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Representation in Mysteries

Brook and Sarah speak with author Elle Wren Burke to discuss representation in mysteries and sleuths with disabilities (and why we need more of them!).

Discussed in order

A Fang to Remember (2002) Elle Wren Burke

Bones (2005-2017)

Sherlock Holmes

Jeffrey Deaver

Truly Devious series (2018) Maureen Johnson

Get a Life Chloe Brown (2019) Talia Hibbert

Shadow and Bone (2021) Netflix

List of mysteries with representation

About Elle Wren Burke






For more information

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook
BrookHappy Friday, Sarah.
SarahIt’s the best day of the week and it’s even better because we’ve got another interview today.
SarahSo I will introduce our guest who’s going to be speaking to us today about representation in writing.
SarahElle Wren Burke is a paranormal cozy mystery author who writes witty fun books with strong females of protagonists Elle also lives with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disease. She has master’s degrees in geography and business, lives in Arizona with her husband and fur babies. She enjoys puzzles baking board games and bubble baths. Welcome, Elle.
ElleHi. Thank you for having me.
BrookYes, thanks for being here l we’re so excited to talk to you about this and I think it’s going to be such an important perspective to give our listeners so this is going to be great. So in the author’s note of A Fang to Remember you write according to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans are disabled but where are these characters in books disability can be very isolating and lonely when you can’t find yourself in books or on Tv the isolation grows if even one disabled person feels a little less lonely after reading this book I will have succeeded. First of all I think that’s beautiful and I’m definitely sure that you have succeeded but let’s start there tell us about your inspiration for writing your mystery series with a disabled sleuth Josie Wicks.
ElleSo um, first I just want to say I know that like 1 in 4 number sounds like a really big number right? Like 1 in 4 people are disabled. But I think it’s important to remember that like aging can create disability too and those who are disabled from age need access rights and representation just as much as other disabled people do. And then when you kind of look at the 21 to 64 age group. It’s more like 1 in 10. And we’re talking about a big list of you know, medical problems types of blindness types of chronic pain things like that. And you know these are all types of things that society doesn’t really want to talk about including you know mental health problems neuro divergence things like that. Um and because society doesn’t really want to talk about these things people are left in the dark about disability and people who are disabled are kind of like left alone in the dark with their challenges. Um, so you know when I was coming to terms to terms with being disabled myself from Ehlers-Danlos um I looked for books with characters who had EDS and I found one. And so and that’s like kind of really difficult when you’re trying to adjust and you’re trying to adapt to something and you just can’t find anyone like you you know. And so you know once I kind of processed my disability myself, because even though my disability is genetic, I wasn’t always like actually physically disabled from it. It took some time for that to happen. And so once I kind of processed it adjusted to it. It was kind of like why wouldn’t I write about it. You know like this is my life and I think for a lot of disabled people that that’s kind of what they’re dealing with too. It’s just their life. It’s not anything out of the ordinary to us. And so that was really important to me when I was writing Josie the main character in my vampire pet boutique mysteries who is dealing with EDS as well. It was really important to me that she kind of defy disabled stereotypes and characters of disabled caricatures of disabled characters. So you know she’s snarky. She’s funny. She’s sassy. She’s badassed but she’s also kind and understanding and she deals with throughout a lot of chronic pain, achy joints and muscles and just widespread kind of severe pain. But she’s doing her best with it. She’s working with the pain. You know I just really wanted to show that we can have these like kickass detectives who are dealing with these challenges and you know there’s times when she just needs to like collapse on the floor and just kind of like be in pain or take a day or half a day to just like let her body recover and so I wanted to show how you know investigating impacts her disability and her pain too. But how she just keeps going and you know that that’s so important to me in general to just show that. We have these disabled people these disabled characters who are just like going about their lives.
BrookYeah, yeah. I love it and I think that you did break a lot of the stereotypes. I thought the book was great in that it um it did break those caricature feelings that you sometimes get if you do have a disabled character. One thing I love that if you say breaking the stereotypes like she’s a hottie and the really cute scientist is all about trying to make her his girlfriend and I love that component. You know it’s a cozy mystery. So obviously nothing gets too hot or steamy. But I just love that component that you have that romance in there too because it’s something We don’t always see right.
ElleRight. I agree I think in general if we kind of look at like the history of disabled characters. You know on Tv in movies in books. What have you? you don’t see them as desirable right? like to society. We kind of want to like. Push them out of the rug or we want to be like oh look at the like disabled person that needs our help or whatever and so in this case like like you said she’s a hottie. Caulder the scientist, he just really wants to be with her. You know like he sees her for who she is. And um, I absolutely love that too. I think it’s it’s actually like my favorite part to write in the books.
BrookSuper cool. Yeah I loved it. So um, how do you feel about non-disabled authors attempting to write a disabled character because I think that brings up that fine line between authenticity and caricature.
ElleSo there’s absolutely a fine line but I think it really depends. Um obviously diverse characters are extremely important in any kind of media. Um, you know race, sexual orientation, gender identity, the list just goes on and on. And we don’t want to write characters that only just like mimic ourselves. Um, we want characters in our books that reflect the diversity in the world around us including disability. However I think it really depends on the role that character is playing. Um, like I’m not about to write a main character who’s deaf because I can’t speak to the deaf experience I can’t put the reader in a deaf character’s world. Um, but you know could I have a deaf character who isn’t the main character. It’s like absolutely. So my thought is that main characters with disabilities should be written by disabled creators and you know that we need many many many many more disabled characters in books on TV who aren’t the main character too and you know it’s just really important as you mentioned they should not be a caricature. Um, if you’re going to have a character who’s disabled and they’re going to play a significant role. You just need to have your work sensitivity read and you need to have that be a really important part of the process either bringing you know Beta readers in or you know if you know someone with a disability to really work with them and the disabled community to make sure that your characters are really reflective of their truth. And there’s a saying in the disabled community. That’s really really important and “it’s nothing about us without us” and you know people made decisions on behalf of disabled people for a really really long time and a lot of those decisions were really harmful to the community and created these stereot stereotypes created these caricatures and you know now I think it’s just really important that if you’re making something that disability is fundamentally involved in then you bring in disabled people to help you with it. Um, and then that we also just have side characters you know who are who are disabled where it’s just like you know Jim’s in a wheelchair or Joe has some form of blindness you know things like that because I think that like like we said there’s that 1 in 4. Those statistics about how many people are actually disabled and we just don’t know it or have a medical condition that we don’t know about or whatever.
ElleAnd um, so it’s just really important that we have more and more characters. So It’s just like normal right? It’s like let’s just let’s just talk about it. Let’s just normalize it. Let’s not sweep it under the rug because you know we all know someone who has. Um, a disability or a health problem or a mental health issue. We all know someone like that if if we’re not dealing with it ourselves and we need to reflect that in you know fiction more.
BrookYeah, yeah, and that brings us back to your author note right? Because that’s going to help people feel seen and feel less isolated. You know you’ve inspired me, Elle, because I’ve thought about the fact that of making sure I have representation in other ways in my books. But.
ElleOh great.
BrookIt was a blank space of not like yeah I don’t have any disabled people in my stories and so I have an idea and I I might be contacting you to help me shape a side character. If you’re interested.
ElleYeah, of course. Absolutely. I would love that so much. Yeah, because I think you know like you said it’s really important to help um people with disabilities like not just feel lonely and isolated to help them feel seen. I’ve had people um, write to me their social media or people who are on my newsletter and just tell me you know how much they enjoyed the book and how much it really made them feel seen um and a lot of these people have disabilities that aren’t really similar to mine. Um, some of them have chronic pain but some of them have you know MS or a form of blindness or something and so just seeing another character who’s disabled whether it’s the same disability you have can really help you feel less alone. But then it also helps society understand where are these these people with different types of disabilities are coming from what their lives are like, right? And so I think you know we just need as a society to be more open about it. Like we can’t grow as a society if we’re closed off about these things if we only know our own experiences. Um, so I Just think that’s all really important.
BrookYeah that’s really cool. That’s great. What about sleuths who are sort of coded but not explicitly identified as Neuro Divergent I’m thinking of Sherlock Holmes or ah Temperance Brennan in Bones would it be better for representation if authors were more explicit.
ElleSo I have a few opinions on this and part of it is because my husband is autistic and he also has adhd so he’s got kind of these two areas of neuro divergence and so that gives me like my own perspective. Um, obviously I myself am not neuro divergent so I can kind of fully speak from from my own experience. Um, but also you know I think sometimes there’s other disabilities that are sort of implied as well. So it. It can be a bigger topic but I think specifically when we’re talking about no divergence. Um.
ElleSherlock Holmes is kind of a tough subject because I don’t know if we can say he’s coded as neuro divergent because that concept didn’t really exist at the time. Um, you know we we didn’t really see Asperger defining Asperger’s until I think like 50 years after Holmes was written and then that’s now um, kind of an outdated term.
ElleAnd we have autism spectrum disorder instead and you know Holmes has autistic traits. But is he autistic? You know we don’t know we know that Doyle based him around a physician mentor who had those like hyper observant qualities. But from what I understand anyway, maybe.
ElleYou know, totally let me know if you know anything different but from what I understand we don’t know if his personality is also from that same man so you know was was there an autistic guy who he based um homes on you know we just kind of don’t know. I have some more thoughts about um, you know characters like Bones. But I don’t know if you have anything to add about Sherlock.
BrookNo I think that I would agree with that because we’d know that his mentor really did influence him but that’s about as much as we know, um and Doyle himself was a medical doctor. So perhaps he had a patient or someone in his care that he was basing homes off of but.
BrookYou’re right? We really don’t know.
ElleYeah I Think that’s a really good point too that he could have had someone in his care. But yeah I think you know we don’t know there. But then when we want to talk ah about a character um like in Bones that’s kind of a different topic right. So I would say 100 percent yes, absolutely, you should be explicit about that character having Autism or a form of Neuro divergence and I guess my thought is just like why wouldn’t you be. But do you think you’ll lose like ratings or viewers or readers or whatever. Um, if you do actually explicitly say that the character has autism. I think in a lot of cases they’re kind of like pulling these autistic traits to create these detectives who then use these autistic traits to like solve these cases. So that’s the source of their success a lot of times in shows like that and so you’re like pulling from Autism without actually acknowledging Autism and I think that you know, for me as someone who has an autistic husband I’m like well like why not just say it. It isn’t even just about representation. But it’s about like not shoving it under the rug. You know, not making that character’s disability invisible by not acknowledging it. Um, and I just think if we’re going to use those traits Why not just say like hey Bones is autistic. Um I think it’d be different if it was something that the character grew into. So if it was a book series or a TV show where at the beginning you’re kind of like as a viewer you’re like oh like this character seems like they might be autistic, but it’s not being explicitly said and then you see how they like grow into a diagnosis over time I think that’s really different. Because a lot of people aren’t getting diagnosed with autism until they’re adults so you don’t necessarily know when you’re a child. For example, my husband was like 34 ish, 34, or 35, we don’t remember exactly when he was diagnosed. So I think you know a narrative like that would be great.
ElleBut if it’s something like the whole series. You’re just gonna have a character pulling from Autism but not actually saying that’s autistic like that just seems weird to me like are you saying there’s something wrong with it then or I don’t know what do you think.
BrookI think what you just said was fantastic.
SarahYeah I I think it would be a fascinating series to read as a character kind of um discovers or confirms a diagnosis whether it’s ADHD or or autism because I think ADHD is often diagnosed later in life or can can be diagnosed later in life as Well. Um, and yeah to see that kind of development in the character while they’re um, solving crimes would be pretty amazing.
ElleYeah, and imagine how that would you know make someone feel who just went through that or is going through it. You know to read that experience or watch that experience would be probably really meaningful for them. You know as long as again as long as it was done while working with the disabled community right? like bringing in people who are autistic or ADHD or I think it can actually be a really good narrative for any kind of disability and that isn’t diagnosed right away or a medical condition that develops. So with with me, you know I I knew that I had a lot of separate medical issues but they didn’t come under one umbrella for quite a while and so that like process would be really interesting and I think that happens with a lot of people.
ElleAnd so I just I yeah I think that would be really interesting I’m kind of inspired now maybe in my next series I’ll you know have the character kind of do that go through that process of becoming more physically disabled over time. I think that’s really interesting.
BrookYeah, what a great long-term character arc for a series. So that leads really well into another question Sarah and I had for you which is can a character’s disability become their superpower?
ElleOkay, so this is a really tough question I think and I have a lot of thoughts about it.
ElleAnd I can’t speak for you know I can’t speak for every type of disability or on behalf of other people with disabilities. This is just kind of my my perspective on it. Um, so your question makes me think of a quote from Jeffrey Deaver on the Crime Fiction Lover website and it’s “Lincoln’s strength is in his disability as he says this condition helps him focus more intensely on crime scenes.” So of course we’re talking about the Lincoln Rhyme series and Lincoln Rhyme is a quadriplegic. Um, and I I thought that was a really interesting quote and I started to kind of dive deeper and I read an amazing article from almost twenty years ago from 2004 in Disability Studies Quarterly. Um, and it was called “Detecting Disability Moving Beyond Metaphor in the Crime Fiction of Jeffrey Deaver.” and you know this article did just a really amazing job at breaking down disabled detectives and then also had more of a focus on Rhyme and it discusses the ways in which. His disability was used as a metaphor for something bigger in society and how his disability was used to kind of separate the mind from the body until like isolate him is like just the brain. So he’s like just the brain just the detective which would then allow him to focus more on crime scenes. Um, and the article talks about how in general with disabled detectives that the disabilities have kind of historically been used to separate detectives from the norms and expectations of society and kind of like giving them the ability to operate differently.
ElleAnd play by different rules to catch the criminal and in some cases it kind of does seem like their disability is like a superpower. I assume that’s the kind of thing that you mean and I do understand like this concept and I think there’s a place for it. Um, but kind of like, like I was saying earlier for you know, most people our disabilities are like just a part of who we are um or at least that’s how it is for me like my disability is part of who I am to me. It’s not like a metaphor or something to be like used as a superpower. And it’s kind of the same way that I wrote Josie right? Like she’s not like a metaphor for something bigger in society. You know her disability doesn’t make her a better detective. Like she’s just a kickass girl out there solving you know mysteries who’s also disabled and. So I just think that if disabilities are in any way going to be depicted as superpowers then they should probably be written by someone who has that superpower who sees their own disability in that way, right? Like someone who. For example, a quadriplegic who maybe does see their disabilities. It’s your power well then then that should be coming from from their voice and their experience or maybe someone like a parent if you had say an autistic child or something like that. And I’m not at all trying to like call out authors who have used those kind of metaphors and constructs. For example, the Lincoln Rhyme series really um, shed a lot of light on disability at a time when it wasn’t really at all visible, um and his partner too has her own health challenges right.
ElleUm I think endometriosis and a couple other things Arthritis I think. Um, definitely correct me if I’m wrong about that. But you know he created a disabled character who was really like an agent in his own story whereas historically um disabled characters were things that bad things happened to and like all the bad things happened to and so I think that was really great I think he’s actually won some like awards for the way that he’s depicted disability but I just think kind of like where we are now that we need to be giving disabled creators a platform and it’s important for disabled creators to tell their own stories and so it’s kind of up to them to decide I guess if their disability is a superpower or not. Um so I don’t know what do you think?
BrookI know I loved that. And that’s really really helpful I think that that is kind of how we all have to approach story right? Like like you said this is just something about you and I have things about me and. I’m going to use those in my work differently than someone else with the same situation might use it in their work so that was that was a really helpful way to to to talk about that L. Thank you? Um, and so like you said these? um you write a character who it’s part of her everyday life who are some of your favorite kick butt characters who also happen to have a disability.
ElleSo I thought about this and I kind of wanted to like shed a light on a few different characters across different like genres and media. So, if you’re familiar with the Spiderman comic books at all, there’s the overall Spiderverse where there’s multiple spider people and now we actually have Sun Spider who has EDS and is also part of the LGBT Community. So as soon as I saw that there was like a superhero and. We were just talking about superpowers. But this is an actual like superhero who has eds and she she has a wheelchair and then she also has forearm crutches which are crutches that you sort of use more of your your forearm instead of under your armpit.
ElleAnd those actually turn into like weapons that she uses while she’s fighting and I just thought it was so cool. So I immediately bought copy and I’ve got it in like a little plastic sleeve and I like show it to my niece and nephew and I just thought that that was so cool. Um, so.
ElleYeah she’s kind of my favorite with like my own disability. Um, you know I also deal with like a lot of anxiety and if you’ve read the Truly Devious series then you know Stevie Bell has a lot of anxiety and panic attacks and like. I love her so much. She’s just really like a kick butt detective and you know and I like also that she has these panic attacks and she takes medication for them when needed, you know when in the middle of a panic attack and that that’s not framed as a bad thing at all. Um, so I love that then um, from a romance perspective, there’s Chloe Brown from Get a Life Chloe Brown and she has fibromyalgia and she doesn’t let it stop her at all I mean she even climbs a tree in the book. And ends it getting kind of funny. She gets stuck but it’s great I love that so much. Um, and then one other one who I love I don’t know if you guys read any fantasy or watch like Shadow and Bone on Netflix but there’s Kaz who is from Crooked Kingdom by Lee Bardugo and he uses a cane from a leg injury and he also has PTSD and I love this character especially because Lee herself uses a cane because she has something called osteonecrosis. And so I love that she actually like wrote a character and she said that you know she wrote that character. Um, you know to kind of reflect herself or at least when it comes to the cane. So those are some of my favorites. My husband and I also really love Atypical on Netflix with the character Sam who’s autistic and he ends up doing some really really cool things that I don’t want to spoil for anybody who hasn’t seen it. That’s really good. Um, so I think those are my my kind of favorites at the moment but I have a huge TBR list too. Um I actually found a list online that there’s a person who maintains a list of mysteries with disabled characters and it’s huge and it was so cool to see there’s you know, blind characters a lot of characters but war injuries but characters. Um, are we start over? um. Blind characters characters with war injuries characters who had disabilities for medical reasons. All kinds of things and now my TBR just you know doubled or tripled. Maybe so yeah.
BrookWell, that sounds really good. Maybe you could share that link with us and we could put it in our show notes, Elle.
ElleAbsolutely yeah I will send that to you guys.
SarahThat’s great. So, Elle where can our listeners find you.
ElleSo they can find me on Instagram Facebook um, and then you can find my books on Amazon. So there’s also my website which is just elleburkeauthor.com.
BrookWonderful l this has been so wonderful I’ve learned a lot. I know our listeners are going to learn a lot and it’s this is a very important conversation. So I can’t thank you enough for coming on today.
ElleYeah, thank you guys so much for having me. I really appreciate you guys kind of shining a light on disability in mysteries and in general and this was really fun. Thank you so much.
BrookSo for today, thank you for joining us on Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.