It All Adds Up

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Review of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', Mark Haddon, Jonathon Cape £10.99

'The world is full of obvious things, which nobody by any chance ever observes.' So says Sherlock Holmes, fictional detective - and supreme hero of Christopher Boone, the 15 year old protagonist of Mark Haddon's extraordinary and enthralling murder-mystery novel, which recently won the Whitbread Award for best book of 2003.

This book's many remarkable qualities will be discussed at length over the coming weeks. For a start, it is making literary history by being published simultaneously as an adults' and a children's novel. Secondly, the narrator, Christopher, has Asperger's, a form of autism which means he doesn't understand facial expressions or metaphors like 'you'll catch your death'. He can't imagine things which have not happened to him, or empathise. He can't lie and has no way of intuiting others' motives, except by their behaviour. He 'can't do chatting', and the deadpan style of his delivery is deceptively robotic. This emotional dissociation and his experience of the world through mathematical logic and observation have caught critics unaware, hardened though they are to the multifarious technical devices which characterise modern fiction.

The story goes like this - Christopher likes to pretend that he is the only person alive in the universe. On one of his late night wanderings he discovers a neighbour's dog, dead on the lawn, with a garden fork stabbed through it. He then sets out to deduce who carried out the killing. He little suspects that his investigation will unscrew the lid on his own family's secrets and lead to a devastating discovery which turns his world upside down. Along the way there's a police chase, a near-fatality for the sake of a rat, some red food colouring, a lesson in the kindness of strangers - and incontrovertible proof of the non-existence of god.

Breathlessly keeping up, the reader is taught by Christopher to see the world from an alternative point of view. If, from an early age, you are unable to clue into other humans' moods, you are also detached from cultural and social norms which channel and cover up states of mind and 'explain away' difficult realities. Christopher therefore relies on fact and memory. He will not be fobbed off with bland assurances that his dead mother is 'in heaven'. He points out that adults often don't like it when children tell the truth. He notices that the vicar smells like his father smells after a few beers. He notes how the Bible says, 'Thou shalt not kill', but that Christians kill people in wars.

Aware of people's inconsistency and unspecificity, Christopher questions and tests everything around him - religion, advertising, commonly accepted 'truths' and, rejecting superstition, uses science as a basis for decision-making. Conversely, he invents his own rituals - based on colours, cars and numbers - to draw order out of chaos and to make an unsafe world feel safer. This contradiction adds a powerful dimension.

The graphic device of using mathematical problems to explain ways of thinking draws the reader into solving the narrative itself, with its conventions of suspense and characterisation, as a puzzle. Christopher's digressions into maths and existential questions amplify what is, on one level, a family drama with a whodunnit attached. They create a challenge to look at the world with more awareness of its harshness, chaos and danger, especially for those who are vulnerable. It is also a call to read stories with more attention, to test what we are told and resist lies, hypocrisy and superstition.

Above all, this book is hilarious, tragic and thrilling. Read it, but don't miss out the maths bits - they contain important clues!