The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction published
since 1985.  These books
represent the finest literature
of the current era, and are
gaining recognition as the new
classics of our time. In this
installment of
The New Canon,
Ted Gioia reviews
The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the
by Mark Haddon.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night Time by Mark Haddon

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Fictional detectives are a quirky lot. Sherlock Holmes fortified his
powers of ratiocination with the help of cocaine and morphine.
Hercule Poirot showed tell-tale signs of obsessive-compulsive
disorder—he was strangely fixated on keeping an exact balance of
444 pounds, 4 shillings and 4 pence in his
bank account. Nero Wolfe, that Falstaff of
private eyes, weighed almost 300 pounds
and hated to leave his home—I guess that’s
what happens when your author’s name is

But when it comes to the modern and post-
modern novel, the investigators get even
stranger. In
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan
Lethem relies on a detective afflicted with
Tourette syndrome, a disorder that leaves
its victims with nervous tics and a tendency
to exclaim obscene, insulting or inappropriate
remarks. Not a good thing on a low-key stakeout, needless to say!  
In Thomas Pynchon's recent novel
Inherent Vice, our private
investigator is a hippie whose excessive marijuana and drug use has
left him with barely enough functioning brain cells to recognize his
surroundings, let alone unravel a murder mystery. In Paul Aster’s
The New York Trilogy, the line is blurred even further, and it is
sometimes hard to say whether our investigator solves crimes or
merely writes about them.

Then we come to Mark Haddon’s
The Curious Incident of the Dog in
the Night-Time
in which a 15-year-old autistic boy tries to find the
culprit in a local murder. Christopher Boone models himself on his
hero Sherlock Holmes—that is, when he is not dreaming of
becoming an astronaut—and keeps a journal of the progress of his
investigation as part of project at his school for students with special

The crime: the mysterious death of a neighbors’ dog. Okay, it’s not a
robbery on Fort Knox or a sinister terrorist plot, but every private
investigator needs to start somewhere. And even Sherlock Holmes
was caught up in a case about a hound back in the day. Even so, it is
hard to make much headway when you are afraid of the colors
yellow and brown, avoid strangers, and collapse screaming when
people get too close to you. But Christopher perseveres despite his
limitations and obsessions—even rising above them when

As this bare bones description makes clear,
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time
is not your typical detective story.
Haddon defies our expectations in many other ways. The “crime” is
actually solved at a fairly early stage of the novel, but the
investigation uncovers other secrets with more serious
repercussions. Christopher soon learns things about his own family,
his past and possible future, that are more unsettling, more
threatening to his psyche than the death of a canine.

The world at large frowns on this youngster’s attempts to solve his
crime. The police bring him in for questioning, suspecting that he
might have murdered the pooch himself. Christopher’s father get the
boy released, but makes him promise to “keep his nose out of other
people’s business.” Even the owner of the dead dog gets angry at
him. Other neighbors discourage him. “You be careful, young man.”
“Look, son, do you really think you ought to be going around asking
questions like this?” “Perhaps you should be talking to your father
about this.”

Haddon, who has worked with autistic individuals, gives his narrator
great freedom to violate the conventions of storytelling at almost
every turn in the tale. When Christopher wants to go off on a
tangent—speculating about God, human nature, or prime numbers—
the author lets him rip. Mathematics is one of Boone’s passions, and
the novel is constantly interrupted with tables, charts, decision trees
and expositions of various calculations and concepts. As if this is not
enough, an appendix includes a detailed proof of a theorem
involving a triangle. And you thought mysteries should conclude
with the solution of a crime? Our narrator might reply that the
solution of a math puzzle can be just as elegant!

Haddon works with many other constraints here. His prose is a
metaphor-free zone. Boone’s mindset prevents him from
comprehending metaphors, and he sees them as just another type of
lie. Our hero also has difficulty interpreting those obvious, everyday
signals that most of us take for granted—facial expressions, tones of
voice, etc.  His limited experience of modern life is so extreme that
some of the simplest expedients and phrases leave him stymied.
Given this framework, most of the riches of the modern novel—
relating to language or perspective—are not available to our
narrator.  Haddon's ability to construct such a compelling story
despite these obstacles is remarkable.

By the same token, the emotional distance of Christopher from his
family, friends and surroundings, and the lavish attention to
numbers described above might suggest that this is a cold book,
devoid of passion and incapable of touching the readers. Yet
Haddon deserves credit for pulling our heartstrings while
maintaining a prose style that is maddeningly neutral on a surface
level. Boone, who puts up psychological and physical barriers
against strangers, eventually invites us into the inner sanctum of
strangely placid worldview. That may not be the typical
denouement for a mystery tale, but it is quite an achievement for a
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