There’s a Little Yellow Pill*
Whether you’re used to shopping at a small, local pharmacy or one of the large chains (both have their advantages), it’s handy to have a pharmacy nearby. Especially in the last year or so, pharmacists and their teams have played important roles in things like Covid testing, vaccines, and more. And some now employ nurse-practitioners and others who can diagnose and prescribe medication for things like ear infections, strep throat, and other illnesses. Today’s pharmacists have to go through years of preparation, too, to get their licenses, and they need to show they are keeping updated in order to keep those licenses.
It’s just as well, too, that pharmacists go through a demanding program before they get their licenses; their work is challenging and sometimes has very high stakes. When you pick up your prescription, you deserve, expect, and depend on it being correctly made up. With all that’s at stake in the pharmacy business, it’s not surprising that pharmacists play roles in crime fiction, too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates the death of wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie. According to his will, his fortune is to be equally divided among his nephew, his two nieces, his sister, his brother, and his sister-in-law. If Abernethie’s death was murder, any one of those people might have a very good motive for murder. One of the ‘people of interest’ in the case is Gregory Banks, who is married to Abernethie’s niece, Susan. Banks is a pharmacist’s assistant who left his last job under a cloud; there was talk that he had deliberately sabotaged a prescription. And even if the event in question was an accident, that still doesn’t speak well for him. It’s quite possible that, if Abernethie found out about this (especially if it was true), Banks might have a very good reason to want Abernethie dead. It doesn’t help his case that he is devoted to his wife and determined she should have her inheritance.
Judson Philips, who wrote under the name Hugh Pentecost (among others) created a series featuring former attorney George Crowder. A former country prosecutor, he now lives as more or less a recluse in the small New England town of Lakeview. Crowder’s sister, Esther, is married to the town pharmacist Hector Trimble, so whether Crowder likes it or not, Trimble is his brother-in-law. He doesn’t like it. Trimble is a skilled and respected pharmacist, with a modern store and a very good reputation. But he has a disagreeable personality, and nothing but contempt for Crowder, whom he sees as ‘shiftless.’ It’s an interesting contrast in personality, and the stories give a feel for the role of the small-town pharmacist at that time.
Kerry Greenwood’s 1920’s-era Phryne Fisher series begins with Cocaine Blues. In it. Phryne returns from London, where she’s been living, to her native Melbourne. Friends of hers are concerned about their daughter, who they fear is in danger from her husband. Phryne begins to ask some questions, and soon discovers a web of international smuggling, drugs trade, and more. One key to it all turns out to be a local pharmacy, so Phryne goes there dressed as a working-class woman of what used to be called ‘easy virtue.’ She watches the pharmacist for a while, and she learns that he and his staff dispense certain pink pills to those who ask for them. Then, she makes a purchase herself, and confirms that some sort of illicit drugs trade is going on at the pharmacy, and that the pharmacist is mixed up in it.
One plot line in Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children concerns an illegal collusion between a local hospital and three pharmacies. Sometimes, pharmacists receive small courtesy fees when they schedule patients for appointments with specialists. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello finds that the three pharmacists in question have been scheduling ‘phantom’ patients for appointments, so they’ll get higher payments. He and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into this activity when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that puts everything in a different perspective, and changes everything about the case.
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth. In one plot line of that novel, Bosch, who’s now working with the San Fernando Police, is called to La Farmacia Familia. Two pharmacists, father and son, both named José Esquivel, have been murdered. Bosch starts on the investigation, and before long, he discovers that the pharmacy may be part of a larger drugs operation. The case takes a dangerous turn when Bosch goes undercover as a drug addict to try to find out the truth.
Pharmacists really do play important roles in medicine and public health. And pharmacies are critical parts of communities. So it makes sense that they’d figure in crime fiction, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.