As part of #ScotLitFest, Lesley Kelly, author of A Fine House in Trinity and The Health of Strangers looks as where bureaucracy and crime novels meet…
I’ve always envied crime writers who had a relevant career to draw on – a job in the probation service, a forensic science background, years spent as a grave-digger…
As the daughter of a police officer, I know the wealth of anecdotes working in and around criminal justice provides you with. Not that I would use any of my late father’s stories, which tended to be fairly scurrilous and probably not entirely true, but I must admit a bout of jealousy at Dad’s insider viewpoint.
So when I was planning my second novel, The Health of Strangers, I thought long and hard about what my work environment might provide in the way of inspiration. And it hit me. What I know inside out is – bureaucracy. I’ve survived local government triplicate memos, insurance company paper-shuffling, and the baffling hierarchies in higher education. When it comes to institutions, I know my stuff.
In my current job in the voluntary sector I work with representatives of the local authority, Police Scotland, and NHS Lothian in a process called community planning. We work together on a range of issues, some biggies like employment and responding to terrorist threats, some more day-to-day, like how to tackle dog mess. And of course, we work together every year on a coordinated response to seasonal flu.
Usually influenza is nothing more serious than a couple of days in bed, with extra precautions taken for the very old and the very young. But every so often a strain comes along that is just a bit more deadly.
In 1918, Spanish flu killed between three to five percent of the world’s population. A particularly nasty quirk of the virus was that it over-stimulated victims’ immune systems, making the young and healthy much more likely to die as a result of catching it.
If we had a similar outbreak today there would be obvious implications for the NHS. Less obvious would be the impact it would have on the Police. With a large percentage of the population feeling very vulnerable, new crimes would spring up. We’d try quack cures. We’d take drugs to block it all out. We’d indulge in all kinds of risky behaviour. And the government would respond to this by setting up a new bureaucracy. Now we’re back on my home turf.
In The Health of Strangers, the new bureaucratic response is to establish a monthly regime of Virus prevention health checks, and to establish Health Enforcement Teams (HETs) made up of former NHS and Police staff to make sure people turn up to them.
But the Police and the NHS have very different cultures, and in the North Edinburgh HET Mona (ex-cop), and Bernard (ex-health promotion) struggle to find much common ground – until a difficult case brings them together.
When two vulnerable students miss their Health Check, Mona, Bernard, and their colleagues have to tackle cults, late night raves and the mysterious involvement of overseas governments, to reach the girls before anyone else does, risking their own lives in the process.
Don’t get sick. And don’t, repeat, don’t, forget to file the paperwork.