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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Reviewed: June 26, 2006
By: Mark Haddon
Publisher: Anchor Canada
226 pages, $19.95

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will immediately recognize the title of Mark Haddon's clever and engaging novel. In the classic short story, "Silver Blaze", a a horse is abducted by persons unknown and Holmes and Watson are called in to investigate. After a number of interviews and a bit of sleuthing, Holmes admonishes Watson to pay particular attention to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

What, asks Watson, did the dog do?

Holmes assumes an inscrutable air and replies that the dog did nothing. In the context of the story this is a very significant clue.

At seven minutes past midnight Christopher John Francis Boone finds a dog on his neighbour's lawn. This dog also did nothing, but that was because it was dead.

In a passage which is almost Sherlockian in its attention to physical detail, Christopher goes on to describe his find.

"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 had been killed with the fork because I could not see 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 instance, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this."

It might be those last two sentences which would tell you that this was not some supremely rational mind at work. Something else is going on.

At 15 years, 5 months and 3 days Christopher is very smart about any facts that he has learned about anything he might be interested in. His interests are limited, though he knows the capitals of all the countries in the world and every prime number up to 7,057.

Christopher relates well to animals and would like to have a dog, but instead he has a rat named Toby. He has almost no idea how to relate to other people or express human emotions. He knows happy and sad, but has no comprehension of the shades that come between them.

Christopher is autistic, which can actually mean a great many things. In Christopher's case it seems to mean that there are certain stimuli in the world (emotional outbursts, being touched, certain noises, the colour yellow, etc.) that overwhelm him. In response he may hit people, or sit in the corner of the school library with his head pressed into a corner because this calms him and makes him feel safe.

Needing to feel safe, needing to have logical reasons for things, may have been the motivations which caused Christopher to attempt to find out who killed the dog. While he manages to collect a lot of facts, it remains clear that he is never going to get at the motive for the crime. Even when the person who did it finally tells him, he doesn't understand it. (No, I'm not going to tell you who it was.)

By that time, however, Christopher has a more important matter on his mind. He had always thought that his mother had died two years earlier, and when he discovers that she didn't, he decides to find her. This involves stretching himself far beyond anything he would ever have thought possible: travelling to London, taking public transit, being surrounded by strange people he does not know.

He actually has an address to go to, but getting there is a an extreme feat for him.

Mark Haddon has actually spent a lot of time working with kids like Christopher, and manages to make this first person narrative both entertaining and instructive. The book appeared in 2003, well before autism became the learning disability flavour of the month in a Time magazine cover story (May 15, 2006). The magazine article makes no reference to the Haddon novel, but one of the subheadings is "the curious incidence", which is too close a coincidence not to be an allusion. From that article, it would appear that many of Haddon's observations are spot on.

These come to us through Christopher's first person narration. His limitations make him a classic unreliable narrator, not because he is lying or trying to fool us, but simply because of the trouble he has coping with the world. The boy is totally literal minded and almost unable to interact with other people. He is his own worst enemy and the source of most of the problems he encounters on his quest.

In addition to being an entertaining story, Haddon's book tells us a lot about this complex problem, how such people cope with it, and what effect it has on those around them. Christopher's parents have each tried to deal with their son's peculiarities and have each failed in different ways. It's an interesting mystery in that there are no villains as such,, just a lot of people trying to cope with unsual circumstances.

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