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A Special-Needs Sherlock
By Margaret Black

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday, 226 pages, $22.95

W e know immediately that something’s strange about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time because the book begins with a section numbered 2 and the oddly precise sentence “It was 7 minutes after midnight.” The narrator goes on to describe his neighbor’s large poodle lying dead in her yard, stabbed through with a garden fork. “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 has died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.” Thus Christopher John Francis Boone begins his tale about finding poor Wellington, getting blamed for the dog’s death, and deciding to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes and solve Wellington’s murder.

Christopher, we soon learn, knows “all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.” (This last suggests an explanation, later verified, for the strange section numbering.) He is also “15 years and 3 months and 2 days” old—a statement that turns out to be his standard conversational gambit when he is forced into what he regards as the meaningless activity called “chatting.” Mathematically brilliant, logically gifted, and deeply autistic, Christopher takes every statement at face value. Siobhan, a teacher at his special school who understands this, tells him exactly and in detail what he can or cannot do. She also recommends that he write this story, about the death of Wellington.

That author Mark Haddon is capable of getting so completely inside the head of a person like Christopher deserves praise. And that Christopher should emerge as an engaging, sympathetic, and often funny character further demonstrates Haddon’s gifts. But most extraordinary is the author’s ability tell a complicated emotional story from the point of view of an individual who has absolutely no felt understanding of human emotions.

Christopher lives alone with his father, a plumbing-and-heating contractor of great patience and invention, who must deal with long and often late working hours in addition to the exhausting difficulties of his son’s needs. Christopher’s mother appears to be dead. Christopher manages what for him is the horrific onslaught and cacophony of sense experience by organizing it arbitrarily (5 red cars in a row indicates a Super Good Day to come, 4 yellow ones is a Black 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”). He eats nothing yellow or brown, although a large bottle of red food coloring makes accessible the Indian curry that he likes. Christopher can’t bear to be touched (he screams, or groans, or reacts violently). When his father wants to hug him, the two spread out a hand in a fan shape and touch fingertips: “I do not like hugging people,” says Christopher, “so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.”

Christopher’s logic takes on a certain devious legal quality when he decides to continue his investigations against his father’s wishes. He reasons that he has promised only five things:

1. Not to mention Mr. Shears’s name in our house

2. Not to go asking Mrs. Shears about who killed that bloody dog

3. Not to go asking anyone about who killed that bloody dog

4. Not to go trespassing in other people’s gardens

5. To stop this ridiculous bloody detective game

This still permits him to ask a great many other questions. Because he uncovers yet other mysteries while solving the first, he eventually makes a hair-raising trip to London that tries his capacities beyond anything he’s ever imagined. How he gets there and how he finds his way about the city builds more tension than most thrillers.

Christopher’s account regularly digresses into math and logic puzzles, all of which are wonderfully entertaining and beautifully illustrated. And when Siobhan suggests that his detailed explanation of a question on a math test is too distracting, he puts his proof into an appendix for those readers as interested as he in the method.

A story such as this might easily slump into a sloppy Rain Man affair, but Haddon constantly keeps the difficult truths about Christopher before us. And Haddon is not secretly sentimental about Christopher’s internal life. Near the end of the book, Christopher tells about a wonderful dream he has in which nearly everyone in the world dies of a virus, leaving no one “except people who don’t look at other people’s faces.” Toward the end of the dream he goes “home to Father’s house, except it’s not Father’s house anymore, it’s mine. And I make myself some Gobi Aloo Sag with red food coloring in it . . . and I watch a video about the solar system and I play some computer games and I go to bed. And then the dream is finished and I am happy.”

Chilling though that is, and much as we feel for all those who thanklessly make his life work, we can’t help but cheer for Christopher because, as he says, “[I] went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? And . . . I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”

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