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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel
JAMES R. MERIKANGAS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2245-a-2246. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2245-a
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By Mark Haddon. New York, Doubleday/Random House, 2003, 226 pp., $22.95.

Detective stories are a rather new invention in the world of literature. The first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," by Edgar Allan Poe, was published in April 1841 (1). The story lines of crimes of violence, the quest, and the overcoming of obstacles and tribulations may date back to Homer and The Odyssey, but the detective as hero is an innovation. The detective is usually a man or woman of Aristotelian logic, often a loner, and at least exceptional in some manner of intellect or creativity.

Now crimes are solved with scientific methods and psychological insight, as on CSI, currently the most popular drama on television. This show resembles a high-tech offspring of detectives Sherlock Holmes and Kay Scarpetta and is enormously entertaining. What accounts for the universal appeal of this genre? Is it the wealth of local color, obscure facts, and psychopathology or is it the rational process of deduction, the leaps of intuition, and the chess game approach to the diabolical mind of the killer?

Whatever the reasons, a story that can turn the whole formula on its head by being very exciting while ignoring clever dialogue, scenic locale, purple prose, sex and seduction, drugs and alcohol, and graphic violence is a remarkable feat of writing. This is the achievement of Mark Haddon’s fascinating first published novel. Haddon attended Oxford, worked in a school for people with developmental disabilities, taught creative writing, published a number of critically acclaimed children’s books, and wrote five unpublished novels before this one. You should not judge a book by its cover, but the back jacket of this unusual debut work has rave reviews from both Ian McEwan, author of Atonement(2), and neurologist-author Oliver Sacks.

Why the success of this strange story? How is the murder of a neighbor’s dog with a garden pitchfork the occasion for a book that stretches the boundaries of fiction into the realm of depth psychology and psychiatry? How can this work of fiction convey an understanding of the mind of an autistic savant (possibly with Asperger’s syndrome) with an accuracy and authenticity rivaling Volkmar’s text (3), and manage to do this magic in the course of a tale of mystery and self-mastery?

The 15-year-old protagonist knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057 as well as all the countries of the world and their capitals but cannot understand metaphors or facial expressions. He cannot stand to be touched by people but has an affinity with animals, which of course are more honest and direct than people. He has never traveled away from his neighborhood or ridden on public transportation alone, but he must go from the hamlet where he lives into London to search for his lost mother. This person with concrete thinking and emotional "melt-downs" must interview witnesses, deal with being accused of the crime himself, and negotiate a violent family disruption, despite his mental and emotional handicaps.

How does someone write a novel without metaphor? How does someone who does not understand emotion express it with such grace? I leave it to the reader to figure this out, but I suggest that the "interior monologue" of Joyce or the plain-speaking poems of Frost are no more artfully done.

The first task of a writer is to choose the form of narrative: first person, third person, multiple viewpoints, flashbacks, omniscient observer, dialogue with description, etc. Haddon has chosen the first-person narrator format for this novel. This is, of course, the style Mark Twain used in Huckleberry Finn, whose vernacular is essential to the mood of the story being told, as it is in most autobiography. There are many other autobiographical and fictional depictions of mental illness and psychopathy, e.g., The Thief’s Journal, by Jean Genet (4), and The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe (5), but I know of no book in the voice of an autistic teenager.

Interspersed in the text are digressions into some mathematical factoids, which are themselves intriguing, and there is an appendix for those inclined to follow a beautiful mathematical proof.

The functional neuroanatomy of autism is lately being worked out, after a checkered history of blaming "refrigerator mothers" or reactions to vaccination and any number of psychological theories of etiology. An example is a functional brain imaging study that revealed lower regional cerebral blood flow in the inferior and frontal fusiform cortex areas and higher flow in the right anterior temporal pole, the anterior cingulate, and the thalamus (6). In addition to these advances, works of literature, including Freud’s, are rich and essential sources of knowledge and understanding of the mind of the artist and of humankind in general. This novel is such a work; it leaves the reader entertained and awed by the artistry of the author. Perhaps it will inspire more psychiatrists and neurologists to seek to understand the diversity of thought processes that characterize the mentally retarded, the autistic, and patients with Asperger’s syndrome, who are the most neglected and underserved of our patients. As for the layman reading this book, it may engender a new respect for those among us who appear odd, weird, or eccentric. At least that is my wish for this outstanding detective novel.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Mass, Merriam-Webster, 1995, p 320
 
McEwan E: Atonement. New York, Doubleday, 2002
 
Volkmar FR (ed): Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1998
 
Genet J: The Thief’s Journal. New York, Grove Press, 1964
 
McCabe P: The Butcher Boy. New York, Fromm International, 1993
 
Hall GBC, Szechtman H, Nahmias C: Enhanced salience and emotion recognition in autism: a PET study. Am J Psychiatry  2003; 160:1439–1441
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
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References

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Mass, Merriam-Webster, 1995, p 320
 
McEwan E: Atonement. New York, Doubleday, 2002
 
Volkmar FR (ed): Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1998
 
Genet J: The Thief’s Journal. New York, Grove Press, 1964
 
McCabe P: The Butcher Boy. New York, Fromm International, 1993
 
Hall GBC, Szechtman H, Nahmias C: Enhanced salience and emotion recognition in autism: a PET study. Am J Psychiatry  2003; 160:1439–1441
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
+
+

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