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An unlikely sleuth matched up with an odd murder

Special to The Times

The Curious Incident

of the Dog in the Night-Time

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 18, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 84 words Type of Material: Correction
Sherlock Holmes title -- A book review in Wednesday’s Calendar said that the title of Mark Haddon’s novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” was taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Actually, it’s from Doyle’s short story “Silver Blaze.” In that story, when Sherlock Holmes calls attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” someone replies, “But the dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes responds, “That was the curious incident!”

A Novel

Mark Haddon

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Doubleday: 226 pp., $22.95

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

A Novel

Mark Haddon

Advertisement

Doubleday: 226 pp., $22.95

*

Sometimes, the most important things we find are the ones we stumble upon while looking for something else. This surely applies to the central character of Mark Haddon’s extraordinary first novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Christopher John Francis Boone lives with his father in the downscale English town of Swindon. He discovers far more than he’d ever imagined investigating and writing a book about the recent murder of Wellington, his neighbor’s poodle. Most kids his age wouldn’t feel motivated to take on such curious tasks. But then most 15-year-olds aren’t autistic.

A mystery narrated by an autistic detective is an unusual device, but a distinction should be made here. To those familiar with this population, Christopher clearly has Asperger’s syndrome, which puts him at the very high-functioning end of his special-ed class -- Advanced Placement autism, if you will. Unlike most autistic children, who are nonverbal or communicate with talking computers, flashcards or signing, Christopher is extremely verbal and a math genius to boot. He has feelings and emotions but, like everything else about him, they’re more than a tad different.

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Part of Haddon’s gift is getting into his narrator’s quirky way of thinking. While being interrogated by a policeman, Christopher points out that the questions “were stacking up in my head like loaves [of bread] in the factory where Uncle Terry works.” Early on, he announces his book will not be funny because he can’t tell jokes and doesn’t understand them. However, throughout the story Christopher says countless funny things in a deadpan, throwaway manner, which places him in the tradition of unreliable narrators.

Haddon’s book is a bit like watching a DVD with a commentary track. There is the story that Christopher relates as he understands it alongside the story that he doesn’t fully grasp. His favorite book is “The Hound of the Baskervilles” -- that’s where the title comes from -- and he’s aware of the demands of the mystery genre. One ongoing device is his comically self-conscious deployment of hard-boiled police procedural phrases, as when he notes of a suspect, “I might have more evidence against him, or be able to Exclude Him From My Investigation.”

Christopher’s fondness for dogs motivates his entire journey: “Dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.” He can’t lie either, and this compulsion often gets him in trouble, especially when working the Wellington case. Christopher’s considerable mathematical skills are also in play, and the book has an assortment of graphs, equations and diagrams, which some will find baffling. Nonetheless, their presence provides a fundamental insight by making readers experience the same difficulty with this technical material as special-needs kids do when it comes to seemingly simple tasks such as deciphering what facial expressions mean or conceal.

Ed, Christopher’s flawed father, runs a two-man heating maintenance and repair business. One would be hard-pressed to call him a happy camper. Raising Christopher by himself, he’s angry, lonely and not having an easy time of it. Ed loves his son and means well, but his behavior often falls somewhere between neglectful and abusive. He has forbidden his son from continuing to look into and write about the circumstances surrounding the murdered Wellington next door. But Christopher persists, and his inquiry unearths a number of troubling family secrets, two of which compellingly kick the story into a surprising higher gear.

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In addition to an obsession with prime numbers, Christopher comforts himself with an interest in outer space. (Ironically, his solo train trip to London is a greater adventure than any he’d envisioned in a rocket ship to distant galaxies.) Christopher finds some peace of mind in the white noise between two radio stations: “You turn the volume right up so that this is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else.” Yet an activity like this doesn’t seem much stranger than normal people who shut out the world by listening to music while wearing headphones.

To Haddon’s credit, the book feels as if it was actually written by a special-needs teen. He is armed with substantial insight into and compassion for these children. Haddon once worked with autistic people, and this experience and his superior writing ability have conspired to vividly bring Christopher’s story to life. Although he is a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, Christopher reminds me of another famous English sleuth: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Her mystery-solving skills had their roots in how well she knew her tiny village, St. Mary Mead. Christopher’s universe is even smaller than Miss Marple’s, but he manages to make incredible deductions by just observing the goings-on on his street. Despite the unfair cards life has dealt him, Christopher emerges as a real hero. I related to him instantly because I have a teenage son with autism. But anyone will be hard-pressed not to be touched by this unforgettable young man who doesn’t like to be touched.


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