The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

 

On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.

Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.

I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. Curious IncidentOn one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.

As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.

One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.

Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.

I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.

The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson

 

I’m a longtime fan of this blog, so I’m excited to be a guest blogger here. I’ve never been a guest blogger before, and I hope I don’t spill food on the carpet. But now that I’m here, I want to talk about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Published posthumously in 2005, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international smash hit. It sold 15 million copies in the US and spawned two well known films, one featuring James freaking Bond. Even before reading it, I knew this series was a big deal. Having read the first two novels, and preparing to start the third, its easy to see why.

Dragon Tattoo’s plot begins when wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger summons crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist to his family’s private island in Sweden. He hires Blomkvist to live on the island and investigate the decades old murder of his beloved niece, Harriet.The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo After a while, Blomkvist teams up with anti-social researcher Lisbeth Salander, and together they search for answers in a web of corruption, brutality and horrible familial relationships. To top it off several of the Vangers are former Nazis, in case all of that wasn’t twisted enough for you.

Larsson begins the novel at a crawl, which is why almost anybody who has read the book will tell you about its lengthy exposition (for the record, I actually enjoyed the exposition). He gives a crash course in Swedish politics and economics, as well as a detailed history of the horribly demented Vanger family. Then, he makes us study the lead characters, Blomkvist and Salander, illustrating their backgrounds, personalities and motivations. Eventually, this meticulous setup gives way to a crime drama so captivating that you’ll be unable to stop reading it.

Larsson refuses to give us the bulk of the plot until we understand Dragon Tattoo’s two leads and world they occupy. Blomkvist and Salander do not meet until halfway through the novel, and the narration alternates between them as their paths gradually converge. It is an unusual but effective narrative trick, one that makes their collaboration feel like a seismic event that launches the story into overdrive. We know they will join forces, but watching the pieces fall into place is nonetheless captivating. And once they come together, all the reader can do is hang on for dear life.

I thought the novel’s strengths came from its lead characters. Blomkvist is a righteous man in a dark world, following the truth at all costs, cracking unsolvable puzzles and seducing almost every woman with whom he exchanges words. Larsson was a journalist himself, and Blomkvist seems like Larsson’s personal ideal. I remember being amused that Daniel Craig, in all his Bondian majesty, was chosen to plan a journalist. By the end of the book, I felt like he was the only choice. If James Bond had inexplicably gone to journalism school, he would’ve been Mikael Blomkvist. He’s an excellent lead character in every way.

I found Salander even more compelling. She comes from a broken home and horrible circumstance, but survives on the strength of her intellect and guile. She refuses to play nice with anybody, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. I spent most of the novel trying to understand her, eventually sympathizing with her and rooting for her. Salander is the eponymous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as Larsson reveals more and more of her character, I came to realize she, not Blomkvist, is the moral center of the story. She and Blomkvist often reach the same moral conclusions, but Salander does so in a much more interesting way. They complement each other in the strangest ways, and it’s impossible not to admire their characterizations.

The novel’s third central character is Sweden itself. Larsson pulls back the curtain of universal healthcare and high quality of life and scrutinizes every hole in Sweden’s fabric. He condemns the systemic misogyny, the shortcomings of the welfare system and the corruption of some of Europe’s model industries. He even weaves a fierce critique of the global financial system into the novel’s final act. Had he been alive when the market crashed in 2008, Larsson would’ve no doubt been among the first to say he told us so.

Somehow, Larsson takes this detailed characterization, meticulous exposition and pointed social criticism and weaves it into an intense, mesmerizing novel. It’s startlingly violent in spots, but each instance feels like a necessary piece of the lurid puzzle Larsson is creating. Many of its characters seem to serve no purpose other than to advance the plot, but Salander and Blomkvist are such dynamic and compelling leads that I didn’t even care. And without spoiling it, I can assure you that the novel’s final act is harrowing and well designed. All said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made me eagerly anticipate the rest of the trilogy, even if it makes me never want to live in Sweden.

It’s dark, intense and violent, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immersive and well-crafted saga with two captivating characters at its center.

Cat Among the Pigeons

by Agatha Christie

 

Yea, I know I’ve been slacking recently. It shouldn’t take me more than a week to read a 200 page book, but I’ve been pretty busy lately- a lot on my plate, so to speak. I’ll try to do better in the future.

Cat Among the Pigeons is another one of those books my mom got me many a Christmas ago and I just never got around to reading. She used to read the Poirot books and I’d seen the show with her a couple times (in my youth), but I hadn’t ever actually read any. I therefore have no basis for comparing this to other Christie/Poirot/mystery novels.

Having said that, the first thing that struck me was that Poirot didn’t show up till the last third of the book. I thought he was going to be the main character, Cat Among the Pigeonsbut I didn’t learn anything about him, which is odd when the book proclaims itself “A Hercule Poirot Novel.” When he did show up, he seemed pretty tight, which makes me wonder why he wasn’t really in the book at all. I probably just stumbled upon the one book that he’s not really in, kind of like how James Bond isn’t really in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Anyway, the action here starts out in the Middle East. An Arab prince senses that a revolution is about to take place, and attempts to have his personal pilot, an Englishman, get his jewels out of the country safely. Both are killed, but the jewels disappear, presumably taken home by the pilot’s visiting sister and niece. After they return, the young girl heads off to Meadowbrook, a progressive all-girls school in the countryside.

At this point, a revolution had already happened, and I generally consider that a good start to a novel. This one, however, then went on and on and on about the girls, their families, the school, its staff, and all kinds of nonsense that I suppose is necessary to the setup of a mystery. Without a main character to anchor it, though, I was kind of confused about what I should be paying attention to, which also might be part of the point. As you can see, I’m not good at reading mysteries.

Anyway, before long, murders start happening, and then everyone turns on each other like it’s the end of Reservoir Dogs. It picks up again, and eventually someone has the clever idea to bring in Monsieur Poirot. I’d been telling them to call him for at least 100 pages, but nobody wanted to hear it. He comes in and Poirots the shit out of the mystery.

So yea, maybe the mystery novel isn’t for me. I never really knew what was going on, and I was frustrated by the fact that Poirot was able to solve the mystery and I wasn’t. It’s like watching SVU, except on the show the detectives generally follow the same hunches that I have, and the mystery is resolved within an hour. And again, it bothered me that this Poirot novel was so Poirot-less.

Cat Among the Pigeons wasn’t bad, but I expected better from Agatha Christie, who’s pretty much supposed to be the mystery writer. On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure I just don’t have the patience for mysteries in general.