Hazel McHaffie

Stephan Letter

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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