The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 2003
Printing: May 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-3271-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 226

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Christopher is fifteen, lives with his father, goes to school, and plans on getting an A in his math A-level exams. He loves detective novels, so when he finds the neighbor's dog stabbed with a pitchfork, he decides to write a detective novel about discovering who killed the dog. He didn't think he could write a novel since novels are about things that aren't true and he can't tell lies, but he can write this book since everything will be true.

You've probably already heard of this book. It made a huge splash when it was first published and spent quite a bit of time on best-seller lists. The hook is that Christopher has an autism spectrum disorder, although this is never explicitly stated in the book. Some call it Asperger's Syndrome and some call it autism; whatever label you use, Christopher is "high functioning," meaning that he can interact with the world to a degree and can use language and communicate, but he has some of the stock autism traits such as an intense dislike of being touched. He's also a mathematical genius.

Haddon puts a lot into a slim book, and The Dog in the Night-Time can be read in several ways. Christopher gets side-tracked frequently while writing his detective story, turning the book into a sort of personal journal that touches on everything from how the world feels to him to the personal lives of his family and mathematical puzzles that fascinate him. A strong thread of plot pulls the story along, though, as Christopher's investigation of the death of the dog leads to poignant and at times moving family drama recounted in his almost emotionless writing style.

I think the relationship drama is the strongest part of this book, precisely because of Christopher's difficulty with understanding the emotions of others and his minimalistic narrative style. He doesn't understand metaphors and won't tell a lie, and he relates conversations verbatim without interpretation or commentary other than how they make him feel physically. The reader ends up filling in the blanks and feeling the emotions for Christopher (as well as feeling quite protective of him), which for me created a stronger attachment than if all the obvious reactions had been written into the story. The emotional subtext is such an obvious gap that one can't help but fill it in, and that gives the reader a personal interpretation and personal stake in the story in a way that's hard to duplicate with a more traditional narrative style.

Christopher's narration is distancing enough that I found myself sometimes identifying more with other characters in his story than with him. This is where the book pulls off its most effective bit of perspective. We as readers have a position unlike any character in the book: Christopher is in a position to see a larger picture that the other characters in the book, but he doesn't have the mindset required to understand it, leaving us to work out the details long before Christopher understands. This gave the struggles of Christopher's father and others in his life more tragic depth for me. We're getting what they've wanted so badly, namely a direct inside track into what Christopher is thinking and feeling but is unable to clearly express, but we're as unable to tell them what they should be doing as Christopher is. Watching them try to muddle through without that understanding and without any way of bridging the gap is at times heartbreaking.

As a story about autism, The Dog in the Night-Time has been well-received and doesn't seem to bother practicing psychologists too much. Given how much Haddon is using Christopher's autism to do thematically, that's impressive. Still, I'd take the specific descriptions of an autistic mindset from the inside with a grain of salt. The author has worked with autistic kids (although many years before writing this novel), and Christopher's symptoms and behavior does fit into the autism spectrum, but I think think there's a whiff of wish-fulfillment in how his first-person narration is written. Christopher's mindset and emotions are extremely accessible, with logical and emotionally satisfying explanations for why he thinks and reacts the way he does. By the end of the book, it feels natural to think the way he does and one wants to lecture the other characters on how to treat him properly. That makes for a satisfying reading experience, but I expect the real world of autism would be far more confusing and incomprehensible than that. The attribution of many of Christopher's problems to sensory overload, for instance, felt more true as social commentary on the difficulties of people without autism.

Apart from both the drama and the autism, The Dog in the Night-Time also has an enjoyable sprinkling of mathematics. If you like succinct, readable explanations of mathematical puzzles but overdose on too many of them at once, this book is a treat. Christopher drops them here and there into his narrative, including one of the best explanations of the Monty Haul problem that I've read. There are bits about chaotic population growth, a trigonometry proof in an appendix, and an amusingly sudden introduction of Conway's Soldiers. Haddon does a wonderful job of showing how math puzzles can be calming, and for those puzzles that he chooses to explain, does a remarkably good job at balancing sufficient but not excessive detail.

This is, at its heart, a book built around one twist. Without Christopher's unique perspective, it's an adequate relationship novel with a few random math puzzles. All of its charm comes from its presentation, which Haddon carries down to the level of Christopher's word choice and frequent use of drawings and diagrams and maintains with enough consistency that I never noticed a flaw. (I started searching for metaphors after Christopher declared his dislike of them early in the book and was amused to find Christopher pointedly explaining the difference between a simile and a metaphor often shortly after it had occurred to me to look for metaphors again.) If that one twist doesn't work for you, you may bounce off this book badly, as it has little else to offer. For me, though, it worked.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-03-05

Last modified and spun 2015-06-01