THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
By Mark Haddon
Christopher John Francis Boone is an alien: an autistic fifteen-year-old mathematics genius unable to interact with others or understand human emotions. He finds people confusing and doesn’t like coming into contact with them. He is also unable to tell a lie, or make use of a metaphor (metaphors, in his thinking, are a kind of lie).
This makes him an odd narrator for a novel. Of course Christopher doesn’t like “proper” novels. They are “lies about things which didn’t happen.” He does like mystery novels though, and so he calls his composition a “murder mystery novel” (why he would consider it a novel, which is a fiction, instead of a memoir, isn’t clear).
Christopher’s literal-mindedness isn’t bulletproof. In addition to mystery novels he also likes watching Star Trek. He uses hypothetical figures, a form of make-believe, to illustrate a scientific problem. He considers a scheme for classifying days as good or bad based on the number of cars going by of the same colour as being perfectly logical. In other words he is not a human calculator, but a withdrawn, observant kid with a mathematical imagination. He prefers the order of mathematical systems to human chaos, but is quirky enough to number his chapters using only prime numbers because he likes them better.
The mystery begins with the killing of a neighbor’s poodle. Determined to discover who stuck a garden pitchfork into poor Wellington, Christopher begins his investigation in the spirit of his hero Sherlock Holmes, “detaching his mind at will” from anything not relating to the problem to be solved.
But, this being life and not a mystery novel, everything is related to the problem. And it is precisely Christopher’s detachment from the human messiness and emotional turmoil that surrounds the curious incident that makes him such an effective narrator (albeit a hit-and-miss detective). Author Mark Haddon plays on the reader’s sympathies a little much, making it impossible not to root for the plucky (but occasionally, and realistically, obnoxious) tyke surrounded by nasty people who just don’t understand, but the novel as a whole is a remarkably skilled performance.
One question many readers will have is whether Haddon, who has worked with autistic children, has created a “real” autistic child in Christopher Boone. Since autism is a disorder characterized by introversion and an inability to communicate with others, the inner world of those afflicted has always been a mystery. Given that Christopher is perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation, not to mention his writing a book, he seems only slightly affected. He is extremely intelligent. His inability to understand emotions, or to have feelings beyond anger and confusion, seem to be more the result of a lack of interest in these things than a psychological barrier. Unfortunately, in making Christopher more like an average boy experiencing minor technical difficulties that are mainly the result of the misunderstanding of strangers than someone with a serious disorder, Haddon makes his exasperating self-absorption seem almost willful.
Of course any first-person consciousness in a novel is pure invention, and whether Christopher is believable as an autistic child is probably beside the point. As a narrator with a psychological disorder he invites but finally frustrates diagnosis. But the book itself works like a charm. The eventful narrative has two tested engines, being a mystery story that gives way to an autistic Odyssey. As in a lot of adult books with child narrators, a gentle satire arises from the conflict between Christopher’s innocent personality and the insane normal world of grown-ups. The result is a cleverly constructed tale full of odd and charming moments.
Review first published August 16, 2003.