Talking About The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time*

The book title alone is so appealing to me that I probably would have read the story just based on that, though I have to admit that all the rave reviews and the fact that I’ve seen it on countless “Best Of” lists certainly helped push it to the top of my reading list. I finished this book just yesterday and being a small book, it only took one day to read, but as I write this I’m already well into another fantastic read, so I figure if I want to write my impressions from fresh memory, it’s now or never:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
In the middle of the night our narrator Christopher, 15 years old, has just discovered the neighbour’s dog, Wellington, dead on the neighbour’s front yard. He quickly assesses that the dog has been murdered, since there is a garden fork stuck through his body. Christopher, who is a great fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, finds these circumstances rather unusual and decides this is precisely the kind of case that a private detective might try to solve. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is actually Christopher’s book, which his mentor, encourages him to write so he can share how he goes about discovering who has killed Wellington the poodle, as well as details about his personal life.

Of course Christopher never spells this out, but he clearly has Asperger’s Syndrome; he goes to a “special needs school”, is a math wiz, has a photographic memory, can retain unlimited amounts of facts and trivia—all things which he happily demonstrates whenever possible. He also has a profound dislike for the colours yellow and brown (he will not eat foods in those colours), he can’t stand being touched by anyone, he doesn’t like socializing because he has difficulty reading people’s expressions, and doesn’t understand common metaphors used in conversations. Yet, for the sake of the book he is writing, he takes it upon himself to question his neighbours in an attempt to uncover the mystery of Wellington’s murder.

One of the great accomplishments of this book is Mark Haddon’s ability to inhabit his character so fully. So much so that I enjoyed being in Christopher’s shoes as I was reading ‘his’ story. On a personal note, the story reminds me of my little brother who lives in Australia as he and his wife both work with autistic children—Christopher is described as having high-functioning autism on the book jacket–and have told me all kinds of stories from their observations . Haddon never falls into sentimentality or preachiness, yet shows great sympathy towards all his characters (except poor Wellington whom he’s chosen to kill off before we even get a chance to meet him). It’s obvious that Haddon did some research on the autism spectrum, though he maintains the contrary because he doesn’t want his character to be reduced to a simple label. In his words:

labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. a diagnosis may lead to practical help. but genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.

* According to Wikipedia, the book title is from a quote by detective Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1894 short story ‘Silver Blaze’.

Illustration: markhaddon.com

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