Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor.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.
Eric Ambler (1909 – 1998) was a master of English prose, underestimated perhaps because of the genre in which he wrote: the spy thriller. He did not regard popularity and intelligence as antithetical, and his success proved that he was right. Here, for example, is the opening sentence of his book, Judgment on Deltchev, published in 1951:
Where treason to the state is defined simply as opposition to the government in power, the political leader convicted of it will not necessarily lose credit with the people.
An academic political scientist of today would make heavy weather of such a thought.
The protagonist of Doctor Frigo (1974) is Dr Ernesto Castillo, the son of an assassinated Central American social-democratic politician, who studied medicine in Paris and practices on a fictional French Antillean island. He is known as Dr Frigo because he is, outwardly at least, a cold and unemotional person, and frigo is colloquial French for refrigerator. Against his will, for he has no interest in politics, he becomes involved in a plot to mount a coup in his homeland against a corrupt junta: and he is useful to the plotters for two reasons. First he bears the name of his father, who was, retrospectively at least, very popular; and second he is a Spanish-speaking doctor on the French island where the head of the plot, and future president, Manuel Villegas has taken refuge but falls ill.
Behind the coup is a shadowy group of people interested in the offshore oil that has been found in the country’s territorial waters. Among them is a man called Rosier, supposedly an insurance underwriter, who tries to recruit Dr Frigo as medical assessor for Villegas, whose life an oil consortium wants to insure for $50 million. Rosier tries to explain the principles of insurance to Frigo by reference to a woman’s fur coat that might be stolen, damaged by moths if not stored properly, or lost in a fire. Dr Frigo says to him:
“You must know a lot about fur coats.”
“Me, Doctor. Not a thing. The equity I’m concerned with is life.”
“Then,” says Frigo, “you must know a lot about life.”
To which Rosier, giving him a coy look, replies:
“More about the other thing, really.”
This is beautiful, witty and intelligent dialogue. I have read a lot worse in novels deemed to be masterpieces.
Villegas begins to suffer from tiredness and finds that, after a few minutes of talking, he has difficulty in pronouncing consonants. Dr Frigo diagnoses amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and gives an account of the disease that could have come out of Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System. But in those days it was not customary to tell patients that they were fatally ill right up until the last five minutes of their life; besides, Villegas has to be kept going until he can return to his country as the new president.
Dr Frigo, who is charged with looking after him, discovers that Villegas, far from having been an ally of his father, is the one responsible for having assassinated him. He decides to take no revenge because Villegas will soon die anyway, and he is torn between rage at and pity for the man. But Villegas is soon assassinated in the same way as Dr Frigo’s father, by a man who is supposedly a political ally.
Apart from the ruthlessness of politicians, the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if you are not interested in politics, politics will sooner or later be interested in you.