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by Mark Haddon
Doubleday, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 30th 2004

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Christopher Boone is 15-years-old and has autism. He lives with his father, explaining to the reader in a very matter-of-fact way that his mother died three years ago. He shows no sadness about the loss, and this might make one think of Christopher as emotionally stunted. But he has plenty of emotions: he hates being hugged, he hates it when two different kinds of food on his plate touch each other, he hates the colors brown and yellow. He likes routine and feels more comfortable with familiar people. He likes geometrical shapes, and he loves mathematical and logical puzzles. He is proud of the fact that he will soon be taking his mathematics A-level, (a national exam in the UK that most students take at the age of 17), and he expects to get an A grade. He also likes Sherlock Holmes. And he likes dogs. So when he discovers the dog belonging to their next door neighbor, Mrs. Shears, dead with a garden fork sticking in it, he sets out to solve the puzzle and work out who killed Wellington. What's more, his teacher, Siobhan, at his special education school encourages him to write about his investigation.

What makes it difficult for Christopher to get to the bottom of the problem is that he has difficulty understanding relationships between people. He finds it very hard to "read faces" and understand what subtle feelings other people express with their body language. He explains that he himself is unable to lie because it is too complicated to imagine all the things that are not true. He is not very good at telling when other people are lying either, and when the people he trusts deceive him, his reaction is powerful. He may start groaning, lying on the floor, be sick, or blackout altogether. Nevertheless, he is persistent, and he goes around to all his local neighbors to ask them if they know anything about the murder of Wellington. Neither Mrs. Shears nor his father like him doing this, and his father tells him "You are not going to go asking anyone who killed that bloody dog." Christopher promises to do what his father tells him, but he takes a very literal interpretation of his promise, and so he feels at liberty to ask other questions instead.

Using his fantastic memory and his grasp of the elementary rules of detecting, Christopher eventually gets the killer to confess. But in the process of his uncovering secrets, he discovers much more than expected. The story moves from a rather simple and quirky murder mystery to a rich family drama where Christopher is forced to deal with life outside of his familiar routine. At one point in the story he finds himself in a London Underground subway train station, crammed full of people, and this is an awful experience for him. It is easy to feel sympathy and compassion for Christopher even though his autism makes him different from most others. One effect of reading this novel is that one might come to see the autistic as less bizarre than often thought. It is surprisingly easy to identify with Christopher's reactions and to be disappointed when those close to him fail to take his own needs into account, even when they are trying to help him.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a gripping read that does a wonderful job in bringing to life the world of the autistic. Christopher's condition is of course mild compared to many other cases, and the book makes no attempt to educate about the whole autistic spectrum. But it would be unreasonable to expect it to educate its readers in the manner of a textbook. Mark Haddon tells its story well, and manages to make the character of Christopher charming and admirable. Highly recommended.

 

2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.