by Mark Haddon
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 30th 2004
Christopher Boone is 15-years-old
and has autism. He lives with his father, explaining to the reader in a very
matter-of-fact way that his mother died three years ago. He shows no sadness
about the loss, and this might make one think of Christopher as emotionally
stunted. But he has plenty of emotions: he hates being hugged, he hates it
when two different kinds of food on his plate touch each other, he hates the
colors brown and yellow. He likes routine and feels more comfortable with
familiar people. He likes geometrical shapes, and he loves mathematical and
logical puzzles. He is proud of the fact that he will soon be taking his mathematics
A-level, (a national exam in the UK that most students take at the age of 17),
and he expects to get an A grade. He also likes Sherlock Holmes. And he likes
dogs. So when he discovers the dog belonging to their next door neighbor, Mrs.
Shears, dead with a garden fork sticking in it, he sets out to solve the puzzle
and work out who killed Wellington. What's more, his teacher, Siobhan, at his
special education school encourages him to write about his investigation.
What makes it difficult for Christopher
to get to the bottom of the problem is that he has difficulty understanding
relationships between people. He finds it very hard to "read faces"
and understand what subtle feelings other people express with their body
language. He explains that he himself is unable to lie because it is too
complicated to imagine all the things that are not true. He is not very good
at telling when other people are lying either, and when the people he trusts
deceive him, his reaction is powerful. He may start groaning, lying on the
floor, be sick, or blackout altogether. Nevertheless, he is persistent, and he
goes around to all his local neighbors to ask them if they know anything about
the murder of Wellington. Neither Mrs. Shears nor his father like him doing
this, and his father tells him "You are not going to go asking anyone who
killed that bloody dog." Christopher promises to do what his father tells
him, but he takes a very literal interpretation of his promise, and so he feels
at liberty to ask other questions instead.
Using his fantastic memory and his
grasp of the elementary rules of detecting, Christopher eventually gets the
killer to confess. But in the process of his uncovering secrets, he discovers
much more than expected. The story moves from a rather simple and quirky
murder mystery to a rich family drama where Christopher is forced to deal with
life outside of his familiar routine. At one point in the story he finds
himself in a London Underground subway train station, crammed full of people,
and this is an awful experience for him. It is easy to feel sympathy and
compassion for Christopher even though his autism makes him different from most
others. One effect of reading this novel is that one might come to see the
autistic as less bizarre than often thought. It is surprisingly easy to
identify with Christopher's reactions and to be disappointed when those close
to him fail to take his own needs into account, even when they are trying to
The Curious Incident of the Dog
in the Night-time is a gripping read that does a wonderful job in bringing
to life the world of the autistic. Christopher's condition is of course mild
compared to many other cases, and the book makes no attempt to educate about
the whole autistic spectrum. But it would be unreasonable to expect it to
educate its readers in the manner of a textbook. Mark Haddon tells its story
well, and manages to make the character of Christopher charming and admirable.
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.