18 November 2015
‘The Norwich Wheelchair Murders’ is an example of ’Crip Noir’ according to pre-publication reviews. Emmeline Burdett explores the ‘disability angles’ within this compelling thriller, written by wheelchair user and disability rights campaigner, Bill Albert.
Bobby Fishbaum has relocated to Norwich from Los Angeles with his small daughter Anna. Bobby, now living under the name of ‘Bob Green’, is in hiding from some Russian gangsters against whom he was persuaded to testify. To add to his problems, Green has recently had Guillan-Barré Syndrome, and is unwillingly adjusting to his new life as a wheelchair-user.
The novel opens when, hoping to have a quiet drink at a pub, Green is approached by Ben Castle, a double-amputee who tells him that three disabled people in Norwich have recently been murdered, and that rather than this being simply a succession of coincidences, it is part of a plot: ‘They’re killing us off, one at a time’ (p.8).The following day, Castle himself is found dead in a local river.
As one of the last people to see Castle alive, Green is interviewed by the police. Shortly afterwards he receives a phone call from Castle’s sister, who insists that her brother did not die of natural causes. As her brother had done, she tells Green that other disabled people have been murdered, but that the police have simply written the crimes off as ‘accidents’.
Castle’s sister requests that Green should get to know friends of her brother’s, and in this way Green himself becomes involved with Castle’s friends’ ultimately successful attempt to discover the truth. But ‘they’ – whoever the murderers might be – have not finished. During the course of the novel, two other disabled people are murdered, and an attempt is made on Green’s own life.
Apart from Bill Albert’s own identity as a disabled person and a disability rights activist, there are a number of other ‘disability angles’ to this story. Firstly, the protagonist of the novel is newly disabled, and his growing relationship with Castle’s disabled friends is probably part of the reason why, by the end of the novel when thugs hired by the Russian gangsters finally catch up with him, Green has stopped pinning his hopes on walking again, and the book ends with him hoping to be able to pursue his budding relationship with Gwen, his next-door neighbour’s mother.
I found this approach rather refreshing, particularly in the light of a newspaper article I read a few months ago. The article featured a girl who had spent months in hospital with Guillan-Barré Syndrome, and suggested that the future prospects of someone who had had the syndrome were absolutely dependent upon him or her regaining the ability to walk. This is, of course, exactly what Green himself believes.
He initially tries to draw his doctors’ and physios’ attention towards the fact that he isn’t walking, and that – in his view - they are not trying hard enough to get him to walk. When Green’s doctor finally tells him that his walking days are probably over, Green finds the news devastating:
‘I close my eyes and stop listening. I want to scream. I want to cry. But more than anything, I want to get out of this room and away from my doctor’s helplessness and Dr Ho’s stupid, self-congratulatory smile’. (p.131)
It is mainly Green’s contact with other disabled people that enables him to move beyond his fixation with walking. It is this very contact, though, that raises the question: at whom is the book aimed? As it tells the story of a newly-impaired person and how his prejudices about other disabled people are challenged through his contact with them, it seems intended to appeal most to non-disabled people and to people with acquired impairments.
The perspective of a congenitally-impaired person with a political identity as a disabled person is provided by Ben Castle’s friend Brendan. Much of the reason for Brendan’s identity lies in his early life experiences. Green tells us that Brendan
‘was born south of London and sent away to a special boarding school for children like himself when he was six years old … When he finally got out of there at eighteen he was dumped in a home with a load of other handicapped people … Finally … over the web he was able to enlist the help of an advocate. She … fixed up an apartment for him in Norwich with his own personal assistants. Now he made his living by designing websites, teaching and working out adaptations so other handicapped people could use computers’ (pp. 148-149).
Although Brendan had an important role to play in the story, and was instrumental in such things as steering Green away from his use of the word ‘handicapped’ to the more political ‘disabled', I did feel that having Brendan’s backstory told to the reader at one remove was a shame, and did echo the way that when Green and Brendan initially met, other people had to interpret Brendan’s speech, as Green could not understand it. This reinforced my sense that Green might be seen by non-disabled people and those with acquired impairments as a ‘safer’ narrator, easier to identify with.
This is an enjoyable, involving novel, with a diverse cast of characters who come to life on the page. It is well-written, and may, as Tom Shakespeare suggests, spawn a whole new genre – Crip Noir!