Monday, August 16, 2010

Dysfunctional Detectives

According to the Pulitzer-prize winning screenwriter David Mamet, "Asperger's syndrome helped make the movies." In his collection of essays, Bambi vs Godzilla, Mamet talks about the type of autism called Asperger's.

According to Mamet, the symptoms of Aspergers include "early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutiae of the task at hand."

Someone once described Asperger's as "mild autism with a startling streak of genius." In other words, many of those with Aspergers are brilliant but socially dysfunctional. A slightly sexier version of Rain Man.

Mamet goes on to say: "This sounds to me like a job description for a movie director." He also points out that Asperger’s syndrome “has its highest prevalence among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants”, who make up the bulk of Hollywood movers-and-shakers.

Is Mamet joshing us when he claims that Hollywood is run by men with Asperger's? Maybe.

Or Maybe not.

Sometimes Asperger's is so subtle that it's not diagnosed until middle age. A well known case is that of Tim Page, a Pulitzer prize winning music critic who only found out that he had mild version of the syndrome when he was 45. He has written about it in his book Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider and was recently interviewed on NPR. "I didn't suffer from classic autism but something was clearly wrong..." says Page in one interview. "I couldn't tell you the color of my mother's eyes or what a person was wearing last night at dinner, but I'll remember exactly what we talked about."

If Hollywood is dominated by sexy Rain Men, it might explain why some of our most popular fictional characters have certain characteristics which might be called 'autistic'.

Think of Star Trek's Mr Spock (left) and Data. Both characters are popular among high-functioning autistic people. One of the most famous and articulate autistic authors, Temple Grandin, has confessed that she is a fan of Lt Commander Data, the android who tries to understand human behavior.

Then there's the brilliant but anti-social Dexter. His dysfunctionality is due to a traumatic childhood, like Lisbet Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don't think Salander has Aspergers, but she does meet two of the criteria of someone suffering from that disorder: “high intelligence” and “ignorance of or indifference to social norms".

Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory is the perfect example of a character with "high intellience" but "indifference to social norms". Indifference being the operative word in Sheldon's case.

Best of all are the many detectives who seem to have Asperger's-like qualities. The most famous of these, of course, goes back way before Hollywood.

Sherlock Holmes (right) is a creation of the late 19th century, but is just as popular today. He has several character traits of a person with Asperger's, though Steven Moffatt's clever new Sherlock, brilliantly personified by Benedict Cumberbatch, sometimes lapses into ADHD behavior, dashing about with an almost Dr-Who-ish energy.

Adrian Monk isn't exactly autistic, but as a sufferer of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) he is a brilliant observer of detail and symmetry but a flop when it comes to interpersonal relationships. There is great comic and tragic potential in a character like this. Do all the best detectives have psychological or emotional weaknesses?

Not necessarily. Columbo is modelled on G.K.Cheserton's apparently ineffectual Father Brown. Whereas Holmes uses his brilliant deductive faculties, Father Brown uses intuition. But like Columbo, his fumbling, bumbling personality lulls criminals into a false sense of security. They may seem to be socially dysfunctional, but they're not.

A detective who is wildly socially dysfunctional and delightfully wounded is the wonderful Dr Gregory House (top of this blog). Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a social misfit with only one true friend. It's been pointed out before that the creators were partly inspired by Conan-Doyle's great detective.

Another modern-day Holmes wannabe is Christopher Boone, the teenage narrator of Mark Haddon's best-selling book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a genius at remembering facts and doing mathematical calculations, but he is socially inept and takes every statement literally. Christopher's favorite fictional character is Sherlock Holmes, (in fact, the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time" is a quote from a Sherlock Holmes mystery). Christopher is obsessed with the Victorian detective and employs Holmesian methodology when a neighborhood dog is murdered.

Of all the fictional characters mentioned so far, Christopher Boone is certainly the highest on the scale. Like most people with Asperger's, he can't decode facial expressions and needs guidelines to help him figure out what people are feeling. Christopher has a flat, neutral, toneless voice which comes across as wonderfully deadpan. "He doesn't get sentimental," said Haddon in one interview. "He doesn't explain things too much... It's the voice of person who doesn't feel there is a reader out there. So when you're writing in this voice, you never try and persuade the reader to feel this or that about something."

I've been thinking about detectives with Asperger's because the hero of my new series, The Western Mysteries, is P.K. Pinkerton, Private Eye (below) a 12-year-old detective who is half Sioux and half White, and definitely somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. Of course, in the 1860's the syndrome had not yet been diagnosed and had no name. P.K.'s 'Thorn' is not being able to determine what people are feeling.
My Gift is that I am real smart about certain things. I can read & write and do any sum in my head. I can speak American & Lakota and also some Chinese & Spanish. I can shoot a gun & I can ride a pony with or without a saddle. I can track & shoot & skin any game and then cook it over a self-sparked fire. I know how to cure a headache with a handful of weeds. I can hear a baby quail in the sage-brush or a mouse in the pantry. I can tell what a horse has been eating just by the smell of his manure. I can see every leaf on a cottonwood tree. But here is my Problem: I cannot tell if a person’s smile is genuine or false. I can only spot three emotions: happiness, fear & anger. And sometimes I even mix those up.

When we're feeling lonely or obsessive or have made a particularly big social gaffe, many of us probably wonder if it's because we are somewhere on the Asperger's scale. I think that's why these dysfunctional characters are so popular, they are like us, only more extreme. I myself often find people completely unreadable. What I wouldn't give to be able to glance at a person and - like Sherlock Holmes - know instantly who they are and what they are feeling! That's one reason I created P.K. Pinkerton.

The third P.K. Pinkerton Mystery, The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows, is now out in the UK. The second one, The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, has an alternate title in the USA: P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man. P.K.'s fourth and final jaunt, The Case of the Bogus Detective, will only be published in the UK.

All images Richard Russell Lawrence ©Roman Mysteries Ltd.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Demon in the Toilet!

It is a basic human instinct to fear things that dwell in the dark. This goes right back to our hunter-gatherer days and is hard-wired into the part of the brain that helps us survive in the wild: the limbic brain. As children, we often fear the idea of a creature peering at us through a nighttime window. Some children imagine they can see a staring face on their bedroom wall. It might turn out to be no more than a trick of the shadows or patterns in the wallpaper, but it sets the heart racing all the same. This innate fear shows that we are programmed to notice the two eyes of a predator fixed upon us, so that we can freeze, flee or fight!

I think this inbuilt fear of staring eyes might be the basis of ancient Roman belief in the evil eye. The Romans believed that if a demon, ghost, evil spirit or witch looked at you in a certain way, then you would sicken or have an accident or other bad luck.

There were several bizarre ways of protecting yourself against the evil eye. One of them was the male private parts, yes: willies! You could either wear one in the form of an amulet or put it on the side of your house or near the threshold. Some of these penis amulets even had wings and/or bells on! (see opening pages of The Colossus of Rhodes) These images have often been considered ‘rude”, but in fact they are apotropaic. That means they turn away evil. In the British Museum Roman Life room (room 69) you will find some tiny silver willies on chains and rings, designed for children to wear. This is because children were particularly vulnerable to the evil eye. On sites of ancient cities you will sometimes find them inside the threshold of a front door (where we put welcome mats) or carved on the wall outside.

Another way of turning away the evil eye is to deflect it, by getting something even scarier to LOOK BACK at it. That’s why theatrical masks and pictures of Medusa are common on Roman walls. They keep away evil spirits, ghosts, and anyone who might cast the evil eye. Even the powerful goddess Athena wore Medusa’s head on her chest - in the form of an aegis. Here is a photo I took of Medusa at the ancient site of Didyma in Turkey, once part of the Graeco-Roman world.

The ancient Greeks put eyes on the underside of some of their drinking cups so when a drinker raised the kylix to his lips it looked as if he had big staring eyes. Maybe the Greeks thought people were especially vulnerable to the evil eye when tipsy.

There are three Latin words for demons, ghosts and evil spirits. The first, the word ‘daemon’ is borrowed from Greek daimon and is not very common until Christianity takes hold. The other two words are much more common in the time of Virgil and Ovid.

One common Latin word for ghosts or spirits is ‘lemures’. That might make you think of lemurs, those little nocturnal primates with big eyes. In the 18th century, a Swedish botanist called Linnaeus invented a way of classifying plants and animals. He used Latin words for the animals. The Latin word he chose for the creature that moves around silently at night and has scary, staring eyes was lemur, based on the Latin word for ‘ghosts’. I don't think it's coincidence that Linnaeus associated the idea of staring eyes with a ghost. It all goes back to the evil eye.

Another word for spirit or ghost in Latin is ‘larva’. Larva’ can also means ‘mask’. The word larva is still used in Venice at Carnivale for the white mask worn by certain people. Once again, the biological word is based on the original Latin meaning. Look at a larva or grub close up and you will see it seems to have two eyes and a mouth. If you look at frescoes of Roman theatrical masks, you see how much they look like ghosts, with their gaping eye sockets and silently screaming mouths. Putting some of these on your wall will scare away anything that wants to give you the evil eye. 

This deep-rooted fear of the evil eye is still common in Turkey, Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean today. You can buy beads that look like eyes to keep away bad luck. For some reason, blue eyes were considered more likely to give the evil eye, so the apotropaic beads are blue, too. If you are Christian you can combine the eye with a Madonna or a cross, or both. If you are Muslim you can combine it with the Hand of Fatima. Here are two amulets I bought recently. One is from Egypt and the other is from Turkey. Turkish airlines even puts the symbol against the evil eye on the tail fin of some airplanes!

I was taking my nephew around London last month and I noticed that even here in the heart of a great civilised city we have such images. Have you ever noticed how many faces are built into buildings? Have a look around your own town. You will see faces looking outward, some of them quite scary, some of them above or below windows. I spotted a scary face on the famous St Paul’s cathedral (left) and also dozens of faces above windows on a street near St James Park. Even after humans move into a well-lit town or city, the deep-rooted fears don’t go away. We still get uneasy when people stare at us on the tube or other public place. It’s that basic fear of the predator, or of the evil eye.

Another deep-rooted fear of human beings is that of pits and holes. This is a sensible fear. Scary things live underground. Bears and wolves dwell in caves, snakes and rats like tunnels, scorpions and millipedes lurk in cracks and crevices.

Some towns and cities have whole worlds underground: the sewers! Every so often rumours arise about a creature who lives in the sewer and might rise up out of the loo and bite you. In New York there is a recurring myth about how some baby alligators flushed down the toilet survived and grew to monstrous size. In India they fear cobras and the Victorians of Hampstead believed giant man-eating swine lived down below! These are called ‘urban myths’ because someone knows someone who knows someone who saw one of these toilet dwellers but when you get down to it, the stories have no basis.

Even the Romans had the ‘urban myth’ of a creature who lived in the sewer. Rome’s ancient sewer was the Cloaca Maxima, a feat of ancient engineering. It was big enough to contain boats and it was so well-built that it is still in use today. Claudius Aelianus AKA Aelian, a Greek-speaking author in the Roman Empire, tells of a giant octopus that lived in a sewer like the Cloaca Maxima. According to Aelian (On Animals 13.6), this big cephalopod came up through a toilet in search of garum, or fish-sauce. I loved this idea so much that I have written a book about it. (I have asked Dr Helen Forte to help me illustrate it and she drew these great pictures.)

In many ways, the Romans were very sophisticated. They had public latrines called foricae, and a new study has shown that almost every private house in Pompeii had a toilet, even if it was just a board with a hole above a bucket. But for all their sophistication, Romans were nervous about using the loos. They are the only people - as far as we know - who put pictures of one of their gods inside the toilets. Which divinity? Fortuna! The goddess of good luck. Fortuna is usually shown holding the rudder of a ship (she directs you) and a cornucopia (she provides for you). Sometimes she wears a grain measurer as a hat on her head. You sometimes see frescoes or mosaics of snakes inside toilets, too. Snakes were considered good luck in Ancient Rome. This is why you often find them in lararia, the household shrines.

The Sewer Demon
A Dutch archaologist named Gemma Jansen is contributing to a scholarly work on Roman Toilets, both the big public multi-seater foricae and the small single loos in private homes. She thinks depictions of Fortuna and of snakes, sometimes together, were to keep away demons and other bad things from you when you were at your most vulnerable: sitting on the toilet. I phoned Gemma a few months ago and asked her to tell me how to explain to children that demons might live down in the sewers beneath the toilet. ‘You don’t have to explain it to children,’ she said at once. ‘Children totally get that something scary could live down there. It’s the adults you have to convince!

P.S. For more pictures related to Roman Toilet Habits go HERE.

The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children 9+ studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The first book of the Roman Mystery Scrolls series – The Sewer Demon  – is aimed at kids aged 7+. Another spin-off for readers 9+ is the new Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain, which launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Listening Books

Near Charles Dickens Primary School, and not far from the old Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, is a blue and brick building full of sound. The building on the corner of Bittern Street is the home of Listening Books, a UK charity which provides more than 4500 audiobooks (by post, internet streaming or downloads) to schools and to anybody with an illness or disability which makes it hard for them to read ordinary books.

I first came across Listening Books when I saw a ‘tweet’ by their patron Stephen Fry. I believe one of the greatest luxuries of our age is the ability to have personal access to a wonderful variety of music and stories. People in past centuries would have been so envious of what we take for granted today. I love the fact that Listening Books are making stories available to people who find it difficult to read books, so I recently got in touch and offered to help. As a result, they invited me to come to their office to do an interview.

It is a beautiful April day in London, more like summer than spring. I take the tube to Southwark, in southeast London. Charles Dickens’ father was in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison here, just like Little Dorrit’s father, and many of Dickens' books are set in and around Southwark. I always think of it as foggy and cold, but today the sun is shining and birds are singing.

I am greeted and given a tour of the offices. On the ground floor are audio-books in MP3-CD form and also in the old cassette format. Guess which takes up most room? The tech guys on the top floor are converting the cassettes into CDs and also into MP3 format for internet streaming. Some of the older cassettes are top priority. They need to be saved before they are worn out and lost forever.

After the tour, I descend a wrought iron spiral staircase to the bowels of the building and a sound proofed recording studio. A nice technician gets me settled in a sound booth. After a ten minute interview, I get to read my favourite passage from my favourite book: the girl fight scene from The Pirates of Pompeii. (left) You can listen to my interview HERE, and you can hear other interviews with great authors like Jacqueline Wilson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Sally Gardner on the Author Interviews page.

If you find it difficult or impossible to read due to illness or disability, including dyslexia, you can join for only £1.67 per month, or £20 per year. That modest amount will allow you to borrow unlimited books on the streaming package, which means you can listen via your computer, stopping and resuming whenever you like. This option also includes more than 1000 audiobooks that can be downloaded to your MP3 player or iPod/iPhone/iPad for no extra charge. For £35 per year you will receive audio CDs by post. When you're finished just pop them in your nearest postbox. And for only £45 per year you can receive audio CDs and streaming and downloads.

Schools can get the streaming package for only £20 per year, with 10 licenses to stream, so up to ten pupils can listen at any one time. Listening Books offer a great choice of textbooks that tie in with the National Curriculum and because they are read by professional actors, they are never boring.

If you know anyone who is partially sighted, dyslexic or even has trouble turning pages, encourage them to join, a great charity.