I first read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time back in 2004, not long after its release, and was immediately taken by it. It’s hard not to be, mind you; Mark Haddon’s tale of an autistic young man who investigates the killing of a neighbor’s dog, only to find his way into a far different mystery, is funny, charming, profound, moving, and wholly original. Much of that comes from Haddon’s original, incredible creation of Christopher, our narrator – and I’ll have lots to say about him in a few. But first, let’s talk about the story itself, which often gets overshadowed by Haddon’s wonderful writing.
One of Haddon’s many great choices in Curious Incident is the decision to turn his novel not into a simple portrait of this young man, nor plunge into his complicated family history. Instead, Haddon frames his tale as a murder mystery…of sorts. After all, not many murder mysteries revolve around the killing of a dog. More importantly, though, not many books solve their mystery less than halfway through the novel, turning what we thought was a mystery into something wholly else: a gut-wrenching piece of drama about families, love, and betrayal.
Which brings us back to Christopher, who has to rank among the greatest and most original narrators in recent memory. Haddon plunges us into Christopher’s mindset, and it’s a very strange world for many of us. Even with the increase of awareness with regard to autism in the decade since the novel was published, it’s still an affliction that’s bewildering to many of us. And yet, Haddon helps us to understand Christopher perfectly, teaching us how he sees the world, how he struggles to interpret people, why he gets overwhelmed – and he does it all without ever feeling like he’s sliding into didactic writing or lecturing. Indeed, one of my favorite small sections involves nothing more than Christopher explaining his interpretation of various simple “smiley faces,” and demonstrating how hard it is to find nuance and complexity in them. It tells you an immense amount, all in less than a page.
Here’s the thing, though: ultimately, while the story of Curious Incident is great (and genuinely surprising on the first read), one of the things you forget until you re-read the book is just how essential Christopher’s narration is to the impact of the novel. As the book evolves in the back half into something wholly unexpected, and Christopher forces himself out of his comfort zone, Haddon never lets us forget just how grueling this experience for him, and the impact is devastating. As Christopher deals with people who don’t understand him, constantly overwhelming stimuli, and an inability to comprehend the complexity of his loved ones’ emotions, we find ourselves aching for this child, who is simultaneously brilliant and naive, intellectual and yet unable to understand basic human interaction. Haddon walks the line effortlessly, never reducing Christopher to a caricature, but never forcing him through the plot. Instead, by limiting our exposure to his world through his eyes, we only get glimpses of everything going on around him. And from those glimpses, we come to see not only how complicated Christopher’s life is, but maybe what it’s like to try to parent someone like him.
More than anything else, what Haddon has done here is something remarkable: he’s turned a simple mystery into something more profound and human, slowly letting his book evolve from a story about a dead dog into an examination of families, guilt, and the complexities of love. More than that, though, he does it all while forcing the reader to have empathy with someone wholly unlike themselves, and the end result is like little else you’ve ever read. By now, you’ve probably read this book; its reputation precedes it, and it’s not undeserved. But if you haven’t, make the time; it’s a truly powerful, remarkable book, one that inspires empathy, understanding, and true compassion – something the world always needs more of.