Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
An exchange from Silver Blaze (1892), an Arthur Conan Doyle short story featuring Sherlock Holmes. The quote was used by Mark Haddon in his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) which features an autistic fifteen-year-old boy who sets out to investigate the murder of a neighbour’s dog. In today’s post, I’d like to examine the use of physical and mental disability in crime fiction. Specifically, I’d like to show you several fictional characters who challenge the traditional, able-bodied, able-minded notion of the detective. I’d like to start with Lincoln Rhyme.
Lincoln Rhyme, was created by Jeffrey Deaver and his first outing is in The Bone Collector (1997). Rhyme was once the head of the NYPD forensics team until an accident at a crime scene crushed a vertebrae and left him as a quadriplegic. The character’s disability doesn’t simply set him apart from other detectives, it establishes a completely new style of criminologist. Rhyme detests his new, physically impaired, condition to the extent he wishes to end his life. His injury has left him with the use of only a single finger. He is confined, either to his bed or his wheelchair and he must rely on a female police officer, Amelie Sachs, to investigate crime scenes. Robbed of his physical capabilities, Rhyme must employ his mind, Sachs. As a character, Rhyme is both fascinating and ground-breaking. Deaver’s character has the same disability as the late Christopher Reeve who suffered his accident around the time Lincoln Rhyme was created. The Superman-made-mortal parallel is stunning. Deaver takes the detective-as-hero notion and replaces it with crip-(Rhyme’s word) as-hero.
Deaver seems to suggest that Rhyme’s disability has completely transformed the character’s pre-impairment personality. This transformation brings the character to life in an extraordinary way. Pre-impairment, Rhyme is a slave to his job. His wife leaves him believing him to be incapable of interaction with real people and real emotions. Following his injury, he is a slave to his disability and is forced to confront the most deeply rooted parts of his own psyche. The character lived for his work. Robbed of a functioning body he wishes to die, yet when his own life is threatened he realises that he wishes this to be on his own terms. The image of a vulnerable cripple in danger is very stark. Rhyme’s counterpoint, Sachs, is both a contrast, in the sense of having model good looks and a perfect body, and a comparison in the sense that her body is in fact riddled with arthritis. Subtle, it is not. Yet nothing about Deaver’s exploration of disability is ever subtle. In A Maiden’s Grave (1995) a bus full of deaf students and teachers is hijacked by armed criminals. Their deafness enhances their vulnerability, widens the gap between villain and victim, and places the disability right at the heart of the story.
Once you start to look, you’ll see that the crime fiction genre is actually flooded with characters with disabilities. In Motherless Brooklyn (1999) by Jonathan Lethem, we meet a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, a theme which is also covered in the outstanding psychological thriller Skull Session (1997) by Daniel Hect. There are examples of series too. Bruce Alexander gives us Sir John Fielding, a blind magistrate and Thomas McCall have created the one-legged Chicago detective Nora Callum. This ongoing exploration of disability, such as in Jeffrey Deaver’s work, gives the books an additional layer of richness.
The Whispering Wall (1969) by Patricia Carlon provides an example of extreme physical disability in the form of Sarah Oatland who is confined to her bed by a stroke. She is paralyzed and incapable of speech and, tragically, she is surrounded by unspeakably cruel people. She can, however, use her eyes and blinks the details of a murder plot she has overheard. Coming right up to date, the latest addition to the Scandinavian noir stable is The Bridge, a television series featuring the character Saga Norén who has Asperger syndrome. Actress Sofia Helin has received praise from the Asperger community for her portrayal of Norén. The character’s disability means that she is strong on police procedure yet struggles to interact socially with others. Take the Asperger’s away and that’s just a well-trodden detective cliché. Put it back in and the character has depth and meaning. It is very powerful.
What is clear from stories that get these issues right, is that disability isn’t a metaphor, it is a reality, and reality always gives us the best stories and the best characters. To illustrate this point, here’s a quote from perhaps the most famous disabled fictional detective, the paraplegic Robert T. Ironside. A sniper’s bullet confined him to a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop him working. Well, at least not in an unofficial capacity.
Why thank you. Straight, please, on the rocks. One of the benefits of my unofficial status is that I can drink during business hours. Always did anyway if I felt like it. But now I have the virtuous feeling that I’m not breaking any rules.