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.


  1. Philip Ardagh3:40 PM

    'Mild autism with a streak of genius' is misleading. This may describe a significant number of people with Asperger's, but there are other people with Asperger's who have all the problems -- sometimes severe -- and few of the so-called "pluses". This is an aside, I know, but an important one.

  2. Thanks, Philip! You are absolutely right. I don't want to suggest that it is in any way easy or glamorous to have any form of autism. I just hope my new series will help open people's eyes about different ways people have of seeing the world and of interacting with others.

  3. Joanne11:42 PM

    Hello Caroline! Det Robert Goren late (and much lamented) of Law & Order: Criminal Intent is pretty idiosyncratic, although a gifted reader of people. He has an extraordinary ability to concentrate too. I think these characteristics alone justify the display of a large, full-colour image of Vincent D'Onofrio, just for me!

  4. Thanks for those suggestions, Joanne and Mr T. Another friend mentioned Dr Tony Hill. I must watch Wire in the Blood!

  5. Elisabeth3:53 PM

    I am forced to wonder why all these detectives are men. I can't think of a female example, can you? What would the readership/viewership think of a female detective with the same qualities? Would she be accepted as quirky and lovable? Or seen as cold and hostile? It would be an interesting experiment.

    1. Great question! Since I wrote that piece in 2010 we've had the wonderful Sofia Helin as Saga Noren from 'The Bridge'… a so-called Scandi-noir and one of my fave detective shows in the past decade. She's definitely on the spectrum...

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