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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
Reviewed by James Fant
Although well received critically, and popular enough to climb the New York Times Bestseller List, this book was not something I could muster much enthusiasm about reading (before I picked it up). The reason for my reluctance was that, while I enjoy a good yarn as much as the next bloke, detective fiction, broadly speaking, is a genre or subgenre that was strip-mined for most of the last century (and even before) until it resembled an ecological disaster site. It became, to my mind, the literary equivalent of a slurry pit.
In order to climb out of this stinking cauldron of cliché, detective writers have anthropomorphized every imaginable idiosyncrasy, quirk, or foible in the hope of creating characters simultaneously worthy of our attention and capable of solving crimes. The only way that the protagonist of a detective story could be "novel" in the original sense of the term was to be so far out on the bell-curve that it beggared belief and tried one's patience past the breaking point. Having read this book, I admit I was wrong, and even misguided; the autistic narrator is not a gimmick. To think that no new detective who passes the novelty test could be created is like thinking that all good music has already been written.
To compound my earlier folly, I'm going to describe The Curious Incident in terms of its sub-genre, even though it clearly transcends that classification. It is an amateur sleuth story. The book's protagonist is Christopher Boone (note the last name), an autistic lad who discovers his neighbor's poodle has been impaled by a pitchfork. He sets out to solve the crime, and this book, which he claims to be writing, records his touching and disastrous attempts to do so.
The story is told in the first person, and therein lies much of its charm and its power to move the reader. Imagine Rain Man told from the perspective of Raymond and you get the idea. Since Christopher has difficulty processing emotions in a "normal" way, how could his highly rational, linear, almost mathematical mode of thought stir any emotion in the reader? The answer lies in his interactions with other characters and his own reactions to events, which he faithfully records. These interactions have the effect of throwing his thoughts, observations, and feelings into sharp relief.
For instance, Christopher describes his hometown, Swindon (England), as "small." His father, however, describes it as the "arsehole of the world." Such ironic contrasts make for much of the book's richness. Similarly, to give an example of an odd but revealing reaction to events, Christopher is relieved when he is arrested as a suspect at the beginning of the novel, because being told he's under arrest is something he has heard before on television. He finds the police cell comfortingly cubical.
There is a further brilliance in having an autistic youth as the hero of a detective story. Detectives, in the classical sense, solve puzzles, and Christopher is a master puzzle cracker because of the way his mind works. He is extremely observant and perceptive in a unique manner, and his personal hero is Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal puzzle-cracker. You wonder, reading this, whether Holmes himself did not have a touch of autism.
So Christopher's "handicap" is also in fact his strength. As readers, we cannot identify with detectives who are not good at their jobs, unless they are comic creations like Clouseau. Christopher is an excellent detective in his own inimitable way. Furthermore, although he is an unusual, even unique narrator, he is also a "reliable" one because, by his own admission, he is incapable of telling a lie (with the exception of white lies, which he explains, are not the same as regular ones). This adds piquancy to the novel. Part of the undeniable charm of Christopher is that he is fundamentally honest, and he struggles to function in a world of emotionally dishonest people.
Like all heroes, he is also brave. Christopher's world contains a large number of things that are both terrifying and incomprehensible to him, and much of the story consists of his attempts to cope with these and more generally with his fear of the unknown. He dislikes strangers, the colors yellow and brown, and the entire nation of France, to name just a few of his long litany of phobias. In order to solve the mystery, of course, he must triumph over his fears. He does this partly through a series of rationalizations, rituals, and asides that are bizarrely captivating. Normally, digressions slow down a narrative - but many of these are so engrossing, even enchanting, that we are swept along not only into sympathy, but even perhaps into identification, with his world view.
Haddon might have had an easier time of it had he created a character with a less severe case of autism. This would have enabled Christopher, for example, to get from point A to point B without quite as much fuss. Christopher's attempt to reach the train station involves an epic, almost Odyssean, journey. But such a choice on the part of the author, for his own convenience, would have resulted in a lesser achievement and, ultimately, a less rewarding work. This is an ambitious book, and Haddon has pulled it off brilliantly. Christopher is highly accessible, and his voice feels genuine and authentic.
This novel works on a number of levels - as a unique detective yarn, as a mythic journey, and as a dramatic story. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Christopher's investigation is a framing device: a pretext for the forward momentum of his story. Without giving away the surprises, the dog killing is a kind of narrative red herring, or at least a clue to the larger mystery. What is really going on in his life, and in his tragic domestic situation, is the real meat of the story, and he uncovers it through his own sleuthing, as all good detectives must.
Haddon does not patronize or condescend to Christopher, nor does he teeter over into bathos. The story is never sappy. Instead, Haddon has drawn a moving portrait of an autistic youth who is, in a very real sense, a hero. Highly recommended.
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