Charles Todd’s series of books about Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge are, unlike most mainstream fiction, chock full of people with disabilities. The series is set just after the first World War. The authors (mother and son writing team Caroline and Charles Todd) sprinkle characters with disabilities liberally throughout.
The disabled include main characters, secondary recurring characters, one off characters, villians, heroes, and just ordinary people. They have both physical and mental disabilities. The lead character, Inspector Ian Rutledge, suffers from PTSD (shell shock, in the parlance of the day) and auditory hallucinations. There are characters with amputations, multiple personality disorder, impending vision loss, shell shock, traumatic muteness, long-term blindness, paralysis, more shell shock – you get the idea.
The Rutledge novels never let you forget that England’s people have suffered tremendously, and that the aftermath of the Great War is to be seen everywhere.
The Todds do not succumb to the usual disability in fiction stereotypes. Disability is not used as an outward and visible sign of inward evil. Todd’s disabled characters rarely die and they’re never cured. They are not Christ figures, super-crips or vehicles for pity. Some of them (like some of the able-bodied people in the books) show evidence of actual sex lives.
The Todds show some understanding of the continuum of disability. A blind woman is shown to have at least light perception, possibly more. A woman who uses a wheelchair after an accident is able to stand and take several steps.
While on the one hand, the Todds do not transplant early 21st century disability thinking into the immediate post-war years, on the other hand, disability doesn’t seem to inconvenience especially the main characters very much. Rutledge’s shell shock is certainly the bedrock of his characterization, but it doesn’t seem to impair his day to day relationships with others or his ability to do his job. The wheelchair user in A Cold Treachery helps run a boarding house in a remote Scottish village that doesn’t even belong to her, and there’s scarcely a word of explanation as to how she even manages to get in and out of the building.
These are minor quibbles, though – the books are fascinating reading, and it’s a novelty to encounter such matter of fact portrayals of disabled characters.