Books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

>> Monday, April 10, 2006

I'd heard great things about Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and finally picked it up the last time I visited Malaprop's in Asheville. It certainly didn't disappoint - until about 125 pages in. The first half of this book was so good I crowed about it half-way through to Wendi, and then - it never fails! - the next time I picked up the book I started to be disappointed. Without giving too much away, let me just say that the protagonist makes a major decision in terms of both the immediate story and his life, and . . . well, the book suddenly became less interesting to me.

Curious Incident starts out as a self-professed mystery novel. Our protagonist is Christopher, a teenage boy who is incapable of understanding things like basic emotions, metaphor, or, oftentimes, simple human motivations. His child-like, innocent, and fearful view of the world makes him an intriguing "detective," since he must work hard to discover things that readers of the book will understand from the moment we hear them or see them. The real thrill for me was putting together the answers to the mystery - the violent murder of a neighbor's dog - from the bits and pieces of the world Christopher is able to translate. That and the boy's incredibly detached and yet insightful observations kept me inthralled.

And then, about mid-way through, he solves the murder mystery. Wait, what!? I was so upset when I got to this point in the story, because I anticipated it as the conclusion, not the catalyst for more action. So, Curious Incident is not really a mystery story, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, it is the story of one boy learning more about his family and his world well beyond the mystery of the dead dog next door. But that knowledge doesn't seem to help him in the end; in fact, I think his decisions in the second half of the book only make things worse for himself. That's debatable, I suppose, but I never like it when protagonists make bad decisions for themselves. I know that into every life a little rain must fall, and that every main character worth reading about must face challenges that change him, but I dislike protagonists who make outright bad decisions, whether misinformed or not. I prefer challenges to be thrown their way, and then watch as they struggle to survive those challenges, rather than seeing characters create their own hardship. It's a fine line, but I'm pretty particular about it. (I have other plot-related bugaboos, but we'll spare those for later books that break those rules!)

So, overall, I give Curious Incident a less than cosmic rating, although for the first half of the book I got that tingly feeling that I was reading what would become one of my top five favorite novels. It's on the list of good books to recommend, but doesn't crack the top of the list.


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