The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
The Curious Appearance of a Strange New Novel in the Offices of Powells.com
A review by Dave Weich
It's not just the hook, though the hook is peculiar and oddly affecting. "When
I was writing," the author allows, "I really thought to myself, Who
on Earth is going to want to read about a fifteen-year-old kid with a disability
living in Swindon with his father? And I thought, I
better make the plot good." The hook — the plot
— is significantly better than good, but it's the irresistible
voice of Mark Haddon's fifteen-year-old narrator that elevates this literary debut
to fantastic heights. If after the first page of The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time you would deny yourself the pleasure of two hundred
more in the company of Christopher Boone, this review will likely do little to
convince you otherwise.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle
of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house. Its eyes were closed. It looked
as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are
chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was
dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork
must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the
fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with
the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not
think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some
other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not
be certain about this.
I went through Mrs. Shears' gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her
lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It
was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs. Shears who was our friend.
She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles
but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could
see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
"This is a murder mystery novel," Christopher explains a few pages
further on. A fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, this young boy with Behavioral
Problems decides to investigate the poodle's murder and turn the story into
a book of his own. "In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who
the murderer is and then catch them," he reasons. "It is a puzzle."
Christopher is quite good at puzzles.
Christopher is also very good at math, and at remembering. He is, however, entirely
incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale
between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing
narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around
him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks
among the most hard-boiled detectives in all literature. Logic dictates, indisputably.
His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances.
And yet Haddon's novel is an emotional roller coaster. The author's foremost
accomplishment, in a book chock full of them, is to deliver a wrenching domestic
fiction in such clipped, deductive prose, to pull at the reader's heart repeatedly
without even once resorting to overdrawn, hysterical language or cheap melodrama.
Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every
clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off
course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher
is telling and the one we are reading, exposes depths of insight and feeling
no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.
I virtually forced a copy into Georgie's
hands as soon as I finished. Georgie, who coordinates our Review-a-Day program,
enjoys mysteries, and though The Curious Incident
is far from a traditional whodunit — we shelve it in Literature,
— I figured she would enjoy it. She read the book front to back in a single
night and cried when she was through.
Shannon, who works in Returns, stood in front of the microwave in the Powells.com
break room waiting for her lunch to cook. "I have something yellow on my
finger, something from the microwave, and I don't know what it is," she
announced, staring at the mustard-like smudge on her index finger. Apropos of
nothing, Jonathan, seated at the opposite end of the room, interjected, "Yellow
is bad. Yellow and brown are very, very bad."
Jonathan was exhibiting a symptom common among readers of The Curious
Incident: channeling Christopher. "Not liking yellow things
or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things" is,
in fact, one of Christopher's Behavioral Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy,
wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a
girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he were to see four yellow
cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things
yellow, it would be "a Black Day, which is a day when I don't speak to
anyone and sit on my own reading books and don't eat my lunch and Take
No Risks." To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to
the contrary, this behavior makes perfect sense.
Mrs. Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan
said that she shouldn't say things like that and everyone has favorite colors.
And Siobhan was right. But Mrs. Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is
sort of being silly. But in life you have to take lots of decisions and if
you don't take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend
all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have
a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in
a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you
look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you
don't know if you are going to like something because you haven't tasted it
yet, so you have favorite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you
don't like and you don't choose these, and then it is simple.
"This will not be a funny book," Christopher warns readers. "I
cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them." And it's true: Christopher
cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way
of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it's more
than confusing; it's downright dishonest.
But here, again, Haddon twists the cold, hyperlogical voice of his narrator
into what you'd least suspect: a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humor. The
story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without
the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.
If the book's economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through
Christopher's obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters
— it's only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper
context for Christopher's severely limited perspective — Haddon's dialogue
also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher's exchange with
a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly
from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.
And I said, "What does single or return mean?"
And he said, "Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come
And I said, "I want to stay there when I get there."
And he said, "For how long?"
And I said, "Until I go to university."
And he said, "Single, then," and then he said, "That'll be
Already film rights have been bought by Hey Day, the makers of the Harry
Potter movies, together with Brad Grey (The Sopranos)
and Brad Pitt. In itself, that's not surprising. Early critical raves (including
an oft-cited back cover blurb from Ian
McEwan) and word-of-mouth catapulted the novel onto bestseller lists throughout
the U.S. and Great Britain within weeks of its publication. The real mystery
is, What actor could adequately portray Christopher on the screen? The role
will demand a surfeit of physical skills, subtlety and excess in constant balance:
stillness and hysteria, silence and screaming.
Late in the narrative, a quick flashback is tucked into a more pressing, pertinent
scene. Aboard the train now, Christopher recalls riding home from school one
day when the bus had broken down:
There were lots of people on the train, and I didn't like that, because I
don't like lots of people I don't know and I hate it even more if I am stuck
in a room with lots of people I don't know, and a train is like a room and
you can't get out of it when it's moving. And it made me think of when I had
to come home in the car from school one day because the bus had broken down
and Mother came and picked me up and Mrs. Peters asked Mother if she could
take Jack and Polly home because their mothers couldn't come and pick them
up, and Mother said yes. But I started screaming in the car because there
were too many people in it and Jack and Polly weren't in my class and Jack
bangs his head on things and makes a noise like an animal, and I tried to
get out of the car, but it was still going along and I fell out onto the road
and I had to have stitches in my head and they had to shave the hair off and
it took 3 months for it to grow back to the way it was before.
"It's hilarious on one page," a member of our customer service department
commented upon returning the company copy to its shelf in the office, "then
two pages later you want to cry."
A few days after finishing the novel, I spoke to Haddon, who was in New York
for its publication. He was at the time enjoying Nicholson
Baker's latest novel, A
Box of Matches. Which seemed perfect, frankly. Baker's novel-sized contemplation
of life's oft-ignored minutia is an excellent reference point for Christopher's
detail-dense observations in The Curious Incident.
Upon beginning A Box of Matches, the reader discovers
that the novels' first lines even echo one another. Haddon: "It was 7 minutes
after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in
front of Mrs. Shears' house." Baker: "Good morning, it's January and
it's 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark."
Late in Haddon's debut, when Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous
journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds,
noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible
messages... it's all too unfamiliar, and before long it's too much for him
Here, not for the first time, Christopher's investigation inadvertently exposes
raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station,
Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear
his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don't exactly empathize with Christopher.
We can't go that far, quite. There's a border we can't cross, despite Haddon's
virtuoso performance. The author mused in conversation, "Here's a character
whom if you met him in real life you'd never, ever get inside his head. Yet
something magical happens when you write a novel about him. You slip inside
his head and it seems like the most natural thing in the world." And it
does seem natural. Typical of the novel's ironies,
however, when it's over we're left with an artifice in our hands and this lasting
revelation: that no tidy capsule could ever make us truly appreciate the unending
alienation Christopher suffers.
"People have said to me that it's a desperately sad book and they wept
most of the way through it," Haddon admits. "Other people say it's
charming and they kept laughing all the time."
The novel's center is an empty space. Each reader fills it as they see fit.
What's odd among the various impressions of our staff, so far at least, is
this: everyone who has started the book has not only finished it, but finished
within a day or two. And its texture has lingered with each of us. This morning,
April returned to customer service after two days off. "I kept thinking about
what Siobhan tells Christopher about most people being so distracted that they
don't notice things," she said, "how they're all too busy worrying about whether
they've left the gas stove on." I nodded, but I'd forgotten the passage. I laughed
when I located it in the book: "This is really true," Christopher tells the
reader in a footnote, "because I asked Siobhan what people thought about when
they looked at things, and this is what she said."
"Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,"
the author aptly noted. "He can't understand metaphor; he can't understand
other people's emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him
incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never
tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just
kind of paints this picture and says, 'Make of it what you will.'"
Read the Powells.com Interview with Mark Haddon