I'll start this by saying that the third Asperger's mystery novel, THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, will be officially published on Thursday, September 8. That's one day after my brother Charlie's birthday, which is entirely unrelated to the book or anything I'll be posting about today. Happy birthday, Charlie.
Of course I'd love it if you purchase a copy of said book on the day it's published, if for no other reason than the fact that publishers look at numbers right after the book comes out and make predictions about total sales, which affects the possibility that future contracts will be drawn necessitating further books in the series. So there's that.
But this installment in the series (and you don't have to start at the beginning, but you can) is a little different, and the reason for that is that I hate Rain Man.
When the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie about a slick Hollywood Yuppie (you could say that then) who finds out he has an autistic older brother was released in December 1988, my wife was pregnant with our son Joshua, although we didn't know him yet. I thought it was a pretty good movie that was somewhat predictable, that Hoffman and Cruise were both very good and that it would win a bunch of awards and people would talk about the "courage" necessary to make it, both of which turned out to be true.
And then I didn't think much of it until sometime in 1994.
It took a while for Josh to be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning (and even that term is demeaning) disorder (see previous parenthetical statement) on the autism spectrum. He was about six years old when we finally got that official diagnosis after the first psychologist we met told us our son was "eccentric." I had told him we weren't wealthy enough to be eccentric and that Josh therefore needed to be talked down to neurotic, and the doctor clearly believed he had found the genetic link he'd been looking for.
But it wasn't until he was starting kindergarten that we started dealing with other parents on a regular basis, and at various points Josh's Asperger's, which was not a well-known term at the time, would be brought up in conversation. And since nobody had heard of Asperger's, the term "autism" would invariably be mentioned, and that's when you'd hear it.
"Like Rain Man, right?" they'd say with a knowing nod.
Well, actually, no. Josh isn't a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. He doesn't dress in the same clothes every day, he is not a "savant" who can tell you how to win at blackjack or how many matches have fallen out of the matchbox, he does not fly into a rage if he misses a particular television show (although that might have more to do with TiVo), he does make eye contact now and again, he is charming and conversant and it has never once been suggested that he be institutionalized because he poses a threat to the safety of his younger sibling, because he never has.
Are there people with autism who are like the character Raymond in Rain Man? Sure there are. Are all people with autism like the character? Good lord, no. And that's the problem.
The general public hears autism and they picture Hoffman in that movie. The more literate think they know what autism is because they read or saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I know many very smart people loved a lot.
When I created the character of Samuel Hoenig for the Asperger's mystery series (which I was calling the Questions Answered series, but that was then and this is now), I was keenly aware of the danger and the responsibility involved in presenting a fictional character with a disorder on the autism spectrum. What I feared--although I knew my audience would not be anywhere near that of Rain Man or Curious Incident-- was that people with little knowledge of the spectrum would read a book from Samuel's point of view and say, "Now I know what autism is like."
Well, there's a reason it's called a "spectrum." Because the condition affects so many people and affects each in a singular, unique way, it is dangerous to suggest that one depiction, or even five, cover the range of what it entails. The last thing I wanted to do was create a character whose depiction by extension excluded the vast majority of those who would be defined as he was defined.
So that brings us to THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND (you thought I'd forgotten?). It has always been my intention to write a novel in which Samuel encounters a number of other people diagnosed with some form of autism so I could depict it as being more than one thing. I believe the first book in a series should engage the reader (they all should) and set up the premise for the series as a TV pilot episode does. The second should reinforce what the first did and settle the main characters' relationships so the reader knows what to expect. That way you can do what they DON'T expect at any time for the rest of the series.
The third book, in my opinion, is where the characters become whole. It's where you can write about them and not the mystery of the week (year). And in this case, it was where I could illustrate a very small section of the autism spectrum.
In THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, Samuel's client (Samuel runs a business called Questions Answered, which does just that) is a young man diagnosed with autism. Because he is aware of his condition and his personal issues with it, Tyler Clayton can't trust that a guy he knows from the convenience store, Richard Handy, is really a friend. He asks Samuel to confirm that fact.
During the course of his research, much happens that complicates Samuel's work, like Richard Handy being shot to death and Tyler being arrested for the crime. But it will also bring Samuel into contact with a number of other people diagnosed with autism, and hopefully the reader will notice that each one acts differently from the others. That's what this book is about for me.
You might find it's about something different for you. Because even the neurotypical are not all the same.
P.S. Yes, today is Labor Day in the U.S., but hey, I have a book coming out on Thursday. If you want to read my comments on the holiday, please see what I said this time last year.