For 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.