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Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham

It’s always interesting to think about the choices an author makes when creating a character. In Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham (Mulholland/Little Brown, 2012), we have a first-person narrative featuring Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, a man with Parkinson’s Disease. This is relatively unusual in detective fiction. Of course we have the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffrey Deaver and, in times gone by, Ironside moved around thanks to his wheelchair. Monk has obsessive-compulsive disorder. . . other detectives and PIs stammer or walk with a limp, and so fall below the expected physical perfection. In this, perhaps we should not count drug addiction because Sherlock Holmes retained his abilities as a detective. Overall, apart from age-related disorders, the portrayal of chronic physical disease in fiction challenges stereotypes. You may legitimately wonder whether readers want a younger or middle-aged disabled person to be able to function in the real world. If such a person does appear in the pages of a novel, he or she is expected to be passive. Such characters are usually there to make us feel morally superior when the leading protagonists in the story show them respect. This reflects the sad reality that many are repulsed by the idea of disability. It diverges from the normal. It represents the unknown and is therefore potentially something to be feared.

In Bleed For Me, our amateur detective is also a clinical psychologist. This moves the mystery genre closer to the medical drama. In a mystery, criminals invade the neighbourhood and cause disorder. In a medical drama, a virus or bacterium invades a body and has to be chased down and eliminated by the doctor as detective (as in the case of Dr Gregory House who is doubly disabled with a leg damaged in an accident and as an addict). So Michael Robotham is giving us a doctor-cum-detective whose job it is to diagnose the causes of social disorder and, through the power of his analysis, to eliminate those causes as a danger to society. The criminally disordered will be sent to jail, the mentally disordered to a secure hospital. In this, it’s significant the book begins with a hearing to determine whether a mental patient should be released. It’s the physically disabled assuming responsibility for keeping the mentally disabled locked up.

Michael Robotham now back in Australia

Michael Robotham is playing a very interesting game here. Through the disability, he separates his hero from the “normal” world. People relate to him differently because of his physical limitations and involuntary movements. Even his marriage has ended (possibly because of the disease). This gives him a licence to engage the world outside the usual social rules and power structures. In other contexts, this is the “set a thief to catch a thief” trope. The power to investigate and reason based on what’s seen and heard is enhanced because of prior experience and an ability to empathise with the differences under investigation. A cripple knows how another cripple feels.

In Bleed For Me, Professor O’Loughlin is under pressure. He’s emotionally involved in the case, gets run off the road which suggests he’s getting closer to the truth, his dog is tortured and killed, and one of the men he suspects provokes him into an assault. Who would have thought our hero with a body that doesn’t work properly would end up in court on a charge of malicious wounding. In a sense, this is going back to the idea implicit in Sherlock Holmes. He’s a man whose addiction could be self-destructive, but the power of his mind keeps the problem under control. The weakness of the body in craving the drug highlights the mental strength in denying it when it’s necessary to keep a clear head (for a continuation of this discussion, see the review of Beyond the Bridge. Professor O’Loughlin is a man whose body won’t always do what the mind wants. Indeed, on one notable occasion when speaking with a police officer, his movements are interpreted as preparatory to an assault. The officer strikes him with a baton and pulls him to the ground. This indignity comes at a time when he’s grappling with the distress of divorce and some degree of separation from his children. Put all this together and we have a man in pain who has the “job” of interacting with people in pain. Through his empathy, their violence can amplify his violent tendencies.

At a metaphorical level, Michael Robotham is also using the random nature of the movements caused by Parkinson’s to suggest we’re immersed in an environment where not everything is under control. There can be danger from those who have been damaged, whether by accident, disease or abuse. What makes the opening scene so powerful is that the man with incurable Parkinson’s Disease is effectively telling the Tribunal that the mental patient under review is also incurable. This creates simple binaries: able/disabled, curable/incurable, success/failure, and so on. It also leaves us with a question about this man and his journey through life. While able, he was a successful clinical psychologist with an extensive and well-regarded practice. After disability, he abandoned the practice and became a lecturer. Perhaps with his body failing, he came to doubt the power of his mind to continue doing its work. Even so, having reduced the challenges he faces through his work, he still needs to prove himself to himself. It’s all a matter of his pride.

Of course all of this clever work of character creation means nothing unless the core mystery to be solved is good. You can have the most interesting person in the world on paper, but he has to perform well when challenged as an investigator. Fortunately, I can report Bleed For Me is red hot. It’s damnably dark in some of its content and devilishly clever in how it works out. Although there’s a slightly contrived element in how people know each other or link up, this is a genuinely exciting read. Perhaps as much thriller as mystery, I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys edgy fiction.

For the record, Bleed For Me was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award 2010 for Best Crime Novel.

For reviews of other books by Michael Robotham, see:
Watching You.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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