Hazel McHaffie

Ecclesiastes

Angels of death

I have a row of folders beside my desk containing ideas for future novels. Twenty-plus at the last count. (20 more novels? Who am I kidding?) They’re the accumulation of more than ten years’ collecting, started back in the days when I fondly imagined publishers would keep up with manuscripts!

Plots, issues, twists and facts, all find their way into these covers. From newspaper articles and erudite scientific papers to scribbled flashes of inspiration, even cartoons that spark a different train of thought. Some of the folders are actually breaking under the swell of information. But I don’t want to replace the files because their very state tells me something about the urgency of the subject. With a sieve where my brain used to be there’s no chance I would remember all this stuff years on from now when/if I get around to writing that book, so these are my aide-mémoire and my research notes.

One of these said folders contains outlines for a novel about a healthcare professional who goes off the rails. So, of course, my ears pricked at the news this week that something sinister was going on in a hospital in the Manchester area. Patients dying unexpectedly. Low sugar levels being recorded. Tampering with saline suspected. Sabotage by insulin. Police standing guard checking all incomers. Staff under suspicion. Postmortem examinations of other patients underway. A nurse being held for questioning. Then charged.

So many questions flood the brain. What makes a young nurse deliberately contaminate medical supplies and risk the lives of genuine patients? How much knowledge of dosages would she need? How could she cover her tracks? How far could she get without discovery? How much evidence would she leave behind? How would she react to accusation? How would her family and closest associates respond to the revelations and suspicions? How would the law deal with her? How would the victims’ relatives react? What should be her punishment? What are the risks of a copycat crime?

Curiously the issue of trust in the medical fraternity has been in my mind quite a bit recently. I’ve been undergoing a series of examinations and tests myself, and it’s been rather like detecting a crime. I was both witness and victim. My GP was the sleuth listening to the evidence, piecing together a couple of possible scenarios, testing them out, trying to reach a conclusion. Various other professionals were the experts called in to run specific examinations, rule out possible solutions. My relatives were in the gallery responding to the different accusations. And through it all I had to trust the doctors and their allies would all act honourably and ethically and legally.

OK, I guess we all instinctively trust some more than others. But deliberate harm? It doesn’t enter your head, does it? Best confined to the pages of novels. After a decent interval, if I’m still able to marshall a coherent thought or two and get my creaking fingers to hammer on the keys, I might yet return to this embryonic plot. And why not? After all we’ve already had Joseph Mengele and Charles Cullen and Jack Kevorkian and Harold Shipman. And Beverley Allitt and Anne Grigg-Booth and Stephan Letter and Donald Harvey and …

The list is horribly long. And gruesome. And not a little disturbing. So many?

But then, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said,
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Indeed.

No, it would not be unethical to concoct a story of murder and mayhem in a busy hospital. The trick for a novelist is to package the story in an original way that has the reader on the edge of their seat. Now let me see …

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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