I can almost hear you saying, “I thought it was the MARTIN Preuss mystery series. What gives?”
It’s true, I’ve published six books in what I’ve called the Martin Preuss mystery series, featuring Martin Preuss as the main character. But an important part of his life—indeed, the most important part—is his son Toby.
Toby is his father’s remaining family member, for reasons I won’t go into here (no spoilers!). Toby is profoundly handicapped, born with cerebral palsy and a list of disabilities that fill a whole page of his yearly IEP (Individualized Education Program), including cognitive disabilities, seizures, visual impairment, scoliosis, and paraplegia.
Though the teen-aged Toby lives in a group home because Preuss can’t take care of all his son’s needs, Preuss loves his son fiercely. They spend as much time together as possible, doing things Preuss knows his son enjoys— going to parties, to the movies, on walks, to the library, and so on.
I tried to make Toby a fully-formed fictional character, with wants and needs that he tries in his own way to make known. He likes to stay up late, he loves music, he relishes social occasions, he doesn’t like to have his face touched or wear hats, and he has infinite patience with the people who care for him.
Some people come away from the books loving Toby as much as his father does. But other readers—not expecting a mystery to be so, well, character-driven—are singularly unimpressed; one reviewer sniffed that there were “too many other characters” impacting the main character’s life and detracting from the story.
Since my first priority as a writer is telling a good story, why do these books spend so much time on Toby?
Let me list several reasons why.
First, as a long-time fan of mysteries and crime fiction, as well as what we think of as “literary fiction,” I have rarely seen an accurate, sympathetic portrait of a young man like Toby. I know of only one: the character Lydia in Jennifer Egan’s recent Manhattan Beach, but even that isn’t a mystery.
This population has been invisible in both popular and literary fiction, as they have long been invisible in the broader society. I wanted to do something to change that.
So I started out having determined that I would include Toby, and I’d make him a rounded, well-developed character. He might have serious cognitive and physical limitations, but he loves his life, loves his father, appreciates his caregivers, and plays an important part in the plots of the books.
I thought giving him a son like Toby would also deepen and humanize Preuss himself, and thereby give the books an emotional richness they might not otherwise have.
Second, Toby is a lovingly drawn portrait of my grandson Jamie, who is no longer with us; he died after I finished the first book but just before it was published. Writing about Toby helps keep Jamie alive. By remembering how he looked and sounded and acted, and endowing a fictional character with all his qualities, I can conjure up the sweet, loving child and keep him close to our hearts for a while longer.
Third, these books allow me to show readers what it means to parent children like Toby. Readers have told me how illuminating it was to discover what’s really involved in being the parent of a child with disabilities . . . the joys, the sorrows, the concerns, and most especially the immense satisfactions.
Writing about Toby, and showing how loving he is and how important he is in his father’s life, gives me the chance to celebrate his great gifts, and by extension the gifts of all the children and people like Toby and Jamie. Toby is a source of enormous comfort, joy, and wisdom for his father, as Jamie was for those of us who knew and loved him.
I also wanted to help readers understand what’s involved in Toby’s care, and by extension the care of all of the children who receive it with such strength and dedication by their teachers, aides, nurses, physicians, respiratory and occupational therapists, and the entire village of professionals who work together in this amazing effort.
And finally, I wanted to show one of the most important lessons Martin Preuss learns from his son, which is also perhaps the hardest for any parent to learn, but particularly parents and caregivers of children as vulnerable as Toby: that he deserves to live his own life.
At the end of the third book, Guilt in Hiding, Preuss takes Toby for a walk along Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, narrating for his son the variety of life that Toby is not able to see with his visual limitations: dragonflies darting around them, sparrows flying among the vegetation by the water’s edge, ducklings following their mother through the lily pads in a comical straight line. Preuss reflects:
“As much as he adored the child and knew he would protect him and keep him close for the rest of their lives . . . watching his son enjoying the life that teemed around him on his own terms, Preuss realized yet again that Toby possessed a distinct and autonomous individuality that was equivalent to anyone’s.”
Ultimately, the Martin Preuss series recognizes, accepts, and celebrates Toby’s “autonomous individuality.” We gain a special understanding of people like Toby by living inside them as we experience them through books, and that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with Toby in my mystery series.
As well as, of course, telling some great stories along the way.