He’s In a Quiet Vibration Land*

DeafnessFor many decades now, we’ve continued to better understand deafness, and the needs of those who have it. As a matter of fact, in many countries, there is a distinct Deaf culture, with its own norms for social interaction and its own cultural taboos. Members of that culture don’t see themselves as disabled. Rather, they simply have a different culture and language. Those signed languages vary by country (i.e., for instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is different to Australian Sign Language (Auslan)). But they are all distinct from the spoken languages used in those countries.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that characters with deafness have also made their way into crime fiction. It’s interesting, too, to see how they navigate a largely hearing world. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that one of its main characters, Steve Carella, is married to a woman with deafness. We first meet Theodora ‘Teddy’ Franklin in Cop Hater, long before she marries Carella. As the series goes on, we see that Teddy isn’t portrayed as ‘disadvantaged’ or disabled. She’s a smart, streetwise, thoughtful and loving person who happens not to hear. She and Carella have worked out their own ways of communicating, and both make adjustments. Rather than Teddy being overly dependent on Carella, avid readers can tell you that he depends on her quite a lot.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate a poisoning death. Nicholas Quinn has recently been named to Oxford’s Foreign Exam Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing exams that are given in countries that follow the British system of education. So being named to the group is quite an accomplishment. Quinn is the only Deaf member of the Syndicate, and the decision to select him was by no means unanimous. So there’s some bad feeling and resentment about it. When Quinn is murdered one afternoon, Morse and Lewis start with the people who knew him best. Since Quinn was not married and had no children, that turns out to be the members of the Syndicate. And the detectives soon find that there are several motives among that group. Each member is hiding something – something Quinn could have found out. I can say without spoiling the story that Quinn’s deafness plays a role in the story’s outcome.

Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena has Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigating the death of Elena Weaver. Elena is a student at Cambridge, and a member of the Cambridge University Deaf Students Union. When she is killed during her morning run, Lynley and Havers look into her family and other relationships. As they do so, we learn about some of the differing attitudes towards deafness. One the one hand, there are the members of the Deaf Students Union, whose purpose is to promote Deaf solidarity, and raise awareness of deafness as simply a different culture, rather than a disability. Some members are quite strident about this, too. To these students, there’s a difference between being deaf (i.e. having no hearing) and being Deaf (i.e. a member of a particular culture). On the other hand, there are Elena’s parents, who have worked very hard to help her fit into the hearing world. She speech reads, and is integrated into the larger society. Each side, if you will, resents the other, and that plays its role in her murder.

Clarissa Draper’s Sophia Evans is an MI5 analyst, and a gifted codebreaker. So in The Sholes Key, she turns out to be very helpful when DI Theo Blackwell is faced with a bizarre case of missing single mothers. When one of the missing mothers turns up dead, with a strange code on her body, Evans slowly works out what that code means. In The Electrician’s Code, we learn that Evans has an assistant, Crystal Priestly. Priestly is a former hacker who’s been hired by MI5, and she’s a real asset to Evans. She is also Deaf. Evans has learned British Sign Language (BSL) in order to work with her, and their partnership turns out to be quite productive as Evans helps to investigate the murder of a woman she’d been assigned to monitor.

And then there’s Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay. In that novel, we are introduced to Caleb Zelic, who’s been deaf since childhood. He can speech read, and does have hearing aids, but he also uses Auslan when he can. He and his business partner, former copper Frankie Reynolds, run Trust Works, a security firm. One day, he gets an urgent text from an old friend, Senior Constable Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden. Marsden wants Zelic to go over to his house immediately, and says that someone named Scott is after him. By the time Zelic gets there, though, it’s too late: Marsden’s been brutally murdered. And it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Zelic himself may have had something to do with it. In order to clear his name, Zelic starts asking questions. But someone is extremely determined that he won’t get close to the truth. As Zelic and Reynolds try to find the killer, we see how a person with deafness negotiates the hearing world. We also see how the people in Zelic’s life understand his deafness as simply a part of his identity, and communicate with him without making a fuss.

One of the many interesting things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us society and different cultures. And that includes the cultures of those with deafness. These are just a few such characters; there are plenty of others.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Amazing Journey.


Filed under Clarissa Draper, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Elizabeth George, Emma Viskic

39 responses to “He’s In a Quiet Vibration Land*

  1. This post caught my attention because I have hearing aids, which I got about 3 years ago, but I’m 31. Being younger throws everyone off. Why can’t you hear? What’s wrong with you? Can you really not hear? There’s the one I find the most offensive, and it pisses me off: You can’t hear me?–put your ears in! (or) turn your ears up! As if I LIKE struggling to hear and WANT to be publicly shamed.

    For the Sake of Elena sounds the most interesting to me, so I looked it up on Goodreads. There is ONE mention of her being Deaf in the description! — “…those people who appeared to know her best—from an unsavory Swedish-born Shakespearean professor to the brooding head of the Deaf Students Union.” It sounds like being Deaf is such a tiny part of the story, but as you emphasize, it’s a huge part of Elena’s life! Arg!

    • It really is, GtL! And there’s more about that fact of her identity in the book than there is in the description – promise. That’s one reason I always take book descriptions with at least a dash of salt, unless I happen to know and trust the reviewer.

      I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for you when people make crass remarks like that about your hearing. Some people just have no idea how to simply take your communication preferences into consideration when they interact with you. I’m only a little over 1.5m (5 ft) tall. People think nothing of it if I need help, say, getting something from a high shelf at a store – no stupid remarks. You’d think they’d have the same matter-of-fact acceptance of the way you communicate. But then, please don’t get me started on the thoughtless things people say…

      • The strange thing is that I don’t have any sort of communication preferences, or the like. Most of us can’t hear another person at one time or another due to mumbling, distance, white noise, or the design of a room. So why point out that I can’t hear, as if I’m not trying. I’ll see if I can find that Elena book. My library has many copies of the author’s other books, but I might have to dig around for that one. I see it’s part of a series. Can it be read as a stand alone?

        • You make a good point, GtL. We all run into situations in which we don’t hear what someone is saying. No need at all in making an issue out of it. At any rate, I think you can read For The Sake of Elena as a standalone. It’s the fifth of, I think, 19 books in George’s Inspector Lynley series; still, it’s got its own self-contained mystery, if that makes sense. There are some stories-across-stories where you wouldn’t catch all of the nuances of character development. However, there’s enough explanation that I don’t think you’ll be at a real disadvantage.

  2. Great to see the mention of Resurrection Bay, Margot. This was one of my favourite crime reads of 2015. While the novel does indeed show us how a person with deafness negotiates the hearing world, and how those close to Zelic understand his deafness as simply a part of his identity, for me, the tension was also heightened by Zelic’s deafness, particularly in the denouement, when not being able to hear placed him in added danger. Great stuff!

    • Thanks Angela! Sometimes I feel a bit bad putting him in situations like that. But not enough to stop me doing it in the sequel…

    • I couldn’t agree more, Angela. That certainly added to the tension in the story, and I think it’s handled very well. I can see why you thought that gave the book a ‘power punch.’ I do like the way Zelic’s deafness is discussed in the book, too. It’s there, and we see what it’s like for him to negotiate the hearing world. But at the same time, it’s not overdone. It’s simply something that’s a part of the way he lives.

  3. Thank you so much for including Resurrection Bay in this, Margot! I love your comment that deafness is part of Caleb Zelic’s identity. It’s something I really enjoyed exploring when writing his character.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention Resurrection Bay, Emma. I’ll you did enjoy creating Caleb Zelic’s character and exploring the sort of person he is. I’ll be looking forward to meeting up with him again. 🙂

  4. kathyd

    Another fan of Resurrection Bay here. Can’t wait for the next book in the series to be published — both myself and a friend who devoured this book in record time and looked up the author to find out a series is in the works.
    Another book which deals with deafness is The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton. The character with deafness is a 10-year-old girl. I learned a lot about new technology that can translate other people’s spoken words into text on a computer. Also, I was interested to read about the child’s own preference on how to communicate and why that was so.
    You have to read the book to find out about that. No spoilers here.

    • The Quality of Silence sounds terrific, Kathy, and an excellent example of the way deafness is treated in fiction. It’s interesting, too, to consider the new technology there is for helping hearing people communicate with the deaf and vice versa. And it’s good to know another Caleb Zelic story is in the works..

    • I’m so glad you and your friend enjoyed Resurrection Bay, Kathy. Book two is on the way! It’s called And Fire Came Down and will be out in 2017 🙂

  5. I grew up with two deaf friends (deaf from birth) and so, my mother taught my brother and I to sign at an early age. It’s a beautiful language. What was nice in those day, especially when kids can be so cruel, is that no one viewed them any differently….as it should be. Oddly enough, I haven’t read any books with deaf characters, but I’d like to.

    • I’m glad you’ve had that sort of personal experience, Sue. And it’s good that you learned to sign. I think when children just get the chance to be with each other, they can learn that something like deafness is simply a part of a person’s identity. And as you say, it helps children to see each other as not that different.

  6. When I was young, we used to drink in a pub that was also used as a regular haunt by the Glasgow Deaf Society, and gradually over time the hearing people in the pub, including the staff, picked up a little bit of sign language – enough to let us all communicate with each other to a basic degree. But it wasn’t easy, and I got a glimpse of how isolating deafness can be. It has always surprised me that so little effort is made to teach children at least the basics at school, and many many years later, when I worked in a doctor’s office, I was still surprised that no real effort was made to teach reception staff.

    In terms of fiction, I can’t add to the books you mention, but I wonder if America ever got the fine TV series Messiah, starring Ken Stott, a decade or so ago? Stott’s character’s wife Red was deaf, although in fact she was played (very well) by hearing actress Michelle Forbes. Of course, I think of Stott as Rebus and Forbes as Ro Laren from Star Trek, so the whole thing was a bit discombobulating… 😉

    • It must have been, FictionFan… And I like both actors in those roles. As to Messiah, I don’t think it made its way across the pond. Or at least, I was oblivious to it (not surprising…). It sounds absolutely fascinating, though. I’ll have to see if there are episodes or series around anywhere.

      I’m very glad you got the chance to learn at least a little sign. I don’t know much, myself – just some very basic signs. I’ve a work colleague with deafness, so at least I can communicate just a bit with her. She’s got a sign interpreter for meetings and so on, and I’m always fascinated by the way they use language. You’ve raised a good question, too, about why young people aren’t taught sign in school. As a matter of fact, there’s some research evidence that you can teach toddlers to sign, so that they can indicate their needs even before they have much spoken language. Reports are that it can be really helpful in breaking through that ‘I know what’s wrong but I can’t say it’ frustration that toddlers and their parents face.

  7. kathyd

    What was also interesting in The Quality of Silence is the girl’s explanation of some of her signs, almost poetic.
    Also, as an fyi: Helen Keller was so brilliant and had such talented teachers, that she read political philosophy in German braille (!) and she learned not only to “hear” by letters being drawn in her hand — but she would put her hands on people’s lips to “read” what they were saying. And then she taught herself to talk based on her interpretation of how others were speaking. A brilliant woman.
    Had a friend years ago whose parents both had deafness and muteness. One signed and the other read lips. Somehow they made it through a long marriage, communicating as they could. She invited me to meet them one day and I watched her sign and also speak, but with deep gutteral sounds and exaggerated lip movements to make it easier for her parent to lip read.

    • What a fascinating experience you must have had, Kathy, meeting your friend’s parents. It’s interesting how parents and children learn to communicate when parent(s) or children are deaf. And you’re quite right about Helen Keller; certainly she was a real role model.

  8. mudpuddle

    i’m not deaf. yet. but i am hard of hearing and i have sympathy for all who have communication difficutlies. it’s so frustrating when you can almost understand what someone is saying, but not quite… having access to the web is really a gift for those who are, or are becoming, isolated for one reason or another…

    • It must be extremely frustrating, Tracy. I know I’ve felt that way when I was trying to understand someone and couldn’t. As you say, the Internet is a real boon for those who have difficulty staying connected to the world. It lets them communicate with others in ways they couldn’t otherwise do.

  9. tracybham

    Amazingly, I have read three of your examples (the first three). I did not realize I had read so many books that featured deaf characters. And very interesting comments here.

  10. What an interesting post and a different culture. I know someone whose daughter is deaf, and attends a boarding school and he’s mentioned how close the entire community is and how it differs to his other children’s social life. Glad to see you mention Morse which was the only book that sprang to my mind.

    • How interesting that your friend’s noticed what the community is like at his daughter’s school. It doesn’t surprise me. The Deaf culture in many countries is like that; close-knit and supportive. And it is a different culture to hearing cultures, isn’t it? As to the Dexter, I thin he portrayed Nicholas Quinn effectively.

  11. kathyd

    This discussion brings to my mind that a friend who was a public speaker taught herself sign language so she could sign while speaking and also communicate with people with deafness. And she taught signing to friends’ children, especially one child, now a teacher herself.
    I would see them signing away when they saw each other, a big grin on the youngster’s face as they conversed in sign language. She loved doing it. I hope she remembers it and teaches it to her children.

    • What a great story, Kathy. I’m glad your friend made the effort to learn sign and teach it, too. What’s interesting about language is that, among other things, it’s a window on culture. So when you learn a language, you also learn a culture. So the children your friend taught also learned a lot about another culture.

  12. So glad you have discovered Emma Viskic’s debut – Resurrection Bay – it was a great read.

  13. kathyd

    And about the story with my friends’ child who loved signing, it reminds one once again how easy it is for children to learn languages, including signing and also that learning can be fun. But they absorb it like sponges.

    • As a matter of fact, Kathy, research has shown consistently that young children are excellent learners of language. In fact, in some ways it’s easier for them than it is for adults.

  14. I am sure someone above had mentioned Jack Livinstone’s Joe Binney. Quite fond of that series.

  15. kathyd

    My friend Brenda said this of “Resurrection Bay,” “Emma Viskic’s book is wonderful! I hope she gets lots of praise for it.
    I guess we’ll be hovering over Book Depository next year waiting for book two.

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  17. Col

    Again, nothing to add – McBain waits!

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