Novel’s Sleuth Views Life From Unusual Perspective

The New York Times reports

In writing his best-selling first novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Mark Haddon did not set out to become a spokesman for people with Asperger syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism characterized by obsessive behavior, brilliance in some areas and social ineptitude.

The condition is not even mentioned by name in the book, but it is at the heart of the story.
Christopher Boone, the 15-year-old protagonist, is an autistic savant. He knows all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057 but has a problem relating to other people, and his inability to lie leads him into a series of quandaries.

When a neighbor’s dog is killed, Christopher turns amateur detective, using methods of his favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. The title of the book comes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze.”

Because Christopher is telling the story, the language is simple and unadorned, but the book is layered with mystery and deadpan comedy. It also offers a deeply sensitive portrait of one of the most unusual adolescents one is likely to meet in or out of fiction.

The reaction to Mr. Haddon’s book among those who have Asperger has been mixed. Some have disliked it, he said, feeling that it misrepresents them, but others have said it deals with the subject with accuracy and understanding. At a book signing in Washington, he said, a 19-year-old woman with Asperger thanked him, saying it was “like reading a book about being in my own head.” Another teenager wrote to him that the book “opened a door to my mind for my parents.”

The psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, who has written about autism and Asperger, said recently that although he does not often read fiction, “The Curious Incident” “was a rare and happy exception.” Mr. Haddon, he said, so accurately portrayed the Asperger experience that it must have come from firsthand knowledge.

“He presents an archetype, a distillation,” Dr. Sacks said, trying to explain the negative reaction of some who have the condition. “There are dozens of ways of having Asperger’s or of being Aspergen. I don’t think there is anything false or misleading here, but it can’t represent the whole spectrum.”

Different and milder forms of Asperger are presented in two other novels, “The Pursuit of Alice Thrift” by Elinor Lipman, published last year by Random House, and Margot Livesey’s “Banishing Verona” (Henry Holt), due out this fall. Asked if Sherlock Holmes had Asperger, Dr. Sacks said, “There is a strange constellation of characters whom we now call Asperger’s people. It’s reasonable to see Holmes in that direction.”

Mr. Haddon, 41, is still surprised at the novel’s popularity. “I had written a book about a teenage boy with a disability, living in Swindon, England’s least glamorous town, with his father, who is a plumber and heating engineer,” he said in an interview during a recent visit to New York. “It was not in any way a recipe for a best seller.”

With “Curious Incident,” Mr. Haddon performed the literary equivalent of a hat trick in hockey, scoring three goals with one book: high critical praise and the admiration of other novelists, from Ian McEwan to Anne Tyler; soaring sales; and wide readership by both adults and children.

The novel, which was published last year by Doubleday, has sold 1.5 million copies in 34 countries, with more to come from the recently published Vintage Books paperback version.

Underscoring the broadness of its appeal, it was published in separate editions with different covers for adults and children but with no text alterations. Early this year it won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. And it has been bought by Brad Pitt’s company and Heyday, producers of the “Harry Potter” movies.

The film will be written and directed by Steve Kloves, who has written all the “Harry Potter” films. Mr. Haddon said that Mr. Kloves had set two goals: “to avoid sentimentality and to keep some of the strangeness in it.”

During 17 years Mr. Haddon has written and in some cases illustrated 18 books for children, 4 of them with only 12 words of text. As an artist he exhibits his paintings in a gallery in Oxford, England, where he lives with his wife and their two small children.

The novel came at the end of a long period of trying to write adult fiction. Before “Curious Incident” he wrote five unpublished novels. His agent took him out for tea and told him he should stick to writing children’s books.

Soon afterward he changed agents. He said that he has a secret fantasy that somewhere in London his former agent “is being beaten stoutly with a hardback copy of `Curious Incident.’ ”

Looking back on the genesis of the book, he said that it began with an image of a dog stabbed by a garden fork. “My wife always says I have an extremely black sense of humor,” he said. “I just wanted a first page that would make people think, `Oh, this is different, what’s the story behind it?’ ” For that, he said, he learned a lesson from writing children’s books. “Children get bored very easily,” he said. “You have to make them turn the page.”

Then in his mind he heard Christopher’s voice, straightforward, nonjudgmental but infinitely curious. The character derived from his own long interest in physical and emotional problems. After studying at Oxford, he worked in a volunteer organization with children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Christopher, the child of a very dysfunctional family, is “victorious in restoring the order that was overturned by chaos entering his life,” Mr. Haddon explained.

Speaking of Asperger, he said that many people describe the syndrome as “an extreme form of maleness.” As he said, “The need for order, the difficulty in social situations — they’re the kind of things you meet commonly in men, particularly in academics.” He said a math professor friend thinks “Curious Incident” is not a novel about a young boy with Asperger, but a novel “about a young mathematician with behavioral issues.”

“I think he’s right,” Mr. Haddon said, “and that’s exactly how Christopher would describe himself.”

It has been suggested that his models for the novel were “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The three have some common ground as books about young outsiders, but, he said, the novel he had in mind when writing was actually “Pride and Prejudice.”

“Jane Austen writes about people with desperately restricted lives and codified by iron rules,” he said. “The first thing she does is to choose a genre, the romantic novel, which is exactly the kind of book those women would read if they were reading books. It clicked: that’s what I had to do with Christopher. I had read too many books and seen too many films where a person with a disability was seen from the outside. If I was going to treat him with complete empathy, I had to hand him the reins, make him tell the story, but make it the book he would read.”

After “Curious Incident” he vowed not to write a sequel and to diversify his writing, but his next novel is “about someone having a late middle-age nervous breakdown.” With a smile, he added, “I’m working my way toward my disability boxed set.”

Promoting “Curious Incident” has of course taken many months away from writing for Mr. Haddon. “It occurs to me,” he said, “that those novelists who are famous curmudgeons are in fact wiser than we know and are happily sitting at home writing the next novel, while I’m being interviewed by the man from Dogs Today,” an English magazine.

But as he demonstrated at a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, he enjoys meeting readers and sometimes will not only sign his book but also inscribe it with a Thurberesque drawing of a dead dog — not, one might add, for the man from Dogs Today.

He remains realistic about his success. He said: “I still feel I’m going to wake up one day in a hospital bed with someone standing over me, saying, `I’m afraid you’ve had the most terrible blow to your head, Mr. Haddon.’ And I’ll be back 18 months ago, and none of this will actually have happened.”

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