The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday, 2003, ISBN 0385512104; 226 Pages, Hardcover $22.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Mark Sarvas

From Of Mice and Men to Flowers for Algernon to the remarkable non-fiction of Oliver Sacks, authors have long looked for ways to convincingly and sympathetically portray the mentally disabled. All too often, in lesser hands, such characters suffer one of two fates: they become little more than maudlin stereotypes, or they are reduced to walking collections of simplistic tics and gestures – temptations that can be difficult for a writer to resist.
Fortunately for us all, Mark Haddon has resolutely filled his ears against this sirens’ call and offered up an impressive debut novel, winner of The Guardian’s children’s fiction prize, the new Book Trust teenage fiction award, and the Whitbread Novel Award. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was also longlisted for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Award, and many observers were surprised that it did not advance to the shortlist. John Carey, chairman of the Booker panel of judges, went so far as to tell The Guardian, “We have several clashes of opinion among the judges but I found Haddon’s book about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome breathtaking.”
Asperger Syndrome is a condition that resembles autism and, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, can include such symptoms as “marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction” and “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus.” This scarcely seems like a promising basis for a character – for a narrator, no less – but Haddon draws on his experience working with autism to animate Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old mathematical savant who investigates the murder of a neighbor’s dog.
Although the traits mentioned suggest that Christopher might be the very definition of an unreliable narrator, in fact they make him a surprisingly trustworthy guide through the mysterious events that make up the book’s narrative. Although Christopher’s perception of events are always partial, circumscribed by the boundaries of his condition, the honesty and sheer literalism imposed by the same condition anoints him with a clarity and a perceptiveness that serves both him and the reader well. (Unfortunately for Christopher, this honesty does not necessarily put him in good graces with family and neighbors.) After discovering his neighbor’s dog dead on the lawn, Christopher applies the methods of his favorite literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, to try to determine who or what is responsible for Wellington’s untimely demise:

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over.

As he tries to unravel the mystery, Christopher appropriately turns to The Hound of the Baskervilles for guidance. He likes the presence of both clues and red herrings in the story, which he details in separate lists – clues include Sir Henry Baskerville’s missing boots, and red herrings include Selden, the Notting Hill Murderer. The notion of clues and red herrings echoes throughout Christopher’s own detective story.
Lists permeate the novel, from Behavioral Problems (G. Groaning; L. Not smiling; P. Hating France) to things that are red and thus good (four red cars in a row) versus things that are brown and bad (dirt, poo). Lists and schedules provide a sense of order and safety for Christopher and, despite a danger of lapsing into gimmickry, manage to layer our understanding of the working of his mind – “I said I liked things to be in a nice order. And one way of things being in a nice order was to be logical.” Predictably, Christopher responds poorly to unexpected or heightened stimulation. While being interrogated by a policeman who can’t understand his excessive literalness, the boy adopts his usual defensive position:

I rolled back onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning. I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world. It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear and you tune it halfway between two stations so that all you get is white noise and then 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.

Christopher finds himself rebuffed in his initial efforts to learn more about the chain of events that have culminated in the perforation of Wellington by a gardening apparatus. It’s not until he makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Alexander, an elderly neighbor with a dog (“It is a dachshund, so she was probably a good person because she liked dogs”), that he is given vital information to move the case forward. Discovering a cache of hidden letters from his deceased mother, the book takes a brief epistolary turn. As in all good detective stories, each new set of clues that’s unearthed leads to more questions, and eventually the widening circle extends all the way to London. Christopher’s unaccompanied journey to the city is a positively harrowing experience, and along the way, he learns a few rather painful lessons about the nature of some mysteries – that sometimes the outward problem requires an inward solution. Holmes would surely approve.

Haddon succeeds remarkably well at suggesting the inner workings of Christopher’s mind, particularly as the boy folds mathematical ideas into the story, which is an amalgam of words and diagrams – an autistic W.G. Sebald, if you like. The “maths,” as he calls them, serve a double purpose: they order the tale he tells but, more importantly, they give a system by which to order his life. The book is riddled with maps, diagrams and equations, including an appendix which details a geometric proof regarding right-angled triangles “that can be written in the form n2 + 1, n2 – 1 and 2n (where n>1).” Instead of naming his chapters of granting them cardinal numbers, Christopher orders the sections of the story using consecutive prime numbers – his only reason being “because I like prime numbers.” When a teacher suggests that Christopher likes maths because “it was meant solving problems, and these problems were difficult and interesting but there was always a straightforward answer at the end,” Christopher confides in us that, in fact, the teacher doesn’t really understand numbers. Using the example of something called “The Monty Hall Problem,” which (replete with diagrams) explains why you should always change your choice of doors despite the fact that this seems counterintuitive, he concludes:

And this shows the intuition can sometimes get things wrong. And intuition is what people use in life to make decisions. But logic can help you work out the right answer.

It also shows that Mr. Jeavons was wrong and numbers are sometimes very complicated and not very straightforward at all. And that is why I like The Monty Hall Problem.

As he continues along in this fairly literal approach to life, Christopher’s resulting observations about adult insincerity, hypocrisy and opacity are frequently hilarious and often moving.

This is what Siobahn says is called a rhetorical question. It has a question mark at the end, but you are not meant to answer it because the person answering it already knows the answer. It is difficult to spot a rhetorical question.

And earlier, as Christopher wrestles with the problem of metaphor, he notes:

I think it should be called lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.

But such unrelenting literalness carries a risk, and Haddon faces unique difficulties centering his story around a character whose illness prevents him from any meaningful, emotional growth – an “arc,” in the parlance of street. Since the best we can ostensibly hope for is a solution to the mystery (the resolution of the narrative thread at which Doyle’s Holmes stories – not coincidentally – excel), story sense may be gratified, but the likelihood of an emotionally satisfying reading seems remote. Sensitive to this limitation, Haddon instead uses Christopher effectively as a mirror for our own foibles and missteps. Christopher sums up a retelling of the Cottingley Fairies hoax (which even fooled spiritualist Doyle) by noting:

And this shows that sometimes people want to be stupid and they do not want to know the truth.

And it shows that something called Occam’s razor is true. And Occam’s razor is not a razor that men shave with but a Law, and it says

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

Which is Latin and it means

No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.

In the end, Haddon’s subtle approach offers perhaps the ideal amalgam of The Monty Hall Problem and Occam’s Razor: a seemingly straightforward story with unexpected depth and complexity – but no more than is absolutely necessary.

–Mark Sarvas
27 January 2004

Writer Mark Sarvas hosts the literary weblog The Elegant Variation.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.