The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

Every year, our school chooses one summer reading book that the entire student body will read. This is our sixth year doing so (last year’s selection can be viewed here), but it was handled differently this year. Instead of having the students vote among three to five finalists, the administration picked the book. This book was on our list for last summer, and it was the one I voted for, so I looked forward to finally getting a chance to read it.

And you know what? It was definitely intriguing.

Let’s start with the set-up. Christopher Boone is a British teenager with autism. He lives alone with his father after his mother died in the hospital. One day, he discovers that Wellington, a neighbor’s dog, has been murdered with a garden pitchfork. Because he loves animals, he wants to find out who committed such a heinous crime. He sets out to solve the mystery logically like Sherlock Holmes, a literary hero of his with superior deductive reasoning.

The book is written in the style of Christopher writing a book about his investigation. The primary strength of the book is this first-person narration. Because Christopher has autism, he is extremely literal and operates under a very specific set of daily rules. For example, if he sees a sequence of four red cars while riding the bus to school, the day is going to be a super good day, but if the sequence is four yellow cars, it will be a bad day. Also, Christopher cannot speak to certain people because they are strangers, so he doesn’t trust them when they speak to him.

Instead of typical sequential chapter numbers, the book is sectioned into parts numbered after prime numbers. Christopher explains why, and it makes perfect sense given his mathematical interests and abilities. These sections alternate between what’s happening in his investigation and whatever else happens to come into his mind at the time. Sentence structure varies between quick, short sentences and long run-on sentences that last a paragraph. There are occasional sequences of dialogue where each shift in the speaker starts with “And he said,” then “And I said,” and so forth. I’m a teacher who has encountered children with autism, so I found all these choices combined perfectly to make Christopher a fully believable, realistic character.

When Christopher first finds the dog, the neighbor is furious and calls the police. Though Christopher—who is incapable of saying anything that isn’t true—admits he didn’t kill the dog, the policeman is curious and tries to pull him away from the dog. Having autism, he doesn’t like to be touched, so he hits the policeman. This initial incident gets him brought to the station, and they call his father, who demands that Christopher not investigate the dog’s curious death.

But Christopher investigates anyway, and that’s where I stop with the story. I don’t want to spoil the plot twists as Christopher learns and uncovers secrets I didn’t see coming. They blew my mind, but it was more fascinating to see how they affected Christopher, especially since he cannot fully comprehend emotions.

The book had an outstanding structure, narration, and mystery, but the action after the climax fell somewhat flat. Christopher’s life has been irrevocably changed, yet he’s more focused on taking his math exams. Such an ending is very different than expected in the typical “pyramid” story structure, but this isn’t a typical story. In reality, life continues on; there isn’t a “story” ending, happy or otherwise. So with the lack of a conventional ending, this book mirrors reality better. Also, the common trait of people with autism displaying difficulty with emotions makes the book’s ending more realistic. But when I go into reading a book—one that is indeed fictional—I have an expectation that the post-climactic action leads to an ending, and it’s hard for me to overlook that, no matter how excellent everything else is.

But I won’t significantly lower the rating for that. This is an important book because I believe it accurately portrays how a person with autism thinks, feels, and behaves. That is something we should all be curious about, since a better understanding of others is something we all could use. I rate it slightly below a prime number at FOUR AND A HALF STARS.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is available at Amazon.

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