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‘The Wounded Surgeon Plies The Steel…’

Disabled detectives in fiction

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Detectives, at least of the fictional variety, are damaged individuals, often as not. They deal with their own fears and weaknesses by confronting the graver sins of others and, where possible, trying to mitigate their consequences. To say that all detectives are avengers is simplistic, however. Many are bent on revenge. Worryingly frequent in crime fiction are those protagonists who, faced with the slaughter of spouse or partner, seek to discover and destroy the perpetrator. While this conveniently removes the necessity for too many domestic scenes – which, according to taste, either slow down the action or charmingly develop the backstory of the more uxorious detectives (Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti being a notorious example) – it seems to me an unnecessarily crude way of providing the hero with a reason to fight wrongdoing.

The most famous detective of all needed no such excuse. For him, the thrill of the chase was enough — that, and the satisfaction of discovering the truth through the exercise of his intellectual powers. The personal didn’t enter into it. ‘All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.’ The emotion referred to is, of course, romantic love, and Sherlock Holmes’s attitude to it is only one of the character traits which, to a modern reader at least, might suggest someone with autistic tendencies. Holmes, for all his brilliance, is an oddity: emotionally detached; different. As such, he’s the first in a very long line of detectives who are damaged, either by psychological dysfunction or physical injury.

To the former category belong such walking wounded as Ian Rankin’s borderline alcoholic, John Rebus, who drinks not only to forget a broken marriage and a string of failed relationships but all the people, dead and alive, he feels he has let down during his years as a police detective. Then there’s Henning Mankell’s famously dour Kurt Wallander, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole… The list of detectives with an unhealthy relationship to drink goes on — the archetype being that alcoholic sleuth, Philip Marlowe. In The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s celebrated creation says ‘I’m dirty. I need a shave. My hands are shaking. I’m sweating. I smell foul to myself. The shirt under my arms is wet and on the chest and back. The glass on the table is empty.’

Traumatised by the horrors they have seen, these men – and they are mainly men – are only just holding it together. Strange, then, that they so often achieve what their more emotionally balanced colleagues do not: the solving of a difficult case, and the restoration of order that follows it. Or perhaps not so strange. Because tracking down the perpetrator of some appalling crime is not merely an elegant exercise in problem-solving but may force an encounter with the very worst in human nature. More than this, it may involve the detective in confronting the worst in himself. It is hardly surprising that he turns to drink, or ends up smelling ‘foul’ to himself. His vulnerability only goes to prove his essential humanity. Which perhaps goes some way to explain the popularity of ‘disabled detectives’ in crime fiction.

For me, the first – and still one of the most iconic – was the wheelchair-using Robert Ironside, from the 1967 television series. A striking aspect of the show was that it focused on Ironside’s ability to solve a case using sheer brain power. Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series, about a quadriplegic detective, and Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, in which the detective using the wheelchair – unusually – is a woman, offer very different takes on a similar theme. More recent still is the Cormoran Strike series by J. K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith), the protagonist of which is a one-legged veteran of the Afghan war turned private investigator.

What these characters have in common is their own sense of being outside society. ‘The chair makes me different’, says Hanne Wilhelmsen in 1222. ‘It defines me as something completely different from all the rest, and it is not uncommon for people to assume that I am stupid. Or deaf. People talk over my head, quite literally.’ But physical disability, it soon becomes clear, is no handicap when it comes to fighting crime. The detective makes up for his or her supposed ‘weakness’ by a compensatory strength of intellect and a willingness to use intuition rather than brute force. It should be pointed out in each instance that the protagonist’s disability is incidental to his or her role in the story; these are detectives first and foremost. Their disabilities do not define them.

Other detectives, although not disabled as such, are still marked as outsiders by physical features. Pierre Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven, for instance, is four foot eleven, and routinely called a ‘dwarf’ by his more ignorant adversaries. His response is to get on with the business of putting them behind bars. C. J. Samson’s Tudor detective, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchback. He, too, is regularly subjected to abuse, not least from the man whose interests he is sworn to protect, Henry VIII. Admirers of this enthralling series will know that Shardlake forms several romantic attachments — the last of these being with the ageing monarch’s sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr. One can see her point. Who, after all, would not prefer the company of the sensitive and cultured Shardlake to that of a coarse and bloated wife-murderer?

When I came to write about my own detective, Frederick Rowlands, a blind veteran of the First World War, I had only the model of my grandfather, Charles Thompson, blinded at Passchendaele in 1917, to draw on. I remember him only as a rather reserved, white-haired figure, who seemed to be able to guess when I’d come into the room even when I hadn’t said a word. On reflection, I suppose my childish footsteps must have been easy to distinguish from those of the adults, but to me it seemed quite magical. Having served for three years as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery – a job for which one needed above-average sight – Charles was invalided out of the army and spent the next two years undergoing rehabilitation at St Dunstan’s Lodge, in Regent’s Park, which had been set up in 1915 as a training centre for the war-blinded. Here, he learned typing and telephony, and later got a job as a receptionist at a firm of City solicitors. It was this proximity to the law, and to those involved in both implementing it and breaking it, which gave me the idea of making my character a detective — albeit a somewhat reluctant one.

I was close to finishing the first book in the series, Line of Sight, when a friend gleefully informed me that he’d come across another blind detective. This turned out to be Max Carrados, in a series published from 1914 by the reclusive English author Ernest Bramah, whose numerous books include a series of humorous tales set in China, about the itinerant storyteller Kai Lung. It was with some trepidation that I opened the first volume —only to discover, much to my relief, that, apart from their shared disability, Bramah’s creation had little in common with mine. Carrados is a gentleman-sleuth very much in the Lord Peter Wimsey mode, and the stories are certainly entertaining. The treatment of the central character’s blindness is far from realistic, however. In addition to a kind of ‘sixth sense’ that enables him to describe a stranger’s appearance in minute detail the minute he walks into the room, Carrados can ‘read’ newspaper headlines using only his fingertips.

Carrados’s right hand, lying idly on the table, moved to a newspaper near. He ran his finger along a column heading, his eyes still turned towards his visitor.
‘“The Money Market. Continued from page 2. British Railways”’, he announced.              					
‘Extraordinary’, murmured Carlyle.

Extraordinary, indeed. In writing my series, I’ve tried to convey my character’s experience as accurately as possible, even if that means he sometimes appears at a disadvantage. The only power I gave him was his intelligence. As for a ‘sixth sense’, I simply made him use his other senses – smell, touch, hearing – more rigorously than most. I wanted, above, all, to make him believable.

In this, I was helped enormously by being able to draw on accounts written by blind war veterans at the time. In particular, I used Ian Fraser’s wonderful 1961 book about his years as chairman of St Dunstan’s, the institute for the war blinded where my grandfather was rehabilitated. Here is Fraser on the early years of his blindness:

I learnt to make use of all sorts of sounds that I had not bothered to hear before. The difference in echo when going from a room into a corridor, or into another room; the ticking of a clock (usually indicating the mantelpiece); the crackling of a fire in winter, or the sounds of birds though an open window in summer — these are some of the sounds that only a blind man needs to hear to form a picture of his surroundings.

From Fraser, I discovered a good deal about the day-to-day realities of living with blindness. I found that it was entirely possible for my detective to be blind and function effectively in a sighted world, even without the technology we now take almost for granted, such as braille keyboards or voice-recognition software. In some respects, my character’s disability makes him more effective, since he has been obliged to train his memory and wits in ways a sighted person would not. I also liked the idea that, as readers, we are all ‘blind detectives’ — forced to navigate our way through the narrative with the aid of clues which might or might not prove misleading. It helped that my character works as a telephonist, and is thus privy to the conversations of others. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of someone overhearing something they weren’t meant to hear, and this was in fact the starting point for my story.

In writing about my disabled detective, I wanted to show that, far from being totally ‘in the dark’, Fred is very much in control. Is he damaged? Well, only in that – like his noble predecessor in crime, Lord Peter Wimsey – he still has nightmares about the War, ‘seeing’ its horrors all too clearly in memory. His blindness is something about which he prefers not to make a fuss. As for his drinking habits — well, he likes a beer or two, but as a married man with a young family he doesn’t have either the money or the inclination to drink to excess. Detectives don’t have to conform to that stereotype either.

Christina Koning has published seven novels, of which the most recent is Game of Chance, the second in a series set in the late 1920s about a blind detective.

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