We’d all like to think that the food we eat, the medicines we take, the products we buy. and so on, are safe. In fact, many countries have agencies that are supposed to protect consumers. But you never know when one disgruntled employee, or one manufacturer who wants to save money and do things cheaply, can put a lot of lives in danger.
To give a real example, in October 1982, the US company Johnson & Johnson was rocked when several Chicago area people died after taking one of the company’s products, Tylenol. One of the questions that was asked at the time was whether the medicine was poisoned during manufacture or after distribution to local drugstores and supermarkets. It was established that the tampering was not done in the warehouses or during manufacture, but the culprit was never identified. Johnson & Johnson took several steps (including requiring tamper-evident packaging on all its products) to address the matter, and they have been successful. But it raised the question of trust in what we buy. There are other real-life examples of products that have been tampered with, and they’re always frightening.
There are plenty of fictional examples, too. For example, in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, chocolatier Mason and Stone has developed a new variety of chocolates, and wants to market the product. So, the company sends complimentary boxes to several well-known people, including Sir Eustace Pennefather. It’s hoped that the chocolates will be a hit, and Pennefather and his ilk will order more. Pennefather dislikes chocolate, so he gives the box to Graham Bendix, a member of his club. Bendix takes the chocolates home and shares them with his wife, Joan. Both soon become ill. Bendix survives, but his wife dies. Were the chocolates poisoned at the manufacturing level, to hurt the company? Was Sir Eustace the actual intended victim? Is he the murderer? Did someone else have a reason to want to kill either Bendix (or both)? Inspector Moresby doesn’t have any really viable suspects, but he is invited to present the case to the Crimes Circle, a discussion group for those interested in crime. When they hear the case, each member of the group is invited to propose a solution to the case, and we find out how the chocolates got tainted.
Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go tells the story of a successful fast food company called Chicken Tonight. The company launches a new product, Chicken Mexicali, which is a real hit with customers, and boosts the fortunes of several franchisees. There’s even talk that Chicken Tonight is doing so well that it’s going to merge with Southeastern Insurance. Then tragedy strikes. Several people are sickened after eating Chicken Mexicali; one customer even dies. Now, people begin to question their trust in the company, and some franchisees begin to wonder whether they should try to get out of the business. It’s soon believed that Clyde Sweeney, a disgruntled truck driver for the company, poisoned the chicken after taking it from the warehouse. Before long, though, he, too, is dead. Vice president John Putnam Thatcher of the Sloan Guaranty Trust takes an interest in the case, since the bank is working on the merger. He’s going to have to find out how and by whom the chicken was poisoned, and who murdered Sweeney.
In one plot point of Kerry Greenwood’s Trick or Treat , bakery owner Corinna Chapman is deeply upset when several people are sickened and one dies from ergot poisoning. All of the local bakeries are shut down while authorities work to find out how ergot got into the local bread. It’s very difficult for Chapman, who loves baking, and who enjoys providing food that people want to eat. In the end, we find out how the poisoning happened and who’s responsible. It’s a sober reminder that anything can happen, even in a beloved local bakery.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Blue Shoes and Happiness, Mma Ramotswe takes the case of a nurse who is concerned about what’s going on in the doctor’s office where she works. She’s noticed irregularities in the way the doctor is recording some patients’ blood pressure, and she has also seen that the doctor prescribes expensive medicine for those patients. She’s not sure if what’s happening is fraud or something else, but she certainly doesn’t want to be a part of anything unethical or dangerous. Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter, and she finds out that the doctor has been substituting other, less expensive medication (that isn’t as effective) for the expensive medication, but charging patients full price. That’s put some patients at risk, and even sent one to the hospital. The reason for the fraud isn’t really greed, though, and it’s interesting to see how Mma Ramotswe gets to the truth of the matter.
Christine Poulson’s Katie Flanagan mysteries explore what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in medical research. Flanagan is a lab scientist who works in research facilities that develop and test new medications. As you can imagine, there’s a great deal of pressure to produce the treatment that will be the answer to all sorts of medical challenges. There’s a lot of money at stake, and that’s to say nothing of people’s reputations and science credentials. And Flanagan runs up against people who will do anything – including committing murder – to burnish or save their reputations and to make a profit.
We all want to think that the products we buy, the food we eat, the medicine we take, etc., are safe. And there are certainly laws meant to ensure that. But as crime fiction tells us, you never do know exactly what goes on behind the scenes…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Edwards’ Sunshine.