critical review of Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector

A few months after my accident I was given the present of an Apple iPad, a brilliant invention for those of us with kacky hands, since sliding fingers is enough to make it work. The first e-book I downloaded to the Amazon Kindle app (and I have spent a fortune since) was by Jeffrey Deaver, The Bone Collector, also made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The novel was recommended to me because the central character, Lincoln Rhyme, was a quadriplegic.

The novel was okay – a light enough and sometimes thrilling read – and I was just happy at the time to be able to get my head into a book. I was intrigued by Rhyme, whose story I could at least partially relate to. There was, however, something that was not quite right, but I could not pin it down at the time.

Rhyme is a high-level quad, unable to move anything from the neck down except his little finger. He is wealthy, having received a substantial payout as compensation for his injury. As a result he has access to extraordinary technology, not only assistive wheelchairs and top of the range vehicles, but a state-of-the-art sound system and television and even a $200 down pillow.

When we first meet him, he is receiving visitors, his former friend and colleague, Lon Sellitto and another policeman. They are shocked at what they see:

“Rhyme had changed considerably since Sellitto had last been here and the detective didn’t hide his shock very well… The sloppy room, the vagrant gazing at them suspiciously. The smell too certainly – the visceral aroma surrounding the creature Lincoln Rhyme now was.”

What quickly becomes apparent is that Rhyme is both bitter and angry. He is impatient with Sellitto, and his animosity is such that he has had no visitor for three months (except his long-suffering personal carer). Sellitto is uncomfortable but he understands Rhyme’s aggression, appreciating the magnitude of his loss. Prior to the accident Rhyme had been a forensic detective, one of the best in the business. Now he is a trapped in a broken body. And so it is not surprising to the reader that he refuses friends and stays locked in his room, bedridden, his only company a lonely Falcon that has come to live on his windowsill, taking the daily flight that Rhyme so wishes could be his.

And so Rhyme’s loneliness is interrupted by a visit from his former colleagues, who need his help in an ongoing crime investigation. He gives them a minimal attention before shooing them out so he can take an appointment with a Doctor Berger, described in glowing terms as having “the best bedside manner Rhyme had ever encountered”. The doctor’s subsequent physical examination gives Deaver another chance to describe Rhyme’s experience and character

“Rhyme paid no heed to the lack of privacy. One of the first things crips get over is modesty. While there’s sometimes a half-hearted effort at draping – shrouding the body when cleaning, evacuating and examining – serious crips, real crips, macho crips don’t care.”

The extent of Rhyme’s ‘macho’ then becomes apparent. Dr Berger’s particular expertise is assisted suicide. We are, thereafter, given a whole chapter that describes the horror of Rhyme’s past and present experience and are left in no doubt that, in those circumstances, the ‘manly’ thing to do, the only valid response, is to utilise this good doctor’s services.

Ultimately, of course, the decision for suicide is set aside as Rhyme finds some meaning in the return to criminology (and becomes the subject of a string of subsequent books). I will leave others to comment on the quality of the book as a work of crime fiction but from the perspective of disability there is one more intriguing aspect to the novel. Assisting Rhyme in his pursuit of the criminal is the beautiful Amelia Sachs (later to be played by Angelina Jolie). What starts out as an entirely functional and aggressive relationship ends up in an unusual bond – an entirely a-sexual friendship that is described in sexual terms when, near the end of the novel, Sachs takes Rhyme for a drive in her sleek black Chevrolet:

 “’isn’t this the best, Rhyme?’ She shouted ‘man, better than sex. Setter than anything’”

“’I can feel the vibrations’, he said, ‘I think I can. In my finger’”

So, there you have it. An inspiring novel about a quadriplegic man who overcomes the horrors of his disability by the help of a beautiful woman. A meaningful and real description of an inspiring disabled man. Or so it might seem. In fact, The Bone Collector is a sensationalised story presenting a stereotypical picture of spinal-cord injury (SCI). Deaver knows next to nothing about living with quadriplegia and projects able-bodied assumptions about what he imagines life should be like for people like Rhyme. Note the following:

  1. Deaver (and most of his readers – the book rates 4 1/2 stars on Amazon) presumes that death, even by suicide (performed by heroic medical rebels), is potentially better than life as a quadriplegic. In fact, I have never met a quad who felt that way but I have met many able-bodied people who admit to asking themselves the question, would I be better off dead then paralysed? This question, however, reveals the underlying assumption that the quad is essentially no longer fully human, no longer really alive, without the potential for joy or the opportunity to contribute to others. My experience, however, is that SCI people want to live and are driven (like everyone) to make the most out of life, whatever its challenges. Of course some quads at some point will contemplate suicide, as do many people in all walks of life. But to have suicide as a major theme of a book centred on an “heroic” quadriplegic does an absolute injustice to the mostly driven people that make up the SCI community. Deaver might claim that he has Rhyme come to realise at the end of the novel that life is better than death, but this conclusion is a very close run thing – and might have gone the other way if Rhyme was not needed for subsequent books in the series.
  2. Notwithstanding his access to mobility aids, Rhyme spends most of his time in bed shunning the company of friends. Honestly, this is an absurd portrayal of a quadriplegic. While bed rest might sometimes be forced upon us, no one chooses to stay there, locked away from friends and family. Of course sometimes wheelchair users are forced into exclusion, when buildings and other social spaces are inaccessible – a too common reality; take a look at your own home and ask yourself, could a quadriplegic visit? Accessibility aside, even the most down and out SCI patient I have met at least gets out of bed to have a smoke and get drunk at the pub  – a fact that indicates that a person’s character and habits before an SCI inform his/her habits afterward. Unless Rhyme was a depressive loner prior to his injury (and we are led to believe this was not the case) it is extremely unlikely he would become such a person afterwards.
  3. Rhyme is made wealthy by a payout but the money seems to have been wasted on him – he spends it on trinkets (pillows fit for Kings) but could do with far less. This reflects the common view that insurance payouts to victims of accidents are over the top, examples of the absurdity of a legal system that supposedly favours disabled people and leaves the rest of the community with inflated insurance. Now, apart from the fact that the vast majority of sci people live below the poverty line, often struggling to get meaningful employment and barely surviving on pensions that are totally inadequate, even those with substantial payouts are not living extravagantly. Most have had to repay massive medical expenses, and have ongoing costs that a payout will have to satisfy over the course of a lifetime.
  4. Deaver has the sight of a quadriplegic as being shocking. Rhyme is labelled “a creature” and even the smell of the room in which he lives has a “visceral aroma”. Almost every character who comes to visit Rhyme in his bedroom responds to his quadriplegia with shock and a certain horror – as though such reaction is normal and acceptable. How odd. No doubt, in the early stages of injury in ICU, a quadriplegic hooked up to wires and tubes and monitors looks confronting. Thereafter, however, they look and smell about as horrible/nice as any of the weird people that make up the human race. Even ventilated quadriplegics get dressed up and look pretty “normal” – whatever we mean by that term.
  5. The dehumanisation of Rhyme extends to the assumption that as a quadriplegic he is used to being prodded and poked and showered so that all sense of privacy has been set aside. Now, it is true that sci people learn to appreciate the body for what it is – a body! But that does not mean that the really “manly crip” (to cite to Deaver) has no sense of personal dignity.
  6. In an attempt to indicate that he has some inside knowledge of the SCI community, Deaver has Rhyme describe himself as a “crip.” Now it may be that sci people themselves use such labels, taking what is pejorative and turning an insult into a label of power. Such relabelling is our right. But it is not a right that Deaver has earned, especially with his prejudiced portrayal of Lincoln Rhyme.
  7. Finally, the dehumanisation of Rhyme is made complete with his a-sexuality. Every male in The Bone Collector responds sexually to the beauty of Amelia Sachs … except Rhyme. In later novels we discover that it is precisely this that attracts her to him. It is as though Rhyme has been removed from the heterosexual community and taken on the role the media traditionally give to gay men – best friends with beautiful women sick of being objectified by men. And so rhyme is portrayed as a eunuch, as only half a man – as utterly excluded from sexuality. In fact, however, female and male sci people remain as fully sexual beings, capable of admiring and even lusting after beauty. Again, it is only able-bodied people who imagine that paralysis destroys sexuality. This review is not the place to set out to describe the sexual life of paraplegics and quadriplegics but it is enough to note that the emasculated Rhyme is an invention – a projection from an able-bodied person as to what life, without sex, must be like for a disabled person.

What becomes apparent is that Jeffrey Deaver knows nothing about sci people. But does this matter? He is, after all, writing a novel, and its purpose is entertainment not social commentary. Of course, it might not matter to able-bodied people just looking for a good read. But it does matter to me. A novel that purports to elevate a quadriplegic as a “hero” should tell the story of a realistic disabled person. Lincoln Rhyme should not have to be pushed by able-bodied people to get out of bed. He should not have to be saved by a beautiful able-bodied woman. At the least, he should not be a cardboard cutout of the able-bodied imagination, a mass of stereotypes and only half a man. The SCI community deserve better.

Btw:  if you appreciated this review, please consider taking a journey to Amazon and voting on my review of this book on their website (a summary from this blog). This might give some prominence to my concerns when people consider purchasing this book. My review can be found by clicking the “one star” reviews – there are only 10 of these so it should be easy to find.