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Breaking the Puzzle Apart

Mystery Novel Sheds Light on Autism

By Carolyn Johnson

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

240 pages, Doubleday, $22.95

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is “a murder mystery novel” told in prime-numbered chapters by 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone. Christopher understands complicated math and physics, thinks intelligently about the universe, and sees and remembers everything.

He is curious in all senses of the word. He is a smart, funny, self-aware narrator who also happens to be a clueless and overly serious person, completely detached from the natural logic of human existence. Christopher finds human emotion perplexing, foreign, and false. He screams if he is touched. He only eats red foods. He factors complicated quadratic equations in his head, for fun. He never wonders about what goes on in other people’s minds.

As the publicity blitzkrieg accompanying the book has informed readers, Christopher is not just peculiar; he is autistic. Christopher’s inadvertently poignant and hilarious observations reveal the strange, haunting silliness of human life in a way that yields great insight for its readers, rather than lording omniscience over its audience.

In the first pages, Christopher finds the neighbor’s dog, Wellington, lying in the yard and impaled by a pitchfork. He calmly removes the fork, picks up the dripping dog, and hugs Wellington tightly. “I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.” The game is afoot. Christopher, we learn, is writing this book in order to chronicle his discoveries as he investigates the suspicious murder.

Christopher is a perfectly impassive, emotionally uninvolved detective. He faces problems and clues as if they are arithmetic problems that can be definitely solved, even when they are deeply intertwined with his own life story. He trains his probing, analytical mind on himself through much of the book, revealing what he likes best about the world (the color red, melted raspberry milkshakes, Minesweeper) and what is incomprehensible (jokes, emotions, lies) in a humorous, matter-of-fact tone. Investigation appeals to his logical, deterministic mind. And though he is mentally incapable of lies, jokes, or feeling, his version of events is flawed, funny, and sad.

Christopher is painstakingly honest throughout his account, but his version of reality is faithful only to the most superficial level of “truth.” He does not understand subtexts: what people may mean when they say something untrue or the ways in which words signify emotion. At one point, his angry father asks him, “Holy fucking Jesus, Christopher. How stupid are you?” and all Christopher can think is, “This is what ... is called a rhetorical question. It has a question mark at the end, but you are not meant to answer it because the person who is asking it already knows the answer. It is difficult to spot a rhetorical question.”

The mystery of the dog (and of Christopher’s character) is unraveled in short, charming chapters that bounce along in a charismatic prose that is fortified by an effortlessly laid platform of underlying seriousness. Although his father has told Christopher that his mother is dead, detective work reveals a hidden pile of letters detailing her life in London with another man. Christopher recoils violently. What the reader sees as confused selfishness and a misguided attempt to protect his son is, in the eyes of Christopher, the work of an untrustworthy murderer.

Christopher sets off in search of his mother, and navigates the London Underground in a harrowing set of scenes. His inability to process too much data at once leaves him confused and afraid as he huddles in the corner of the busy train station. A clinical explanation might reduce the experience to a weird montage of symptoms, merely aspects of autism. But Haddon writes with humanity, and Christopher’s condition becomes interesting not for its strangeness, but for the familiarity and empathy that we feel for his confusion.

But Christopher isn’t a delicate victim of his disease. He’s a deadpan, brutal investigator who turns an acute, focused eye on volatile, upsetting material. In one haunting chapter, he details a favorite post-apocalyptic dream in which a virus wipes out people who communicate with one another, leaving only people who don’t look you in the eye -- a world populated by a few rare people who “are like okapi in the jungle in the Congo, which are a kind of antelope and very shy and rare.” The book is brutish and charming and, in the end, honest about the way this very strange family tries to fit their very separate lives together.

Everyday life takes on a whole different configuration when seen through Christopher’s mind. Reality is presented in great detail, but is somehow unreal. Seeing it this way is both startling and compelling; it adds depth to the aspects that are less faithfully developed.

As Christopher says, “A thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of being new.” Christopher’s careful and uniquely unemotional stream of attention bring the incidents of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to life in a way that most fiction, weighed down by emotional reality, never accomplishes.