‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ launches an unlikely protagonist onto a heroic journey

August 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 9, 2016

Last month, my Sibling-in-Law’s family was once again kind enough my parental unit and I to join them for part of their annual summer visit to Ocean City, Md. This year, fortunately, I wasn’t suffering from dental pain, and no violence to books was inflicted during the trip.

Despite — or more likely because of — the lack of suffering and drama, I managed to zip through a novel during my time on the beach. I very much enjoyed consuming The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the 2003 bestseller by the British author, illustrator and poet Mark Haddon.

The narrator of The Curious Incident introduces himself this way on the second page of the book:

My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.

Eight years ago, when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture

Sad face

and I knew it meant “sad,” which is what I felt when I found the dead dog.

Then she showed me this picture

Happy face

and I knew that it meant “happy,” like when I’m reading about the Apollo space missions, or when I am still awake at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning and I can walk up and down the street and pretend that I am the only person in the whole world.

Then she drew some other pictures

Other facial expressions

but I was unable to say what these meant.

I got Siobhan to draw lots of these faces and then write down next to them exactly what they meant. I kept the piece of paper in my pocket and took it out when I didn’t understand what someone was saying. But it was very difficult to decide which of the diagrams was most like the face they were making because people’s faces move very quickly.

Boone, as Haddon quickly shows without saying, is autistic. But for all his difficulties decoding ordinary emotions, understanding metaphors, jokes and other figures of speech, interacting with so-called normal or neurotypical people, Boone is something of a genius when it comes to math and science. (The expression idiot savant likely would have been used when I was a kid; I suppose it’s fallen out of favor now, perhaps with good reason.) When he becomes overwhelmed by his current situation, Boone starts contemplating physics or prime numbers.

He’s overwhelmed plenty of times over the course of the novel, which begins just after midnight one evening when Boone finds that Wellington, his neighbor’s dog, has been stabbed to death. He resolves to investigate the murder, inspired in part by his favorite book, the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s typical in mystery novels for investigations to lead detectives in ways they never expect. That’s true of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but in most other ways, the book is very much an original work. Haddon alternates narrative action with Boone’s relatable reveries on science and people. (Indeed, Haddon has something of the same gift for explaining scientific concepts that the late Isaac Asimov once did.) It all comes together in surprisingly moving ways.

Part of the reason for this is that Boone stumbles upon some unexpected discoveries about his seemingly ordinary family and their seemingly ordinary neighborhood. In the hands of a less talented author, this might be contrived; here, however, it seems very natural. It helps that neither Boone, nor his family, nor his school teachers and neighbors are depicted as one-dimensional saints; instead, each has serious flaws that go hand-in-hand with their good points. Haddon’s writing seems to have been well-served by his experiences working with autistic individuals.

When one encounters people who are different or handicapped, it’s easy to dismiss them as stupid or unimportant. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a book that encouraged me to reconsider such bad habits, and I think that’s a major reason why it justly became so popular.

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