Book Review by Heidi Simmons
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time
By Mark Haddon
Everyone likes to get involved in a mystery, especially when the detective is quirky, odd and eccentric. It’s fun when famous sleuths like Sherlock Holmes and Monk channel their compulsive disorders into solving a crime.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time (Vintage, 226 pages) gives us a new and unlikely detective. It is a fresh perspective and voice in the mystery narrative. Christopher Boone is a 15 year-old boy with autism. He takes everything literally, doesn’t want to be touched, can’t read human emotions and hates the color yellow to name a few. He cannot decode figures of speech, jokes or sarcasm.
Haddon writes in Christopher’s voice. Told first person, Christopher discovers his neighbor’s standard poodle, Wellington, has been murdered with a pitchfork in her front yard. When Christopher removes the fork and cradles the animal, the neighbor believes Christopher killed the animal. Christopher likes animals because they are easy to read. He figures dogs have four emotions: happy, sad, cross and concentrating.
When police question Christopher about the dog, he has trouble answering to their satisfaction. When pressed he screams or rocks. To the reader they are simple questions. But for Christopher, it is a challenge and it is confusing. And this is how the reader gets a first person account of being in the head of an autistic boy coping in what seems an alien world.
Christopher is good at math or “maths” as he puts it, and goes to a special needs school. His teacher Siobhan, suggests he write something about his experience. Christopher says: “Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with the dog because it happened to me and I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me.”
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time is a clever and captivating story of a boy trying to understand his world. Against his father’s wishes and with all his intense challenges to get through everyday, Christopher does his best to investigate Wellington’s murder. He is not concerned with clearing his name. It isn’t even a consideration for him, but for the reader it certainly is.
Throughout the book, Christopher describes math problems, diagrams and puzzles. He numbers his chapters with ascending primary numbers because they are interesting and he likes them. His mathematical and logical thinking make him a good detective. But clearly, he is hindered by his inability to read people, though perhaps with his condition, it helps him stay focused and not be sidetracked with emotions.
There is more going on than Christopher’s detective work. What Christopher cannot see, we can. There is a serious family drama unfolding and Christopher ends up discovering way more than just the dog’s murderer. Autistic or not, for Christopher it is devastating and forces a crisis he is unequipped to handle. His life gets more complicated because his parents are flawed and selfish.
Haddon, writing as Christopher, captures the voice with simple sentences and a rhythmic, droning tone. How Christopher observes the world is charming, insightful and brilliant. Even endearing. But there were times when I had enough of Christopher’s blunt and unadorned voice and could easily imagine his parents’ stress and dilemma.
Christopher’s journey of discovery becomes dangerous on a daring cross-town solo trip. I’m never sure if Christopher is able to fully deconstruct the matter of his own life. The story is more than solving the murder of Wellington; it is a coming of age story for Christopher. In his own limited and exceptional way, he discovers the truth about the people around him and most importantly that he is ultimately a capable and competent person with unique skills regardless of his condition.
Beyond the prospective and challenges of an autistic teen, what makes this story provocative and engaging is how Haddon involves the reader in a new world that honestly captures the joy, struggle and burden of a child with special needs. It doesn’t preach or lay out a guilt trip, but rather is a quick and entertaining read with dimensional characters and an upbeat ending. Finally, we are reading Christopher’s book.