The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century. Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies. He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school. However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.
Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism. Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up. His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother. She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope. She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad. He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member. It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.
Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.
This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ 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. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on. Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free. As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail. This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired. Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”
Christopher is quite good at puzzles.
His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery. His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London. Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.
Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.
Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!
Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages. At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.
The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind. So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated. With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’. By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.
“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.
Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.
“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.
One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.
If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.
And I said, “What does single or return mean?”
And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”
And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”
And he said, “For how long?”
And I said, “Until I go to university.”
And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”
Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!
When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.
Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.
And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.
“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”
Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one. He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey. Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.
The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations. And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer. And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’