Saturday, September 19, 2009

When Disability Surpasses Mystery - Robert P. Bennett

Prior to a few years ago I never paid much attention to the physical condition of characters created in mystery fiction. I didn’t notice whether they had any disability. The story was important, not the individual character descriptions. Once I started paying attention I noticed that characters with disability are almost never the protagonists. I wondered why. What are the elements of a good mystery novel? Can characters with disabilities become heroes? How?

Mystery Fiction has to be mobile. The story has to be able to move from point A to point B in a logical way. But the characters don’t have to be able to physically walk that line.

Lincoln Rhyme, the creation of mystery writer Jeffery Deaver - - is a prime example. Deaver started this series with The Bone Collector. He writes heart-pounding stories that move at a quick-step pace. Despite being a quadriplegic, unable to move more than his head and a single finger, Rhyme is one of the most animated characters I’ve met. His thoughts, rather than his actions, chase the antagonist, drive the story and challenge the reader.

Mystery Fiction also has to have vision. The stories have to be visceral and illustrative. But the lead character doesn’t have to be able to see.

In Kelsy George’s novel, Blind Justice - - Norrie Benedict is a blind detective with unparalleled vision. She sees more than most able-bodied people do. She pays attention to details most of us ignore. It is because of that unswerving attention to the things she hears, smells and feels that she can ‘read’ a crime scene, telling the police how a murder went down and giving descriptions of both perpetrator and victim.

Mystery Fiction has to have a sense of place and time. Lead characters have to know where they are and how they got there. They have to be able to derive experience from the past in order to create a sense of the present. But sometimes a character needs a device to help him navigate his world.

In my own novel, Blind Traveler Down a Dark River - - Douglas Abledan is a blind man who is trying to have a normal life after losing his sight to a drive-by shooter’s bullet. He works as a computer hardware specialist. He socializes. He enjoys the occasional night on the town. But, when he witnesses a murder, by way of the GPS navigation device that helps him have a sense of the world around him, he is confronted by the prejudices and dismissive attitudes of those he meets. Though he does not wish to be so, he becomes a hero by solving a crime that no one else wants to deal with.
Finally, mystery fiction has to be heard by the reader. It has to be full of dialogue and the sounds that fill the real world. But the character who leads the story, the one created to solve the crime, does not have to be able to hear that world.

Hialeah Jackson’s novel, Alligator’s Farewell - - is set in the Florida Everglades. Readers are immersed in a tropical world filled with sounds that would tickle the eardrums of most people. But not teacher-turned-private investigator Annabelle Hardy, who is deaf. The crime, a scientist found dead at a nuclear plant, challenges Jackson to present clues that are more visual and tactile than they are auditory. Our heroine uses a sidekick when interviews of witnesses and suspects are needed.

The physical challenges faced by disabled protagonists in this genre are not limited to paralysis, blindness or deafness. Authors have given their characters as wide a range of disabilities as exist in the real world. A partial listing of where these characters appear has been assembled by Martin Kich, professor of English at Wright State University -

Are there authors that you enjoy? Your fellow readers and I would like to know about them. Please email me at

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the other two, but I love the Lincoln Rhyme series. Jeffrey Deaver is a terrific writer.