The Thrill of Disability

Disability is anything but “thrilling,” of course, but it poses an interesting opportunity for the writing of thrillers.  There are many types and degrees of disability.  Some people are completely disabled, others less so.  Some have a disability that’s obvious, while the limitations of others are invisible.  The protagonist of my new novel, Downfall, Pen Wilkinson, is a paraplegic.  Paraplegia is a very severe disability, but not complete.  And it is very visible.

Characters in crime fiction have been endowed with all kinds of limitations, quirks, and infirmities, but actual disability has not been much used.  The current example that comes immediately to mind is Jeffery Deaver’s quadriplegic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme, a great character whose disability is so severe that he needs help from his trusted assistant, Amelia Sachs, to be his arms and legs.  Going back further, there was the TV show Ironside, which featured a paraplegic police detective.  There was also a short-lived show called Longstreet, about a blind insurance investigator.

The idea of a paraplegic protagonist for my thrillers came to me some years ago when I read a book by NPR news reporter John Hockenberry, who described how his life changed after a car accident turned him into a paraplegic.  As I read how Hockenberry learned to function as a professional who is confined to a wheelchair, I hit upon the idea of a paraplegic character who investigates corporate wrongdoing.

My character, Pen, features an interesting set of skills, limitations, adaptations, and challenges, which are constantly changing and evolving.  One set of challenges is purely physical: How do you track down and confront bad guys, much less cope with the demands of daily life, when you’re confined to a wheelchair?  Then there are the social challenges.  How do you deal with people’s reactions?  How do you respond to callousness, pity, disgust, or condescension?  But for Pen, the most interesting challenges are internal.  Hers is a story of self-discovery: Who is she, after the accident?  How tightly does she try to cling to her former life?  How much harder does she try to prove herself?  What are the opportunities for romantic relationships?

Writing about life in a wheelchair is a significant challenge for me, and a significant departure from the adage that authors should “write what they know.”  I’ve talked to paraplegics and done a lot of research in the sincere hope that I’ll get it right.  But I hope to hear from readers, who always have great insights.