May 23, 2022

Disability and Crime Fiction by Meredith Doench

Disability and Crime Fiction by Meredith Doench

One of the factors that drove me to write Whereabouts Unknown was the idea of including disability in the narrative.  While crime fiction does have some representation of crime fighters with disabilities, I wanted more. 

My reasons were personal, to be sure.  I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in 2017. While I was working on this book, I was also dealing with doctors, tests, medications, and endless internet searches looking for any way to help myself.  At the same time, my mother had a serious back injury on top of a neurological issue.  My life revolved around medical appointments, illness, physical therapy, and death.  I found a lot of comfort where I usually do, in horror and crime novels/movies/series, and I took notice of the lack of disability represented in these stories.  My doctors were telling me about all the new autoimmune disorder diagnoses in our country every year, yet I couldn’t think of one representation of that in crime fiction.

I also cannot stress enough that my thoughts on differently abled characters and humans were also a sign of the times we were living in.  We’d just been hit with the pandemic when I started writing this book, so I was very focused on illness and symptoms. Like everyone else, I was watching those Covid death numbers rise.  The images of the over-crowded hospitals and empty grocery shelves reminded me multiple times a day to think about my body and its health. 

In Whereabouts Unknown, Theodora Madsen, a Dayton, Ohio Detective, sustains a serious physical injury in the opening and must reevaluate how she moves through the world. Another main character, Annabelle Jackson, has lupus, which her grandma refers to as “the gift of sensitivity.”  In addition, there’s also the twisted idea of the “worth” of a healthy baby versus one who is differently abled. My focus on the body and its physicality in the novel was partly intentional.  For instance, when I met Theo, she had already been injured, so I knew I’d be writing about her coming to terms with her new way of moving inside her world.  I also knew that the teens would be giving birth under wretched conditions without the care of a medical professional.  The teens weren’t eating or hydrating properly, and I knew this would lead to birthing and health complications.  However, Annabelle and her grandmother’s lupus surprised me.  I wrote Annabelle’s part of the novel last, and I struggled with finding her voice.  One day during a free write her illness landed on my page and it all made sense.  This answered so many of the questions I grappled with over this character.  Annabelle’s sensitivity to her surroundings and her ability to read her own body and its symptoms clearly creates a strong character who can survive difficult circumstances on the page.      

Ultimately, I wanted to show that Theo and Annabelle could not only survive their circumstances but thrive with chronic health conditions.  We don’t see enough of that messaging in our culture.  It was important to me to show that no matter what state my character’s body may be in, they held just as much worth as any other human.  It’s my hope that over the next few years we will begin to see more strong and powerful characters in crime fiction who are on the disability spectrum.       

For more on this topic, take a look at my Crime Reads article from March 14, 2022: