When I think about the personal challenges that thriller/mystery series protagonists are saddled with–particularly cops, psychologists, private detectives, and medical examiners–they tend to be emotional and psychological. Or the protagonists are alcoholics or drug addicts. (Sherlock Holmes? Wallander? House? I know, but House solves medical mysteries.) Or they’re irascible jerks who get away with being jerks because they always solve the crime. (Morse, and often Lynley.) Poirot was a fastidious little man, yet not nearly as annoying on the page as on the screen (only in comparison–I’m a fan of both).  Lord, save us from the oft-divorced investigator who’s been damaged by the death of a sibling or (an abusive) parent or has abandonment issues, drinks too much, and can only be saved by a good woman–only he won’t be saved because he always screws up his best opportunities. Then again, never mind. These guys have become tropes because they make good reading.

I confess I’ve read a lot more male investigator stories than female, written by men and women, both. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, and Val McDermid’s Tony Hill are among my favorites. But when it comes to damage, it’s hard to compete with the devastating pasts of female protagonists Lisbeth Salander (Stief Larsson) and Kick Lanigan (Chelsea Cain).

As usual, I digress.

Psychological and emotional challenges are always interesting. But in the past week I listened obsessively to four novels in Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series. Yes, I started with book number five, of eight. (I often start mid-series and eventually return to the beginning.) Joe O’Loughlin is a psychologist drawn into the profiling game. In addition to having the infidelity, alcohol, and relationship issues common to so many other (fictional) investigators, Joe has early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I find that a fascinating choice on Robotham’s part.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that has a survival rate of between 7 and 15 years. It affects men more often than women, and is marked by uncontrollable movements, late-stage dementia, and a host of other troubling symptoms. It’s not a disease that the sufferer can hide for very long.

O’Loughlin’s battle with the disease begins in the very first book of the series, and never ends or gives him a break. He’s suffering, and it negatively affects his marriage, work, and other relationships. More than once, it nearly costs him his life. It’s become a super villain he refers to as Mr. Parkinson, and it’s a villain he can’t fight beyond taking medication and making some lifestyle changes. There is no cure.

Today, a woman who served me lunch at a restaurant had the use of only her right arm, as her left had been amputated at the elbow. She did her job with alacrity and care. However it happened, she just deals. It must be incredibly difficult, but she makes it look easy. She is not fiction.

O’Loughlin is a fictional character about whom Robotham made a significant and possibly unique choice. As a psychologist, O’Loughlin is a character who’s used to guiding other people’s lives, yet he can’t even control his own body. Frustration layered over sadness over tragedy. The deck is, as they say, stacked against him. But isn’t that what excellent thrillers are all about? Ordinary people facing extraordinary odds. Robotham pulls it off.

I’m stymied as to other thrillers in which the protagonist has a significant physical challenge. Of course, there was Jimmy Stewart with his broken leg in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s REAR WINDOW. The break definitely intensified the story.

Can you name other stories/characters in which the writer severely challenged their main character?

Have you created similar situations in your own work?


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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

21 thoughts on “Afflicted

  1. There is Jeffery Deaver’s quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme. Fourteen books.

    My Romeo series has a Lead with a massive psychological wound and inner demons to control. His only friend, a former Mossad agent turned rabbi, is mostly confined to a wheelchair.

    On the flip side, is there a series character who is perfectly happy and well-adjusted?

  2. While I was trying to remember the name of Deaver’s protagonist, JSB posted it.

    I recall a TV series about a blind protagonist, Longstreet, played by James Fransiscus, and that series was loosely based on a series of books featuring a blind Captain Duncan Maclain (thank you, Google machine).

    My daughter was diagnosed with MS a few years back, but I don’t think I could ever write a character with the disease.

  3. The 1970s TV show Ironside with police inspector Raymond Burr confined to a wheelchair.

    A blind Audrey Hepburn stalked by a killer in Wait Until Dark (1967).

  4. Two of my protagonists have, in separate thrillers, Tourette syndrome, verbal and physical. They are incredibly similar in their afflictions because they are siblings — brother and sister eleven years apart — with, as one might expect, fairly similar backstories and predominantly identical professions: fugitive recovery agents, aka bounty hunters. Counsel Fungo, female, is the protagonist in crime thriller BINGE KILLER, just released from Severn River Publishing, and Judge Drury, her brother, stars in political thriller JANE’S BABY, 2018 (audiobook Aug 2019), from Intrigue Publishing. Separate series, these two are the first installments. (Yes, Laura, you pretty much teed these plugs up for me with this post.)

  5. My 89-year-old mother has been battling Parkinson’s for over a decade. As the disease progresses, the person gets stiffer and stiffer and the only medication invented 60 years ago no longer works. Then there’s dementia and hallucinations of Parkinson’s. Having watched my mom’s journey with PD, I would be unable to believe in a protag with the disease. Sure the disease is different for everyone and younger onset people perhaps have a different version of the disease, but to read it as fiction would not be entertainment.

    My fav protag is Lincoln Rhyme as JSB mentioned above. I think the author has done a good job of making it a part of the story, rather than the trope of the story. Lincoln has a far bigger life than his limitations of quadriplegia.

  6. If we’re allowed to use TV series protagonist, my favorite is Columbo and his dilapidated 1959 Peugeot 403. Not to mention his unkempt look and jacket.

  7. Some form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome seems to be one of the newest tropes. Here’s my review of an author who uses it. This first book is often free as an ebook if you want to check it out.

    THE GAUGUIN CONNECTION, Estelle Ryan.  Mystery. Book 1 of “The Genevieve Lenard” series.  Genevieve is a brilliant, highly-functioning autistic who can read body language and see the connection between random data and a mystery.  She and a conman whose hobby is stealing stolen artwork and returning it to the original owners try to puzzle out who is murdering exceptional young artists and how this connects with a European security agency.  Good writing, and the premise and feel reminds me of Elisabeth Peters’ Vicki Bliss and John Smythe novels.  Or the character Monk as a woman teamed with Neil Caffrey from WHITE COLLAR.

  8. One of my favorite damaged heroes is Joe Trona in T. Jefferson Parker’s “Silent Joe.” As a child, Joe’s sociopathic father doused him with battery acid, ravaging half his face. But Joe gets adopted by a cop Will and follows in his adoptive father’s footsteps. Shy about his appearance, Joe makes an understated but eloquent hero. The book won the best novel Edgar…it deserved it.

  9. OK, It is how I got to Killzone, Angela Richman, Death Investigator. The protagonist in the newest series by Elaine Viets. Angela is recovering from a stroke. Elaine wrote it about her stroke and the recovery about seven years ago.

  10. Michael Robotham is one of my favourite authors and Joe is a great character. I’ve seen Michael Robotham interviewed and he said the character has “a brilliant mind, but crumbling body”, which I think is what makes him so fascinating. Another favourite of mine is Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), whose Cormoran Strike series features a main character who is ex-military and has lost a leg while serving – also a fantastic character.

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