Last week I talked about what happens when the author makes an error of fact or calculation from my own perspective as a writer. But every writer is a reader too, and none more passionately than mystery lovers. As a reader, I have quite a different attitude toward mistakes. They irritate me profoundly. Furthermore, I never forget and forgive. If an author gets it wrong, I can carry a grudge about it for decades.
The nearest analogy to this dissociative state—not schizophrenic, please! Schizophrenia has not meant “split personality” since the 19th century!—is the difference between the pedestrian and the same person as a driver. When I’m crossing the street, the driver who shoots through the changing traffic light or hurtles around the corner cutting off my right of way is a homicidal maniac. But when I’m behind the wheel, the pedestrian crossing on red or dawdling in the crosswalk eating ice cream or babbling on a cell phone is the moron.
I wouldn’t say that I won’t read more of an author who’s made a mistake in one of my pet peeve areas. But it’s definitely a black mark in, er, their book. Since I’m a mental health professional—a social worker, a psychotherapist, and an addictions professional—the mistakes that make me grind my teeth tend to be in those areas. For example, take the all too common use of “schizophrenic” to mean ambivalent. Last week, writing as an author, I defended the occasional use of literary license. I have no objection to the use of a severe pathological state as a metaphor for a milder frame of mind: in this case, as a metaphor for indecision or difficulty making up one’s mind. But for pete’s sake, authors, use the right pathology! It’s dissociative identity disorder, not schizophrenia, that creates “split personality.” It used to be called multiple personality disorder. It was once considered to be rare. Sadly, some degree of dissociation is now known to be common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
I recently came across another wrong committed in the name of schizophrenia in one of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective books. It was a great read until the gaffe at the end, when the murderer is revealed. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t name the book except to say it’s not the current one. But the setup is that the murderer has committed a series of well planned and well covered murders, using a dominant personality to draw a weaker sidekick into what the narrator (or the writer) not unreasonably calls a folie à deux. But then Pronzini blows it. “Paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex—you didn’t need to be Freud to see that.” Wrong. Narcissistic personality disorder, certainly. Sociopathy, probably. But a paranoid schizophrenic would be incapable of the organized thought and planning that went into these murders. I still remember trying to get one of the first paranoid schiz patients I worked with as a social work intern to comment further on something he had said.
“Do you have any thoughts about that?” I asked.
“Oh, very few.” And that was all he had to say.
As an expert on alcoholism who writes about recovery, I hate it when a drunk is played for laughs or when a habitual compulsive drinker (yes, Virginia, that is an alcoholic) stops without effort thanks to the love of a good woman or turns it on and off like a tap, as the otherwise admirable Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon does. I also hate it when somebody donates or bequeaths money to AA, whose traditions state clearly that they “do not accept outside donations.” And I’ve never quite forgiven Dick Francis for the denouement in which the alcoholic brother gets killed saving the protagonist followed by the sadly ironic phone call in which the caller tells the protagonist that he’s returning the brother’s call to AA. It’s not called Alcoholic Anonymous for nothing. An AA member would never, never identify himself to whoever answers the phone.
Those are some of my pet peeves as a reader. What are yours, and why?