In your standard murder mystery novel, a hard-boiled detective sorts clues from red herrings to track down the murderer of a young woman. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is different. It is a self-proclaimed mystery novel, with the requisite crime and investigation format, but the victim is a neighbourhood pet and the detective is 15-year-old Christopher, a young man who perceives the world differently.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Christopher is read (by most readers, anyway) as having Asperger Syndrome, or having some kind of autism spectrum disorder. As a character, he describes himself as being “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Haddon, the author, insists that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is “not specifically about any specific disorder” (which makes the choice to give Christopher so many traits commonly associated with Asperger’s and other developmental disorders very strange). I feel like it’s an “easy out” for Haddon to say that Christopher has “no specific disorder”, because – as he admits – he is neurotypical and has no expertise in this area.
“I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger syndrome. I gave [Christopher] kind of 9 or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn’t read any more about Asperger’s because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger syndrome, and they’re as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society.”Mark Haddon
He’s right, of course, in saying that people with Asperger’s – and other types of mental and neurological disorders – are a large, diverse group who cannot be adequately captured in or represented by a single fictional character. It’s good that he didn’t try. But I think his lack of expertise and experience explains why his characterisation sometimes felt so… flat. Christopher didn’t jump off the page to me, the way that other neurodiverse characters have (I’m thinking of Zelda in When We Were Vikings as an example). Christopher’s “no specific disorder” seemed to be the only remarkable characteristic he had, and it coloured every description or insight we may have had into his mind and his life.
But let’s leave that alone for now, and get back to the story. When Christopher discovers his neighbour’s dog dead in her backyard (yes, I cried, dog deaths slay me – RIP Wellington!), he takes it upon himself to find the culprit. He decides to write down (i.e., narrate) the details of his investigation in the form of a murder mystery novel, and that’s the frame for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. Christopher continues his investigation, interrogating neighbours and collecting evidence, despite his father’s express instruction to stay out of other people’s business.
His home life, he slowly reveals to us, is a bit screwy. His mother is dead, and his father – Ed – probably isn’t going to win any trophies for parenting. Ed has been raising Christopher as a single parent for two years when the story begins, and yet Christopher seems to have more affinity (and respect) for Siobhan, his paraprofessional and mentor at school. She takes the time to explain behaviour and rules to Christopher in a way that makes sense to him, and he relies on her guidance to help him navigate the world.
Christopher solves the case in the end (of course), and uncovers a whole bunch of other mysteries and adventures along the way. That makes it sound a bit cutesy, but trust me, they’re sometimes dark and sometimes horrifying. I won’t give them all away, other than to say that most readers will find the story very moving. If I’m honest, the dog murder was the most upsetting bit for me (and you can keep any analysis of what that says about me to yourself, thanks!).
To circle back around to what I was saying earlier, Christopher’s character just didn’t quite pull me in the way it seems to have pulled in others. Perhaps I’m simply spoiled for having read other, brilliant representations of neurodiverse characters in the seventeen years since this one was first released. For me, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time was fairly good… but not great, and certainly not as great as I’d hoped.
I’m fairly lonely in my lukewarm reception of this one. Haddon won the 2003 Whitbread Book Of The Year award for it, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and a whole stack of others – it was even long-listed for the Booker! Its popularity endures, too. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time has been translated into over 35 languages, transformed into a stage adaptation, rights sold for a film adaptation (though no movement at that station yet), and named as one of the Guardian’s 100 best books of the 21st century. So, don’t let me put you off!
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time:
- “This book is aggressively ok. I mean that as a compliment, honestly. Christopher is a really enjoyable character and I feel he tells his story with just the right amount of enthusiasm to keep you going. The militant atheism wears on you a bit, and I say that as a devout agnostic.” – The Professor
- “Got as I gift but when the book arrived I kind of wanted to keep for myself.” – Amazon Customer
- “Christophar was lit.” – daiyan ahmed
- “What was the point? Just to tell a story of one’s life? Totally narcissistic in my opinion Not a fan Should have disclaimer” – Shelley
September 15, 2020 at 5:15 PM
I had not heard that about the author doing no research into Asperger’s. I read this but it was a while ago and before I had any experience with autistic individuals myself, so it would be interesting to reread now. What springs to mind is that people come first, not the syndrome – any diagnosis is a convenience for us in trying to deal with the diverse phenomena that come to meet us through interactions with individual human beings. So I think there is some justification for the idea of creating a character who just is who he is, quirks and all, rather than trying to label and define him … but not if the characterization falls flat, or if it becomes popularized as a definitive representation of a syndrome with no grounding in knowledge or research. Anyway, need to reread.
September 15, 2020 at 7:24 PM
Oooh, Lory, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do! Completely understand what you’re saying re: creating a character without a label, and I think this book might have triggered a bit of a trend towards “quirky” characters without a formalised diagnosis (The Rosie Project comes to mind), but I think this one definitely fell into the trap of becoming representative (Haddon has been invited to speak at conferences on Asperger’s, for instance). And for so many people a diagnosis can be affirming, life-changing, and come to be integral to their identity – it means access to treatments they might otherwise be denied, it means connection to a community they might not otherwise have found… Ack, now I’m talking myself in circles! The point is, I’d love to hear your re-read recap! 😉
September 15, 2020 at 9:58 PM
I liked this book when it came out, but as I’ve gotten older and learned more about disability and writers of disabled characters, I’ve felt more and more frustrated with it (and with my past self for not seeing the problems there). Christopher’s neurodivergence feels like a gimmick or a hook rather than something intrinsic to the character — which makes total sense now that I know the author didn’t do any research about autism before writing the book. :/
September 16, 2020 at 2:51 PM
Hey, no need to be frustrated with your past self – I think it’s hecking awesome that we can learn and grow with things like this, shine some light on our own blind spots. I’m sure if I’d read this one five or ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought to question it.
September 16, 2020 at 5:20 PM
I remember this, I found it a bit variable. For example early on Christopher seems very limited by his mental condition. But at intervals (when it was needed by the plot) he seems to miraculously overcome those restrictions and push that plot right along there. Almost as soon as that started happening I started thinking eh? what’s going on here? As a work of detective fiction it was good, but I didn’t find what ailed him to be that convincing.
September 18, 2020 at 11:32 AM
Exactly, Phil – that definitely goes to Haddon’s lack of research and expertise in this field.
September 19, 2020 at 8:29 PM
I think it certainly was a breath of fresh air at the time, allowing others to see the world from the point of view of a (potentially) autistic character. I’m sure there have been many other, better books about that at the time. My boys thought it offered a great insight into the mind of a teen, whether autistic or not, and we all saw the play in London – which was a very good adaptation as well. So I did find it really moving, but have to admit I haven’t read many other books in that vein, so cannot compare.
September 20, 2020 at 6:16 PM
Oooh, the play would be interesting – I’d be curious to see how they pulled it off (it’s had quite a good run, as I understand), seeing as so much of the “action” and conflict is internal on Christopher’s part.
September 19, 2020 at 9:26 PM
This is one of the books I’ve got hold of just recently and intend to read soon. It was great to read your thoughts, which have intrigued me even more to begin. I’m looking forward to both the sleuth thread and the disability thread now.
September 20, 2020 at 6:15 PM
Fantastic!! As always, I can’t wait to hear what you think. Should be a lot for you to chew on!