The pandemic we’ve been living through is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. It’s impacted us in millions of different ways, not the least of which is the anxiety many of us have felt. Will I catch Covid-19? What will it be like if I do? Am I going to die? What if someone in my family catches it? Then there’s the anxiety when we interact with others (Does that person have Covid-19?). It makes for a great deal of stress, and that’s not to mention the stress of not seeing loved ones, not being able to buy basic products at the store, and so on. It’s not the first time humans have had to cope with serious outbreaks of diseases, and it’s interesting to see how that’s found its way into fiction, including crime fiction. There are a lot of examples out there; I’ll just mention a few. I know you’ll think of more than I could.
In the Tudor world of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake, plague is a grim reality. When most people think of ‘The Plague,’ they think of the famous outbreak of 1348. But the fact is, there’ve been many outbreaks of the plague. So Shardlake is sadly familiar with its impact. He is an attorney who gets drawn into murder investigations, which he has to pursue very carefully, so as not to fall afoul of the king or other powerful people at court. While the plague itself doesn’t constitute the major plot point of these novels, it’s there in people’s memories and ways of thinking. And, without the benefit of today’s science and medicine, many of the people of that time have a very genuine fear of dying from it. And that impacts their interactions and views, especially concerning those who have been ill.
The post-WW I influenza pandemic also wreaked havoc on people’s lives. Many millions of people died, and there was no telling whether someone who got it would survive. Chris Wormersley’s Bereft takes place against this backdrop. In it, Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He finds that things are very different now in his hometown. The place is in the grip of influenza, and everyone’s frightened. That atmosphere plays an important role in the story. Walker’s own mother has fallen ill, and there’s no way for him to let her know he survived the war, because of quarantine. He’s not welcome in town anyway, since it’s believed that he was responsible for the death of his sister ten years earlier. So, he hides out in an abandoned shack. There, he meets Sadie Fox, a young girl who’s also hiding. She helps Walker come to terms with what he’s been through, and he finds out what really happened to his sister.
Robin Cook has written a number of medical thrillers, including Outbreak. In it, we meet Dr. Marissa Blumenthal, who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta. She’s sent to Los Angeles to help respond to an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. That outbreak is contained, but then there’s another, this time in St. Louis There’s another in Phoenix. Blumenthal becomes convinced that these outbreaks have been deliberate attacks, and she’s right. Now, she’s going to have find out who’s behind these outbreaks if there’s to be any chance of preventing more deaths. Throughout the novel, we get a look (admittedly dated by this point – the novel was published in 1987) at the way agencies like the CDC respond to mass illness. We also see some of the fear and the human cost that go with outbreaks.
Cat Connor’s Ellie Iverson is an FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC). While she and her teams don’t, per se, deal with epidemics and pandemics, they do get involved with terrorism and major crime. And in Qubyte (the 10th in the Byte series), that mission intersects with a virus-laden monkey that escapes from a Washington, DC-area laboratory. The threat to humans is all too real, and the FBI will have to work with the CDC to find out what, exactly, the virus is. They’ll also have to find out who created it, what happened to the monkey, and how the virus is being transmitted to humans. There’s a real danger that this virus could mushroom into a pandemic, so Iverson and her teams will have to work fast.
Even on a smaller scale, a fast-spreading illness can cause a lot of problems and make for a lot of tension. In Jane Woodham’s Twister, for instance, Dunedin is in the grip of an outbreak of the flu. Everyone’s miserable and on edge, and the ranks of the local police force are decimated because so many people are ill. As if that’s not enough, there’s a five-day spate of rain, followed by a twister. Needless to say, the police have their hands full. The timing couldn’t be worse when the body of Tracey Wenlock is discovered in Ross Creek. She’d been missing for two weeks, but no leads had turned up. Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd is tapped to lead the investigation into her death. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t be given this case; his own daughter Beth went missing nine years earlier and has never been found. But no-one else is available because so many people are ill. So, Judd takes the assignment and prepares the best he can. It’s a wrenching investigation, and it leads Judd to take a long look at what has happened in his own life since Beth’s disappearance.
Mass illnesses like outbreaks and pandemics are frightening and tense. The deaths of those affected are tragic, and the illnesses cast a pall over a lot of life. The undercurrents, though, can make for a suspenseful background to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Twenty One Pilots’ Level of Concern.