The Young Detective 

Mark Haddon’s debut novel gets inside the mind of an autistic teen

Mark Haddon’s debut novel gets inside the mind of an autistic teen

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon (Doubleday, $22.95, 226 pp.)

In British author Mark Haddon’s winning and unorthodox first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 15-year-old protagonist Christopher Boone makes for an unlikely first-person narrator. Unlikely, because he is autistic, seemingly afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome (though it is never mentioned directly). Haddon, a former illustrator of children’s books who has also worked with young autistics, deftly manages to put the reader in Christopher’s mind, which prizes logic and scientific processes over any manner of human subtlety or nuance. We learn quickly, for instance, that he cannot tell jokes, which make him “uncomfortable and confused.” Likewise, metaphors seem to him no better than lies: “People do not have skeletons in their cupboards,” he observes. And proper novels, which describe things that never really happened, cause Christopher to “feel shaky and scared.”

The plot engine in Haddon’s novel is the writing of a book. Christopher’s “special needs” school counselor, Siobhan, suggests that he embark on a book project, ostensibly an account of the teen’s investigation into the foul-play death of a neighbor’s poodle, Wellington. The work will be a murder mystery, a genre that appeals to Christopher for its inherent similarities to his beloved math puzzles. Here, presumably, the pieces or clues will fit together, and they will do so according to rules black and white.

After first being accused of the crime himself and spending a night in jail (which he enjoys, as the holding cell turns out to be a perfect cube), Christopher begins to record in painstaking detail the progress of his own investigation. He quickly makes for an especially offbeat gumshoe, mostly due to his admitted behavioral tics, but also because of his fear of strangers. Strangers like to “chat,” Christopher writes, and “say things to each other which aren’t questions and answers and aren’t connected.”

For pattern-obsessed Christopher, who does complicated math problems in his head to restore mental order in times of stress, his questioning of strangers is only possible during a “Super Good Day,” the result of spotting five red cars in a row passing the school bus. Conversely, four yellow cars in a row means a paralyzing “Black Day,” when he will speak to no one and “Take No Risks.” When emboldened over his timidity by a Good Day, Christopher sets out for clues in the fashion of his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes, whom he appreciates for his logical mind and his eschewing of spiritual matters like “God and fairy tales and Hounds of Hell and curses, which are stupid things.”

Haddon, who peppers the novel with intricate diagrams and illustrations, deserves credit for his insight into the inscrutable autistic mind. His real feat, though, is his ability to wedge into his stark prose some jarring breaks in style, as when Christopher is recounting verbatim bits of dialogue among the adults or transcribing the letters from his late mother that he finds in his father’s closet. It’s in these little cracks on the periphery where messy human emotions come to light, along with some disturbing family history. Here the novel grows out of its detective-story guise and into something bigger, more devastating. As our budding mystery writer notes early on, “If it is a good puzzle, you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.” And we do. The central question of Haddon’s novel soon becomes: Will Christopher?

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