by ZJ Czupor
A Curious Incident
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1893, is a short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” in which an unusual line of dialogue becomes the title of a best-selling mystery published one-hundred and ten years later.
The short story is about the disappearance of Silver Blaze, a famous racehorse, and the murder of its trainer. Sherlock Holmes solves the case when he recognizes that no one heard the watchdog bark during the night, thinking the dog was familiar with the killer.
The Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
Fast forward to modern day.
Mark Haddon, a British author, had carved out a successful career writing and illustrating award-winning children’s books and television screenplays for the BBC. But one day he decided he wanted to try his hand at writing an adult mystery. The result was an international best-selling novel.
Haddon’s debut mystery novel borrows that line of dialogue from Sherlock Holmes for his title: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time (Vintage Books, 2003).
The story is told in the dispassionate voice of Christopher John Francis Boone, a quirky fifteen-year old boy, who discovers his neighbor’s dead poodle in the middle of a lawn. The dog has been stuck by a garden fork. Christopher, who is a Sherlock Holmes fan, sets out to solve the suspicious murder.
In the novel, Christopher describes himself as a “mathematician with some behavioral difficulties” living in Swindon, England. He knows all the countries in the world, their capital cities, and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched and detests the color yellow.
Haddon wrote Christopher’s character as having Asperger syndrome and as a highly functioning autistic. But those labels are never mentioned in the novel–for Haddon did not want to focus on Christopher’s disabilities. However, the word “autism” does appear on the jacket cover’s marketing blurb and Haddon was not happy about that.
He said, “There is a very true sense in which there is something more wrong with the people around Christopher than with him. It’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”
Haddon, who has a dark sense of humor, said when he envisioned the plot, the image of the dead dog with the fork through it came first. He said, “I wanted a good image on that first page…that was gripping and vivid, and it stuck in your head. Only when I was writing it did I realize…that it was also quite funny. Once you find a dog with a fork through it, you know there’s a story there.”
Then the voice came to him, but not until he was several pages into writing the book that Christopher came along. Haddon explained, he cannot tell lies but he gets everything wrong. He does not understand emotions and misses the big picture.
Haddon said when he hears from people who like the book, “they talk about Christopher’s voice and his character and situation; nobody mentions the plot at all.”
The book was marketed as a literary mystery and as a story for young adults. It was published as two separate books to appeal to those two different audiences.
Critics and reviewers have called the novel charming, humorous, and sad—”hilarious on one page…then two pages later you want to cry.”
Interestingly, Curious was challenged and banned in some Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida schools, due to complaints regarding “profane” language and the belief that the novel promoted atheism.
But Haddon isn’t troubled by that. He said, “…it always generates a really interesting debate among school kids and librarians and parents, not just about Curious, but about literature and freedom and language, and this is an undeniably good thing.”
Mark Haddon was born in 1962 in Northampton, England, educated at Merton College in Oxford and Edinburgh University for his masters in English Literature. During his early career he assisted patients with multiple sclerosis and autism and held part-time jobs before he started illustrating cartoons and writing children’s books.
He wrote his first children’s book, Gilbert’s Gobstopper (UK, Puffin, 1987). To-date, he’s written nineteen children’s books, six adult novels, a graphic novel, a book of poetry, and a stage play.
The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time was adapted into a stage play and premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2012, and a film of the play appeared in cinemas in England. The play’s also been adapted and translated into Spanish, French, and Dutch. In 2004, American actor Brad Pitt optioned the film rights, but it has not yet been produced.
In a survey conducted by the British Broadcasting Company, Haddon’s novel is in the “top five happy endings” including Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, and outranked Rebecca.
The novel won numerous prestigious awards for Haddon, made number one on the New York Times best seller list, has been translated into thirty-six languages, and sold over two million copies. In 2019, the book was ranked 19th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
I find it truly curious how one line of dialogue written over a century ago by a successful author changed the fortunes of another.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
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Author’s Note: “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” was first published in the UK in The Strand Magazine in December 1892, and in the United States in the US edition of the Strand in January 1893. It was also published in Harper’s Weekly (US) on February 25, 1893. It was included in the short story collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (UK, G. Newnes, Ltd, 1893 and US, Harper & Brothers, 1894). Sir George Newnes also founded The Strand Magazine in 1891.