Back in August 2010 Caroline Lawrence blogged about aspie detectives we all know and love. I have asked her permission to use it on Bookwitch to mark the publication of her second P K Pinkerton novel. So here it is. (If you want to read the comments, or check out Caroline’s links, you can pop back to her Western Mysteries blog.)
‘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
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
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
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 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
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 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 sometimes
lapses into ADHD behavior, dashing about with an almost Dr-Who-ish
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.Chesterton’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. 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, 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 Case of the Deadly Desperados features stagecoach action in the
very first chapters. This Western Mystery for kids aged 9 - 90 is
available in hardback, Kindle and audio download. It will be published
by Putnam's in the USA in February 2012.]‘
And as the Resident IT Consultant correctly pointed out Caroline has not mentioned Saga Norén. Nor, to my mind, Sarah Lund. But then they weren’t around two years ago, so that’s all right. I’m just quite pleased that to be a detective, it’s no bad thing to be aspie-ish.