Fully Accessible

One of the welcome developments in our society has been our increasing open-ness to meeting the needs of those with physical disabilities. Laws and policy now mandate accessibility to public buildings for those with disabilities and forbid discrimination against them. If you look at modern technology, there are all sorts of adaptations now available for people who need them. For example, there are cars with special kinds of controls and TTY technology has made telephoning possible for those with deafness. Little wonder that as our society continues to become more inclusive, so would crime fiction. It is, after all, a mirror of society. There are of course challenges to writing this kind of character. People with physical challenges are no different in most ways to anyone else, so if too much attention is paid to a character’s use of, say, a wheelchair or a prosthetic device, it can come off as self-conscious and pull the reader out of a story. On the other hand, if a character, say, has only one arm and no mention is made of it, that can feel unrealistic. It can also be a challenge to write the personality of a person with a disability. Again, people who have physical challenges have strengths, weaknesses and so on just like the rest of us. So concentrating overly on the use of a guide dog or the need for a wheelchair makes the character too one-dimensional. That said though, people with physical disabilities are affected by them. Not including that aspect of a character’s life in her or his personality isn’t realistic. And realistic characters are, after all, one of the keys to high-quality crime fiction. It’s tricky to write such a character but when it’s done well, it adds to the diversity of the genre and that is a good thing, at least in my opinion.

One of the “breakthrough” fictional sleuths with a disability was Dennis Lynds’ Dan Fortune, whose stories Lynds wrote as Michael Collins. Fortune started out as a New York “street kid,” but lost his arm in an accident when he was looting a ship that had docked in New York’s harbour. After that he decided to “go straight,” served in the Merchant Marines for a while and then became a private detective. Fortune himself has gotten accustomed to not having an arm and he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. But at the same time, he doesn’t deny his situation either. For example, in the 1972 short story Who?, Fortune gets a visit from Mrs. Patrick Conners, whose son Boyd had just died unexpectedly of what looks like a heart attack. Boyd Conners was in good health and he was a teenager, so his mother thinks that something more is going on. Here’s Fortune’s reaction:


“That was when my missing arm began to tingle. It does that when I sense something wrong.”


Fortune’s client makes no mention of his disability at all and neither does anyone else. As Fortune starts asking questions, he retraces Boyd Conners’ movements in the last hours of his life and that’s how he discovers that Boyd was killed by accident. He was unintentionally murdered with a weapon meant for someone else.

Dick Francis’ former jockey Sid Halley suffered a severe injury to his left hand during a riding accident and in Odds Against, he loses his left hand entirely. In that novel, Halley’s former father-in-law Charles Roland is concerned because he believes that Howard Kraye, a shady businessman, is trying to take over his racetrack. Halley, whose accident has ended his racing career, is now working for private detective agency Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Halley agrees to look into the matter and gradually uncovers what Kayes’ plans are and how he plans to put them into action. In the novels that follow this one, we see the very slow gradual process of Halley coming to terms with the fact that he now has a prosthetic left hand. He’s much less comfortable and accepting of it than Dan Fortune is of his disability. But in Halley’s character we see the anxiety, the insecurity and the fear that you could well imagine a talented athlete would have on being faced with the end of a career and having to deal with a physical disability. Halley’s is a believable and honest reaction to his life situation.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhymes had a successful career as the head of the NYPD’s elite Criminal Investigation and Resource Division. Then, in a scene-of-crime accident, a beam fell on him and crushed his spine so that he’s been left a quadriplegic with the use of only one finger. Rhymes has had to go through more than just physical therapy to return to any kind of life. He’s bitter about what happened and he actually discourages people – especially people he knew before the accident – from visiting him. And yet, he is a gifted forensic specialist. So when we meet him for the first time in The Bone Collector, he’s drawn into the case of a mysterious taxi-driving killer. And in The Broken Window he’s persuaded by his cousin to look into a rape and murder of which his cousin’s husband is accused. In many of the stories featuring him, we see the discomfort felt by many who aren’t accustomed to those with physical disabilities. There’s awkwardness, there are long pauses, there’s refusal to make eye contact and so on. On the one hand, the awkwardness gets (and this is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) a bit laboured. On the other, that process – the bitterness, the awkwardness, the slow acceptance – is normal. It’s real and authentic.

In Anne Holt’s 1222, former police detective Hanne Wilhelmsen is among 269 passengers riding on a train from Oslo to Bergen one cold February day. When the train is involved in an accident, only the conductor is killed. So Wilhelmsen and the rest of the passengers are taken to a local hotel while plans are made to get them where they need to go. Wilhelmsen has retired because of an on-the-job shooting incident that left her permanently confined to a wheelchair. But she is persuaded to come out of retirement, if you want to call it that, when one by one, the passengers begin to die. She has no interest in getting involved in the case, but instead of leaving her alone, which is what she wanted, people keep interacting with her to be sure she’s all right and to discuss the deaths:


“I was beginning to wonder if I had “police officer” stamped all over me. The only thing that distinguishes me from everybody else is the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. And that I might be slightly more dismissive than most people. Both these elements tend to lead to the same result: people keep away from me….people kept coming up to me, asking questions, poking about. It was as if my stationary sojourn in a room where everyone else was simply coming and going made me so different that I had been accorded the status of an oracle…”


Against her will, Wilhelmsen looks into the case and discovers the truth about the deaths.

In Gail Bowen’s The Last Good Day, Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn accepts an invitation from her friend Kevin Hynde to spend some time at his summer cottage on Lawyers’ Bay, an hour from Kilbourn’s home in Regina. The cottages at Lawyers’ Bay are owned by a major firm Falconer Shreve, and it’s an exclusive community, so getting an invitation to visit isn’t an everyday occurrence. Kilbourn, her son Angus and his girlfriend, and her daughter Taylor travel to Lawyers’ Bay and for a short time, they enjoy their visit. Then one night, Chris Altieri, one of the firm’s partners, has more than he should have to drink and bares his soul to Kilbourn. The next day he’s found dead when his MGB is discovered in the bay. Because Kilbourn was the last to have a long conversation with the victim, she gets drawn into the investigation and in any case, she wonders whether Altieri’s death was really a suicide. So she starts to ask questions. That’s how she meets Zack Shreve, the senior partner of Falconer Shreve. Shreve’s a paraplegic who’s been in a wheelchair since childhood. He’s a gifted attorney with a stellar reputation and although he’s got a somewhat high-handed manner at times, he is also compassionate and loving. Little wonder Kilbourn falls in love with him. The two begin a relationship and we can see how as their relationship develops, Shreve’s disability factors into who he is as a person but does not define him.

And that seems to be the key to creating a well-drawn character with a disability. When that disability is part of the richness and multiple dimensions of a character without defining that person, it can make for an interesting perspective and a well-drawn character.


Filed under Anne Holt, Dennis Lynds, Dick Francis, Gail Bowen, Jeffery Deaver, Michael Collins

16 responses to “Fully Accessible

  1. Excellent post. For some reason I am reminded of the classic film Wait Until Dark, with Audrey Hepburn, though she wasn’t a sleuth in it. Then there is Nigel McCrery, with his DCI Mark Lapslie has a variant of synaesthesia, if that counts (it certainly limits his personal life as he is unable to live with his wife and children). But I can’t think of any better examples than the ones you’ve already identified, Margot – well done! (Dr Strangelove?!!!)

    • Maxine – Why, thank you 🙂 – that’s awfully kind of you. And I loved Wait Until Dark (and Dr. Strangelove) so I’m glad you mentioned them. Both films I think do a good job of portraying a disability without being self-conscious about it or glossing over. Not an easy balance. And thanks for bringing up McCrery’s Lapslie. I’ve actually just “met” him, so I don’t feel qualified to talk intelligently about the series, but it is an excellent example of exactly the point I was trying to make. There are ways to write characters who have disabilities without either being melodramatic and maudlin or ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

  2. You’ve given some excellent examples Margot…hard for me to think of others. I suppose we could include the WWI shell-shock sufferers such as Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge or Rennie Airth’s John Madden. These are characters who largely have to deal with their disabilities in secret as it is little-understood at the time.

    Although he’s not the main sleuth I do like the character of Geung in the Dr Siri books – his Downs Syndrome sees him treated badly by some but Dr Siri recognises his strengths and puts them to good use in finding clues and culprits – the character is a real treat in that series.

    When I think of disability being depicted well in crime fiction I tend to think of TV – Raymond Burr in Ironside or Tony Shaloub as Adrian Monk in Monk (more of a mental disability in his case I suppose but his OCD and anxieties do manifest in physical form too). In both cases the disabilities are discussed and, at times, impact the character’s behaviour or actions but, in the end, things get done and cases get solved. It’s quite fascinating to me that in both instances the characters with disabilities have to work as special consultants to the Police even though they are both clearly superior in intellect…it’s a pity that even relatively recently (in the case of Monk) it was seen as implausible that someone exhibiting a disability couldn’t possibly work for the mainstream police department.

    • Bernadette – Thanks 🙂 I’m glad too that you mentioned Rutledge and Madden. Both of them suffer from what we know now as PTSD. It’s a very real disability but of course as you say, back then people simply didn’t ever discuss it. Ever. So yes, they have to keep their disability secret.
      I like the character of Geung too. What I like about the way Cotterill paints him is that he is often the one who really knows what he’s doing in the examination room despite what the world outside thinks. Cotterill depicts him as having strengths and weaknesses and that makes him as you say a real treat as a character. He’s painted realistically too in my opinion.
      You know, when I thought of what I would write in this post I didn’t think about TV characters, but you are so right about both the Ironside character and the Monk character. They both have particular strengths despite the fact that one’s in a wheelchair and the other has a mental disability that as you say affects his behaviour as well. You make a profound remark too that although Monk was written in the early 21st Century it’s still not seen as feasible that a character with a disability would be a cop. That’s one to ponder…

  3. It’s interesting how many character’s disabilities come about through the course of their work, sg Rebekka Martinson’s mental health problems. However. in the recent Danish TV series broadcast on BBC4 the central character seemed to have a form of autism/aspergers which made her a very appealing character, and became essential to the climax of the plot. I though it was well done.

    • Saraha – You make a well-taken point. There are so many characters who’ve been physically or mentally wounded in the course of their jobs and I hadn’t thought about that before. That’s a really interesting point! And about that series? I hope it finds its way here at some point; I’d love to see The Bridge– I heard it was quite well done.

  4. kathy d.

    And Sarah Linden, star of The Killing, has emotional problems, but is still a cop, despite her history. Is this realistic about police forces? Don’t know.
    And, of course, one of our favorite characters is the computer genius Lizbeth Salander, who suffers from some type of disability. Some have called it Asperger’s, even highlighting her computer genius as an aspect of this. . Others,myself included, thought that she was horribly emotionally scarred from the several years of horrendous abuse, and that impacted her profoundly and permanently — although it doesn’t explain her brilliance in computer hacking, but she may just be a genius.
    I like the example of Hanne Wilhelmsen. She was quite brilliant in 1222, although a bit curmudgeonly. I can’t wait for more translations of Anne Holt’s series featuring her character.

    • Kathy – There are several characters, including the two you named, who have mental and emotional problems.And it’s interesting about Salander; Certainly her history of abuse would be enough to send anyone round the proverbial bend, so if that’s the reason for her mental health situation it’s understandable. But I’ve read too that she has Asperger’s and althought I’m not in the least qualified to determine it, I think she does. You raise an interesting question though. And I’m with you; I look forward to the next Hanne Wilhelmsen story.

  5. Although most deaf people don’t consider themselves as having a disability, there are a lot of accessible devices to make their lives easier. I love that one of my characters is deaf. I grew up among many deaf people and although I don’t use British Sign Language (like my character does in my books), I am fluent in ASL. In the second book of the series, my deaf character appears more and is one of the most brilliant characters in my books.

    • Clarissa – I’m glad that you mention the Deaf culture. You are quite right that it’s more a matter of being a member of a different culture than it is having a disability. And I love it that you’ve integrated that culture into your writing too. It adds real richness to your work. I didn’t know you were fluent in ASL – I think it’s great that you’re bilingual. And I look forward to your second book! 🙂

  6. Skywatcher

    What about Max Carrados? Ernest Bramah was writing stories about the blind sleuth as far back as 1914, and although they are less well known today, they were enormously popular at the time. Carrados was able to use his other senses to make up for the loss of his sight, and part of the fun is reading how he has used these other faculties. In the TV series THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, there is an adaption of the story THE MISSING WITNESS SENSATION. Robert Stephens as the sleuth has a wonderful scene where he explains to his kidnappers that he knows exactly where he is being held, thanks to various auditory clues and his knowledge of London.

    Come to think of it, what about the real-life John Fielding? In the 18th century he helped create the first professional police force and the first criminal records department, as well as being able to recognise 3,000 criminals by their voices alone. Not bad for someone who had been blind since 19 years of age!

    • Skywatcher – Oh, those are most definitely terrific examples of sleuths both fictional and real-life who have physical disabilities. I’d totally forgotten about Carrados so I’m glad you reminded me of him. And yes indeed, Fielding is a terrific real-life example of exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. Thanks

  7. Margot: I sometimes wonder in crime fiction where the people with physical disabilities disappear to in the fictional world. Mental problems abound but physical challenges are infrequent. Zack Shreeve is one of the few major characters given an active role in a continuing series.

    • Bill – You raise a very interesting question actually – one I’ve wondered about myself. One possible explanation is that there are physical requirements for doing a cop’s job. That doesn’t suffice though since of course lots of fictional sleuths are private investigators or amateur sleuths where there are no such requirements. It’s a question worth pondering and one to which I don’t have an evidence-based answer beyond society’s slowness to integrate those with disabilities in our conception of what “counts” as “normal.”

  8. Maybe someone mentioned this but Jack Livingstone created a memorable detective who was deaf. Loved his books back in the eighties.

    • Patti – Thank you for mentioning Jack Livingston’s Joe Binney. – no-one else had yet so I’m glad you did. Right you are that he has deafness. For him, that deafness doesn’t get in the way of his solving crimes and he’s an interesting character.

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