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.