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Case Book: Determined Detectives

Hard Cases: Disabled Detectives Find New Ways to Solve Crimes
By Ron Miller

If you're determined enough, the challenge of a physical disability often can drive you to improve all your other abilities so much that you actually perform better than you did before.

Take the case of British police detective Ross Tanner (Clive Owen), the leading character of Second Sight, now playing its second season on MYSTERY! In last year's episodes, Tanner discovered he's rapidly losing his vision and might face total blindness. He coped with this growing handicap while concealing it from his superiors, who surely force his retirement if they knew he could not see. Tanner counted on his aide, Detective Inspector Catherine Tully (Claire Skinner), to keep his secret and help him with the things he no longer could do on his own.

This season Tanner's situation worsens significantly. He's placed in charge of a special unit assigned to cracking the most sensational murder cases. Meanwhile, Tully grows more uncomfortable trying to balance their personal and professional relationships and abruptly transfers out of Tanner's new unit. With her no longer by his side, Tanner struggles to keep his secret hidden. Soon his men start to notice that he stumbles about a bit too much for a man not given to excessive drinking and can't seem to find the doorknob when he wants to leave a room. What to do? Well, Tanner has to start developing the "alchemy of all his senses" to make up for the one he's losing. He works hard to enhance his cognitive powers and soon develops a psychic "sixth sense" about evidence.

The uncanny enhancement of untapped senses is a running theme with blind detectives throughout the mystery genre, going back to 1914 and Max Carrados, the sightless sleuth who appears in several books by Ernest B. Smith. Carrados hones his hearing skills until he's able to perceive sounds normally inaudible to humans. He also gathers evidence through his acutely sensitive sense of smell.

Duncan Maclain, the blind detective in Baynard Kendrick's 1941 mystery The Odor of Violets, also developed his other senses to make up for the eyesight he lost in World War I. Maclain, who trained his two dogs to help sniff out clues and spot bad guys, was one of the first blind detectives seen on screen, portrayed by character actor Edward Arnold in Eyes in the Night (1942) and The Hidden Eye (1945).

One of the most memorable blind TV sleuths before Ross Tanner was Mike Longstreet, who did investigations for a New Orleans insurance company in the eponymous ABC 1971-72 network series. Played by James Franciscus, Longstreet was blinded by the guys who killed his wife. Determined not to give up his detective work, Longstreet tackled cases with the help of German shepherd guide dog named Pax and a special electronic cane that helped him judge distances. Longstreet even was able to defend himself, and for good reason: His physical trainer was played by martial arts immortal Bruce Lee!

Though there have been a handful of blind detectives in the movies and on TV, the overall record hasn't been as good when it comes to leading characters with physical handicaps. Some producers have said they fear viewers are "put off" by certain handicaps, which could explain why the one-armed hero of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not usually has two arms in various screen adaptations.

But perhaps the mystery fan has a more liberated outlook. Heroes with handicaps appear much more frequently in mystery novels, such as Michael Collins' Act of Fear (1967), featuring one-armed private eye Dan Fortune. When Howard Breslin's story "Bad Time at Hondo" was turned into the movie Bad Day at Black Rock in 1955, nobody seemed "put off" by the sight of Spencer Tracy as a one-armed sleuth, investigating the mysterious death of a Japanese-American war veteran in a lonely desert town. Despite his handicap, Tracy's judo-trained character also held his own against three veteran screen tough guys -- Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan.

From 1967-75, one of TV's most successful weekly mystery series also featured a disabled hero: NBC's Ironside. Raymond Burr played Robert Ironside, a veteran chief of detectives, paralyzed from the waist down after a bullet grazed his spinal column, but still solving crimes from his motorized wheelchair.

Today novelist Jeffrey Deaver has found success with a series of novels featuring Lincoln Rhyme, former forensic specialist with the New York Police Department who's totally paralyzed but solves crimes using an array of high tech devices. The first installment, The Bone Collector, sold millions and inspired the 1999 movie starring Denzel Washington.

MYSTERY! itself has an especially good record with disabled detectives, starting with Dick Francis' The Racing Game, which ran during the first two seasons. Hero Sid Halley is a jockey whose hand is maimed in an accident, ending his racing career. After an amputation, he's fitted with a bionic version and becomes a first-rate private eye.

The show also goes out of its way to make sure fans with failing vision can keep up with on-screen sleuths like Ross Tanner by providing Descriptive Video Service (DVS), which provides audible descriptions of the on-screen action, settings, body language and graphics through the SAP channel of stereo TV sets.

Thus, for blind as well as sighted viewers, Second Sight joins a mystery tradition a new wave of reality-based mysteries featuring people with handicaps. Their primary purpose still may be to entertain us, but they also strive to raise our consciousness about the inherent value of talented, resourceful people who simply need our moral support while they overcome their handicaps.

Ron Miller is the author of MYSTERY!: A Celebration, and a regular contributor to this web site.

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