairy stories or comedies of manners rather than works of gritty social realism: and where murder is concerned, I have had, in my professional life, quite enough of gritty social reality.
One of the last practitioners of the old-fashioned English comedy of manners type murder-stories is Robert Barnard. His Little Victims of 1983 takes place in a seventh-rate and down-at-heel private school for the boys of local parents who do not want to send their children to the local comprehensive but cannot afford anything better, run by the pedantic, pompous, ignorant, small-minded, snobbish, avaricious but splendidly named Edwin Crumwallis and his even more mean-spirited and cheese-paring wife, Enid, who acts as matron and doles out medicine to the boys on the following medical principles, enunciated to the detectives who are investigating the death by poison of one of the boys at the school:
Cold tea and aniseed! I put it in old bottles. Mostly these boys are putting it on, you know, or just imagining things. The cold tea does as good as anything, and the aniseed makes it taste nasty, as they expect. It’s well known people take too much medicine. Did you know that when doctors go on strike the death rate always goes down? People these days are just soft, running along for a packet of pills every time they think they’ve got an ache.
The dead boy is called Hilary Frome, son of the local general practitioner, a man greatly respected even though there are rumours of two bad diagnoses he made, or failed to make, some years before. Young Hilary, handsome, intelligent and charming, and destined by his father for the medical profession, is, alas, a psychopath who foments trouble wherever possible and, for reasons too complicated here to go into, decides to poison his young acolyte, disciple and admirer at the school, a boy called Malcolm Pickerage. Unfortunately for young Hilary, he accidentally takes the poison destined for Malcolm and dies.
The poison in question is aconite, to which Hilary is said to have had access through his father. But why would a general practitioner in 1983 have had aconite, or anything containing aconitine, about his person? However, it is important when reading comedies of manners or fairy tales to suspend disbelief and not to be too literal-minded. Who can resist a character such as Enid Crumwallis, whose first thought on finding broken glass in the school’s shepherd’s pie is the terrible waste to which it will lead?