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Why Mystery and Detective Series Should Include Disabled Characters by Justin Murphy
In recent years, there are quite a few Crime, Mystery, or Detective novels with disabled or Autistic characters. Whether be the investigator or such character somehow included in the story. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close depicts a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome named Oskar Schell who searches the five boroughs of New York City for a key belonging to someone in the area. One given to his father who fell from a window at The World Trade Center on 9/11. The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time is set in England and centers on an Autistic, Christopher John Francis Boone investigating the murder of a neighbor’s dog. One he, at first, is arrested for. Another instance is House Rules where adolescent Theo Hunt looks after his older brother Jacob, who also has Asperger’s, one accused of killing his social skills tutor. There’s also the recent success of The Maid, which portrays a domestic servant at a hotel who also has Autism and probes into a murder where she works.
The success of the above titles prove readers are willing to explore stories in the genre depicting characters with disabilities or on the spectrum as either active investigators or wrapped up in a crime, possibly with said individual as the perpetrator. Yet as a self-published author with Cerebral Palsy caring for an Autistic brother, I yearn to see a series of novels tackled involving such topics. An author and reader in my position should wonder, ’’Why isn’t there one?’’. There are many novel series featuring detectives and criminals from a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as gender and sexual orientation. Where are series in this genre representing the disabled in any fashion?
It's ironic how everyone is afraid of offending people to the point of bowing to the above forms of diversity and inclusivity. Yet seem to live in fear of many topics related to disabilities or those with special needs. In my eyes, lack of inclusion for the latter is far more offensive than any anxiety over the former ever could be. Why can’t agents, editors, or publishers understand this? Are they THIS scared of authors portraying a disabled person the wrong way to the point they won’t even take the risk of signing works including such characters? There are quite a few factors to consider, and this article will examine them.
The Notion That Disabled (Or Any Minority) Characters Don’t Make Money:
First and foremost, like with any other profession, publishing is a business designed to make profits for agents, editors, and publishers. If the talent or authors they signed have titles that don’t make a return on their investment, these novelists or writers are left to find work elsewhere, or even leave for another profession. This financial risk is often why the above invest in brand names such as Stephen King, James Patterson, or J.K. Rowling. Such authors are brand names with proven track records who can deliver beyond said return. Regardless, King has written about characters from all walks of life, including a disabled African American character named Edgar Freemantle, an amputee who’s the lead character in his novel Duma Key. The author himself suffers from macular degeneration and dealt with many injuries from a hit and run accident in the late 1990’s.
Likewise, Patterson has also written a bestselling series of novels around the African American police detective Alex Cross. Both he and King are Caucasian authors but have succeeded in including different minorities. The former has also written the female centric series, The Women’s Murder Club while the latter’s debut novel, Carrie, revolved around an adolescent girl discovering she has telekinetic powers. If anything, these authors are very conscious of diversity or inclusivity of minority characters. Like how J.K. Rowling, a female author herself, found success writing about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. Since publishing is a business, they each realized the need to tell a marketable or entertaining story first. Although the downside of this is they could be accused of cultural appropriation with said inclusion. Allegations of this nature were hurled against Rowling toward her use of Native Americans in subsequent works and was also criticized for her comments regarding the transgender community. It should also be noted neither Jonathan Safran-Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, nor Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, are known to be disabled or served as caregivers for those with such needs. The same goes for House Rules writer Jodi Picoult and Nita Prose, who penned the recent hit novel The Maid. However, minority authors do achieve success by merging their diverse backgrounds with a mystery and detective series. Such as biracial Jewish and African American author Walter Mosley with his long running Easy Rawlins novels and Tess Gerritsen, author of the female centric Rizzoli and Isles books.
Successful Standalone Novels Might Not Sustain Well As A Series:
It’s true while a story can be successful as a novel, it doesn’t mean subsequent installments will do well. Either the author may not pursue such avenues, or said agent, editor, and publisher doesn’t elect to go down this road. Above all, a successful book may not justify such. On top of these factors, the aforementioned novels – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, House Rules, and The Maid tend to be bundled in more with Literary works or Children’s/Young Adult fiction. While not always the case, these genres don’t often lend themselves to continuation in a series the way crime, mystery, or detective stories do. Also, these standalone works explore the unique viewpoints of said characters and their special needs. Such attributes might get lost as a series progresses.
Another issue in the event of a series would be the question of, ’’Would this be plot driven and focus on the cases, or be character based and show how the disabled and their caregivers navigate through life with investigations being secondary?’’. Such paths can go either way and a series is sometimes better when a balance of both is managed. Yet as I mentioned above, this can become hard after an initial period. Conversely, such attempts may have a rough go at first and find its footing after the first few installments. Of course, the main factor in the scenario is the character’s disability, no matter whether it's the cases or characters that get emphasized. The crux of such tales will be how his or her special needs will affect the story.
Active Investigator Who’s Disabled vs. Investigator Who’s Also Caregiver for a Special Needs Person:
This might be a debate that will rage on regardless of the approach taken with any written works involving disabled characters. There are those who portray them as active and capable lead characters in their own story, along with other authors depicting them as supporting players who need help throughout their lives. Possibly with the lead taking care of them. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Curious Case of The Dog In The Night-Time, and The Maid emphasize the former while House Rules somewhat focuses on the latter. As someone with a mild case of Cerebral Palsy who cares for an Autistic brother, my life occupies both ends of this spectrum. Maybe the true answer lies somewhere in the middle by including disabled characters who are somewhat independent and can help with the investigation or disclosed as being involved in a criminal act. Along with depicting a detective or perpetrator caring for a disabled person in their family life.
In closing, I want to reiterate the four above novels have now set the tone. Three of them have a disabled investigator in a mystery while one feature a protagonist caring for a disabled brother suspected in a criminal act. Despite being pegged as either literary novels or fixtures of the Children’s/Young Adult genres, they began the progression of including characters and issues of disability in the context of crime, mystery, or detective novel. Authors writing series in these related genres pertaining to or involving disabled characters are the next step. Regardless of whether said writers are disabled themselves, care for someone with these ordeals, or simply including the topic in their stories. This craft and business always presents an evolution with such issues.
Justin Murphy ©2022
Justin Murphy has self-published many works of Fiction and Non-Fiction through Amazon Kindle and Audible. For many years, he has also attempted the leap to traditional publishing and is now trying to get noticed in mystery magazines and anthologies. He deals with a mild case of Cerebral Palsy and helps care for a young brother who is Autistic. He considers him to be the joy of his life and wouldn’t have it any other way. He also dabbles in Photograph. They and their mother have traveled cross country, even making it to Yellowstone. All three are nomadic, doing so full time. Here are my pages for Amazon and Audible: Justin Murphy Amazon Page and Justin Murphy Audible Page
This is an intriguing post, Justin, and I have to admit that I've never thought much about the issue, probably because I am neither disabled nor a care-giver (although I do have cancer). I can think of two disabled sleuths, but one goes back to the early twentieth century.
Max Carrados was a blind detective. I only read a short story about him in an anthology years ago and don't remember the author or whether there were other stories.
More recently, Jeffery Deaver wrote several successful novels (wasn't one turned into a film?) featuring Lincoln Rhyme, who was paralyzed after a spinal injury.
I'll have to think more about your post and search for the books you mention. Thanks for providing food for thought.
The Jeffrey Deaver novel you may be thinking of was adapted into The Bone Collector starring Denzel Washington.
A thoughtful discussion. Detectives should be varied in fiction, just as they can be in real life, and that includes people who have disabilities.
I hope the complaint of cultural appropriation that Justin mentioned is not a reason for excluding handicapped people in our stories. Like Steve (above) I just never thought much about it, but now I'm already dreaming up a character with a disability.
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