Had I Known How to Save a Life*

Today’s medical advances have saved millions of lives, and I’d guess that the vast majority of us are glad for things like antibiotics, modern surgery when it’s needed, and so on. But a lot of people also swear by traditional approaches to health and healing. In fact, there are plenty of people who visit their GPs or surgeons and visit traditional healers, too. The two ways of thinking about wellness and illness don’t have to be in conflict. It’s interesting to see how these different views of medicine play out in communities where both are commonly used. It’s there in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too.

For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He’s also a police officer in the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) police. In one plot thread of Skinwalkers, Chee gets involved with a case of multiple murders (and a murderer who targets him). Part of the trail leads to the Badwater Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. The clinic uses traditional Navajo healing, but also offers Western medicine. It’s an attempt to balance the modern world with the way many Navajos think of health and illness. It becomes a hub of controversy, though, as the murders occur. Hillerman fans will know that traditional healing is woven into other novels, too, such as The Ghostway. In this series, different ways of thinking about medicine seem to co-exist most of the time.

They do in the world of S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, too. She’s a PI based in New York’s Chinatown. She speaks both Mandarin and English, and goes between the two cultures to do her job. Her mother is somewhat traditional, and uses herbs and medicines from the local Chinese apothecary. Lydia is less ‘sold’ on the value of traditional medicine, but she’s benefited from it more than once, so she also doesn’t make light of it. Since many of the world’s Chinatowns, including the one in New York, are parts of larger cities, they’re often crossroads between traditional healing and modern medicine. They co-exist, so many people who live in those places take advantage of both.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s protagonists is Melbourne-based baker Corinna Chapman. She lives above her bakery, and has gotten to know the other residents of the building. One of them is Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name of Meroe. Meroe is Wiccan, and keeps a shop that sells herbs, crystals, and other elements of traditional Wiccan healing and wellness. She is not averse at all to Western medicine where it’s needed. However, she’s also very knowledgeable about ancient healing methods that are effective, and those are the ones she turns to when she can. She’s the building’s healer, and as such, plays an important role in that small community.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods introduces Accra-based Detective Inspector (DI) Darko Dawson. In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that Darko’s son, Hosiah, has a heart condition. He needs medical support, and Darko himself is a believer in modern Western medicine. In fact, he’s saving money for the heart operation that Hosiah needs. However, his mother-in-law is very traditional, and believes that Hosiah needs a healer. Matters come to a head when Darko is called away to solve a murder in one of the villages – the same village where his aunt and uncle live. While he’s visiting them and investigating the crime, his mother-in-law takes Hosiah to a healer. When the boy is injured, she rushes him to a hospital where he gets stitches. Needless to say, Darko is truly upset when he finds out what’s happened, and in his relationship with his mother-in-law, and the discussions about Hosiah’s health, we can see how more than one approach to healing is sometimes brought to bear on an illness.

And then there’s Lauren Roche’s Mila and the Bone Man. Mila lives with her mother, stepfather, and siblings on New Zealand’s North Island. From an early age, Mila has shown the instincts of a healer, and her Aunty Cath is teaching her the skills she needs. Everything changes when Mila’s younger sister Anahera tragically dies. The whole family suffers deeply, but everyone tries to pull together as best as possible. A few years later, another tragedy strikes – one with lasting consequences. Mila ends up leaving home at the age of fifteen and heading into Auckland. She gets a job at a hospital, and it’s not long before she becomes interested in nursing and other elements of Western approaches to health and healing. And it begins to occur to her that she can learn both kinds of healing and do more good that way. She tries to balance her own background in healing with the new medical techniques and approaches she’s learning. Then, shea’s called back home unexpectedly. When she returns to her home, she learns some truths about the tragedies in her past, and she begins the process of healing and of learning how to put her skills to work.

Modern medicine and traditional approaches to healing both offer ways to go about getting healthy and staying that way. While many people choose one or the other, they can arguably co-exist, and perhaps be two parts of the larger picture of medicine. At least, they can in crime fiction.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Fray’s How to Save a Life.