Dead of a Physician (Fiona Sinclair)

  • By Fiona Sinclair
  • First published: UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1961; US: Doubleday, 1961, as But the Patient Died.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Reading about brain surgery and trephining during lunch rather puts one off one’s food, but one doesn’t need a strong stomach to enjoy this tale of murder in a London teaching hospital.

An unpopular administrator dies after an operation for a brain tumour; although tangerine-sized, it turns out to be a benign meningioma. That evening, however, Everard Nicholson is found lying “arched and grinning on the bed. Torn loose from the vein it had been feeding, the ‘drip’ silently and uselessly spilt blood on to his dead body.” (A macabre image.) Intercranial bleeding is the first diagnosis, but the senior registrar suspects strychnine poisoning, and injects the dead man’s blood into a rat, which screams in agony and collapses. Call for the police.

Dead of a Physician was the second of Fiona Sinclair’s five detective stories published in the early 1960s. Martin Edwards, reviewing the first, Scandalize My Name, last year, suggests that they were written in the 1950s, and most published after Sinclair’s early death by suicide in 1961, at the age of 42.

Barzun & Taylor considered Dead of a Physician “one of the best stories of murder in hospital”; more recently, however, Mike Grost thought it “fairly minor”. Like Martin, Sinclair’s book reminded me strongly of early P.D. James:

  • the institutional hospital setting;
  • the emphasis on the often unhappy private lives of the medical staff: a surgeon’s ill daughter and failing marriage, a woman doctor’s impoverished family, etc.;
  • the realistic treatment of death and suffering: for one patient, “There were no realities now but pain and morphia.”

Sinclair handles her large cast with skill; before the murder, we see scenes from the perspective of each suspect, and get to know them as doctors and human beings. All have motive and opportunity. Nicholson, we learn, wrote anonymous letters that scratched the staff’s sore spots until they bled. One was a murderer’s son; another was in an asylum; one is having an affair with the surgeon’s wife; another is worried she will lose her job. Or could the motive be more personal? One doctor recognized Nicholson as someone he knew long ago.

The investigation is competent, although more routine. Superintendent Grainger, an Oxford graduate, questions the suspects about their movements on the night of the murder, and searches Nicholson’s house. The investigation takes something of a dogleg towards the end, as Grainger unearths Nicholson’s past; elderly housekeepers, schoolmasters, and dons lead him along a well-marked trail.

The second murder (15 pages before the end) feels perfunctory. The solution is somehow underwhelming: the murderer is well concealed, although perhaps lacks stage presence. The plot feels thin, and slightly lacks ingenuity; it doesn’t live up to the promise of the beginning. The explanations are rushed, and there doesn’t seem to be a clinching clue to the murderer’s guilt. (The child’s “nightmare” isn’t shared with the reader.)

Still, the excellently drawn hospital setting and characterization make this worth reading if you can find a copy.


1961 Doubleday, as BUT THE PATIENT DIED

When Geoffrey Tremaine arrived at famed St. Justin’s Hospital to confirm his new appointment as surgical registrar he found Everard Nicholson, the senior administrator, crumpled on the floor of his office in a coma. An emergency operation removed a brain tumour and Mr. Nicholson seemed well on his way to recovery when, suddenly and mysteriously, he died.

Tremaine quickly came to know the intimate and mysterious nature of his new hospital and his new colleagues and discovered that there was a horrible fear hanging over them all – a fear that had been set in motion by the late, and very dead, Mr. Nicholson.

Contemporary reviews

Birmingham Daily Post (19 September 1961): The other three books are all straightforward detective stories, all rather ingenuous in plot but all having other qualities which make them interesting. Fiona Sinclair’s Dead of a Physician (only her second book) is a pleasantly told story set in a hospital. The unpopular administrator of the hospital dies in suspicious circumstances after an operation, described in what may strike some readers as unnecessary detail, and this provides the puzzle. The other main interest is provided by the characters of the hospital staff and their relationships.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): One of the best stories of murder in hospital.  The author (wife of a physician) has procedure down pat and keeps her characters clearly distinguished.  Perhaps too many people on the staff have good reasons for killing the senior administrator, but the actual culprit is cleanly spotted.  Supt. Grainger is credible and likeable.

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