We all have traits that can be seen as disadvantages. Take me, for instance. At just over 1.5m (5ft) tall, there are plenty of things that I can’t easily reach. And it’s not always easy to find clothes that fit me properly. Other people have other things that can put them at a disadvantage.
The trick is, really, to use those disadvantages as advantages. For instance, as small as I am, air travel isn’t quite as difficult for me as it is for taller people. I can fit my things into a much smaller suitcase, and I don’t need as much room to sit. I don’t need as much leg room, either, so my things often don’t have to go into an overhead compartment.
It’s the same way with other traits. And when people turn disadvantages into advantages, they can often be more successful. Just a quick look at crime fiction, for instance, should show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has the disadvantage, as many people see it, of being a foreigner. At the time and place in which he lives, not being English is often considered a strike against him, and people usually end up respecting him not because he’s foreign, but in spite of it. And Poirot uses that very much to his advantage. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, he investigates two deaths. One is of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie, whose death was sudden, but not really unexpected. When Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, people don’t believe her at first. But privately, Abernethie’s other relatives begin to wonder. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. At one point in the story, Poirot attends a weekend gathering of Abernethie family members. The purpose is to choose mementos they want, before the property is sold. Poirot’s there under the guise of a potential buyer, and has accentuated his ‘foreign-ness.’ Because of that, everyone condescends to him, and soon, he’s able to sit and watch, almost forgotten. And that proves to be very useful indeed.
For several fictional female detectives, the fact of being a woman puts them at a disadvantage. But the smart ones have learned to use popular stereotypes and sexist notions to their advantage. For instance, Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange is a private investigator in the early years of the 20th Century. She comes from one of the ‘better’ New York families, so she has access to the higher social circles. But she’s still female at a time when ‘proper ladies’ simply do not engage in something like detection. She uses that, though; in more than one story, she takes the ‘I’m just a woman’ approach to lower people’s guards. She hears more than she might otherwise hear, and gets into places from which she might otherwise be barred.
The same is true of K.B. Owen’s Penelope Hamilton. She’s a Pinkerton’s agent who lives and works at the very end of the 19th Century. And she’s learned to be quite good at using her role as ‘just a woman’ to do what she needs to do. So does Concordia Wells, for whom Hamilton is a mentor. Wells is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College, where she’s supposed to concentrate on her role as a faculty member and supervisor of her pupils. But she often finds herself getting mixed up in mysteries. And she’s learned how to occasionally use her status as a woman to find out what she needs to know.
One of Walter Mosley’s series features Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. A black man, he lives and works in post-WW II Los Angeles, beginning at a time when institutional segregation was a fact of life. And the deep-seated prejudices and bigotry behind that segregation are alive and quite well in Rawlins’ world. On the one hand, that means he is at a real disadvantage. There are places he can’t go, people he’s not ‘supposed to’ speak to, and jobs he can’t hope to get. But he uses his race to advantage in the cases he investigates. He fits in in certain places in a way that a white sleuth wouldn’t. And other blacks trust him in ways that they would never trust a white sleuth. So, Rawlins can solve cases that his white counterparts, and the white police, can’t.
There’s an interesting use of disadvantage in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is eleven years old at the start of the series, which takes place in 1950s England. She may be ‘just a child,’ but Flavia is very skilled at chemistry, and has a knack for detection, too. She knows that no-one really pays very much attention to ‘just a kid.’ Flavia riding her bicycle is just Flavia riding her bicycle, and she’s not considered much of a threat. So, she often finds herself able to go places, observe things, overhear conversations, and so on, that she wouldn’t be able to do if she were an adult. On the one hand, being a child puts Flavia at a disadvantage. She’s smaller, more vulnerable, not as mature, and less well able to get around than adults are. But at the same time, she can go places they can’t, and she has access to private conversations and other clues that they don’t.
Of course, criminals can use disadvantages, too. For instance, in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, we meet real estate agent William Heming. He’s not particularly attractive, or rich, or…. In fact, he has the disadvantage of being very, very ordinary – the sort of person nobody notices. And if you want to sell real estate, being noticed and remembered can be real advantages. But Heming uses his very, very average appearance and personality quite effectively. He’s observant of all of the people to whom he’s sold homes. And he’s kept copies of each house key. He has, shall we say, interests besides selling houses. And, when a body is discovered in the yard of one those houses, he’s as concerned as anyone. If people really remember him, too much might come out that Heming would prefer didn’t. In this case, that disadvantage of, well, ordinariness turns out to be very helpful to Heming.
And that’s the thing about disadvantages. They do restrict us, but they can also be used to good effect. And people who know how to do that can end up quite successful.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sara Bareilles’ Red.