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Detective Fiction and Dementia: A Biopsy

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“‘I have never liked fog,’ said Miss Marple.”

——At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie


The history of mysteries and detective fiction includes several instances of authors and characters falling victim to dementia. If the intersection of detective fiction and dementia is so striking, it’s because they’re like a matched set of mirror opposites. This essay looks at four examples.

In the classic sense, a mystery begins with a puzzle or number of unexplained circumstances. Typically, at the outset, someone is killed. The killer and the motive for the murder are unknown, and the circumstances for the crime are shrouded in mystery. As the story unfolds, a detective sorts through clues and unravels the puzzle until a plausible explanation emerges for what happened. This denouement clarifies the initial riddle and lifts the shroud of mystery.

Mysteries also involve a wealth of details, or clues—the time the victim arrived home, the suspect’s height, the sound heard by a neighbor. Those who are charged with solving the mystery must have the mental ability to remember those details and then, crucially, analyze their meaning and connections. “It is the brain, the little gray cells on which one must rely,” Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says. A few years ago, when I interviewed a homicide detective in my city’s police department, he told me that all the members of his team benefited from aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which enable them to notice and keep track of the smallest bits of information.

[T]he onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the opposite of the path of a mystery novel. They are a rewinding of the narrative.

In Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, the brain forms protein deposits, called plaques, and twisted protein fibers, known as tangles. Together, these malformations disrupt communication between the brain’s neurons, resulting in cell death and shrinkage of regions of the brain, particularly those areas related to memory and language. The result is that victims lose the ability to remember names of objects and faces, struggle to concentrate and find the right word, and become confused about time and place.

Thus the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the opposite of the path of a mystery novel. They are a rewinding of the narrative. Sufferers begin with an understanding of the world and a clear picture of their identity and the meaning of life. Over time, this understanding and meaning are removed bit by bit, like clues being obscured, until the sufferers find themselves in a deepening mystery.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, who died at eighty-six in 1976, was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease during her lifetime. However, the issue of her possible disease arose in 2009, when two Canadian researchers, Ian Lancashire and Graeme Hirst, published a study of the language in her novels. Their thesis posited that specific linguistic indicators are signs of cognitive decline characteristic of Alzheimer’s. The researchers digitized fourteen Christie novels written between the ages of 34 and 82 and analyzed the texts with the software tools Concordance and Text Analysis Computing Tools. The analyses looked at vocabulary size and richness as measured by the number of different words used, the number of repeated phrases, and the number of occurrences of vague, indefinite words (“thing,” “anything,” and “something”).

Lancashire and Hirst found that the vocabulary richness of Christie’s text declined with age. The three novels written in the author’s eighties have a smaller vocabulary than any of the novels written between ages 28 and 63. Christie’s novel Elephants Can Remember, written when Christie was 81, exhibits what the authors term “a staggering drop of vocabulary of almost 31%” compared to the novel Destination Unknown written 18 years earlier. Comparing the earlier and later novels, the team found the number of different repeated phrases increased 18% with age, and Christie’s use of vague, indefinite “thing” words also increased by three times. “These language effects,” the researchers noted, “are recognized as symptoms of memory difficulties associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” Lancashire and his team later studied the work of six other novelists, including P.D. James who lived to ninety-four, to demonstrate that the language effects are due to impairments not to natural aging.

Christie’s biographers, such as Janet Morgan, don’t mention Alzheimer’s specifically, which is not surprising given the infrequency of its diagnosis in the 1970s. However, hints were evident. Morgan notes that, while writing Postern of Fate at age eighty-two, Christie “found it harder than ever to concentrate.” Christie’s husband Max said that “writing the book nearly killed her,” and Max and the typist “tidied it up.” The following year, as Christie planned a collection of short stories, Morgan notes, “By now her mind was fuzzy.”

Morgan sums up Christie’s state in her eighties:

Fragile and immensely aged, Agatha became, as the very old sometimes do, more and more like the child she had been, over eighty years before. Sometimes she was serene, sitting quietly at luncheon with friends, gently leafing through one of her books. . . .  At other times she was eccentric, declaring, for instance, that today she would wear all her brooches, from the grandest diamonds to small ornaments children had sent her. . . .  Once, to the horror of her family and friends, she seized the scissors and cut off locks of the fine hair of which she had been so proud. Then she would be calm again, resting in the garden in the sun, asking repeatedly for a sun-hat and bemusedly finding she had it on.

Ross Macdonald

Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald and was the author of eighteen Lew Archer novels, died of Alzheimer’s disease at age sixty-seven in 1983.

In 2015, the language researcher Ian Lancashire who studied Agatha Christie’s novels also examined Millar’s novels. His team digitized sixteen novels written from 1949 to 1976. Analysis found, over those years, a loss of vocabulary of 25% and an increase in repeated phrases of 12%. The researcher noted, “By using many fewer words and increasingly repeating words, [Millar] manifested a loss of memory for language.”

Millar’s biographer, Tom Nolan, traces the author’s decline in his final years. In 1975, while revising his novel Sleeping Beauty, Millar confused the chronology of days, an error that the publisher caught before the book went to press. That same year, when Millar was writing The Blue Hammer, a friend and neighbor said, “Ken spoke of working mightily to bring the parts and pieces of his book together; it just seemed that that task was becoming increasingly difficult.” When reading a manuscript of the novel, another friend said, “I sensed a change, a softening, not only in tone but in diction . . . . I was a bit shocked and startled at what appeared to be lapses such as I’d never seen.”

In 1978, Millar was having trouble signing contracts and was leaving crucial information out of correspondence. In 1980, he asked a friend to answer letters. In that time period, Millar couldn’t read books anymore but still liked to handle them, moving volumes from one shelf to another, rearranging by size and color. In one incident Millar wandered away from home and became lost. A policeman returned him home. When Millar saw his wife, he asked, “What is your name? And would you have a bed tonight where I could sleep?”

Perhaps the most poignant passage in Nolan’s biography is this observation by Millar’s longtime friend, the writer Eudora Welty:

What hurts the most is that Ken knew what was happening to him, I mean he had to face that; ‘cause he had a brilliant mind, and this just slowly came about. It started with not being able to remember things. I had letters from him saying, ‘It scares me, my hands can’t write, what happened? . . . . It was the cruelest thing of course that could happen to anyone, but especially to Ken, I think. Just the very cruelest that could have come over him.

Kurt Wallander

In The Troubled Man, Henning Mankell’s final Kurt Wallander novel published in the United States in 2011, the detective succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease.

In all his Wallander novels, Mankell takes pains to show Wallander working out what is known and still to be investigated. In this novel, Wallander investigates a decades-old political controversy, which relies on memory to find the truth.

Early in the novel, Wallander forgets his gun at a restaurant. “The feeling that something wasn’t as it should be had started nagging at him again. A shadow had descended over his existence. . . . It was as if somebody else had been acting in his stead and then had switched off his memory.”

Later he absent-mindedly leaves his stove on when he goes out walking. Firemen arrive to save his house, but he tells his daughter, “Sometimes whole chunks of time just disappear. Like ice melting away.” Then he confesses, “I suddenly had no idea why I was there. It was like being in a brightly lit room when somebody turns off the light, without warning. I don’t know how long I was in pitch darkness. It was as if I didn’t even know who I was anymore.”

At the novel’s end, Wallander’s granddaughter runs toward him:

Wallander suddenly felt terrified. His memory had deserted him again. He didn’t know who the girl running toward him was. He knew he’d seen her before, but what her name was or what she was doing in his house he had no idea.

It was as if everything had fallen silent. As if all colors had faded away, and all he was left with was black and white.

Following this scene, the narrator ends the novel this way:

The shadow grew more intense. And Kurt Wallander slowly descended into a darkness that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease. 

After that there is nothing more. The story of Kurt Wallander is finished, once and for all. The years—ten, perhaps more—he has left to live are his own. His and Linda’s, his and Klara’s; nobody else’s.

Just One More Thing

The actor Peter Falk played the detective Columbo in the popular television series of the 1970s. Columbo, whose catchphrase was “Just one more thing,” commonly solved crimes by painstakingly interviewing suspects and then analyzing the details of their testimony to spot inconsistencies. Falk was diagnosed with dementia with 2007 and died four years later at age eighty-three. In 2009, during a court trial over his care, his physician testified that Falk’s condition had deteriorated so badly that he no longer remembered playing a character named Columbo and could not identify Columbo.


I come to this subject from both sides of the intersection. For decades I’ve been a student of mysteries and crime novels, learning how they’re put together, what makes them work. Recently I’ve written my own novels and have discovered more about the way stories and characters are made.

On the other side, I saw firsthand the destruction of dementia. My father, a skilled machinist, developed the disease in the 1980s. After a few years he was no longer able to master simple tasks like tying his shoes, could not recognize members of his immediate family, and did not know himself.

That latter loss may be where the intersection in this essay finally meets—in memory and identity. Mysteries are about a detective sifting through memories to find the identity of the guilty party. The genre is known, after all, as a whodunit. All four examples above—Christie, Macdonald, Wallender, and Columbo—follow detectives as they expose a killer’s identity. The authors above were expert at building characters from the subtle details of a psychological identity. Macdonald’s mysteries, in particular, are often dense family histories, where Lew Archer searches for hidden identities on a family tree. The cruelty that Eudora Welty recognized is the special tragedy of someone like Ken Millar/Ross Macdonald, someone so attuned to identity, losing his own.

We spend our lives, in one way or another, trying to make sense of the world. We read mysteries for many reasons, but surely one motivation is the pleasure of proceeding from that first murky picture to the clarity of the resolution, or to use another metaphor, to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The unsettling fact of the intersection of mysteries and dementia is the reversal of that path and the backward descent in the life of a person, darkening the view and scattering the pieces.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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