- A “Curious Incident”: Representations of Autism in Children’s Detective Fiction
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) was marketed as a mystery novel when it was first published, and numerous scholars, including Ruth Gilbert and Stefania Ciocia, have speculated that the choice of genre was a major component in its success. However, very little has been said about how the novel follows mystery novel conventions, or more importantly, how it deviates from them. Despite protagonist and narrator Christopher’s claim that he is “writing a murder mystery novel,” The Curious Incident is actually a coming-of-age story that focuses on Christopher’s struggle to understand himself and the world around him (5). The “murder” that Christopher investigates, the stabbing of his neighbor’s dog with a pitchfork, is a blind for the real mystery—why his mother left him and his father when Christopher was twelve years old. Both puzzles are easily solved by the reader in the first one hundred pages, leaving the remainder of the book to accomplish Haddon’s deeper goal: a complex representation of how Christopher interprets the world through the lens of autism and how that world responds to Christopher in return.
Haddon’s decision to use a teenager with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as his first-person narrator and detective fiction as his narrative frame for The Curious Incident is indeed curious from a disability studies perspective, because an individual with autism, as it is depicted in Christopher’s narrative, would seem to be excluded from the work of the detective. A successful detective must generally interrogate suspects in order, first, to determine when they are lying and, second, to root out their motives. Because Christopher has difficulty lying or mind reading, as I will explain further below, he is unable to fulfill either of these basic tasks, and as a result he is unsuccessful as both a detective and a narrator of detective fiction. The result is that readers step into the detective role that Christopher is unable to fill, making them the superior investigators. [End Page 81] This is troubling since Christopher both establishes his identity and asserts his authority as narrator based on his ability to solve the mystery in the same manner as his hero, Sherlock Holmes, whom he reads as autistic. If Christopher is unable to fulfill the detective role due to his intellectual disability, then that can lead readers to assume that he—and therefore the real child or teenager with autism—is somehow intellectually inferior to the neurotypical1 reader.
Although Haddon’s narrative fails to meet the criteria for detective fiction, since its release in 2003, several mystery novels with autistic protagonists have been published for children and young adults. The focus here will be to contrast Haddon’s treatment of the autistic protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with Siobhan Dowd’s in The London Eye Mystery (2007), particularly demonstrating how Dowd, unlike Haddon, gives agency to her autistic protagonist over the neurotypical reader. She focuses on material evidence rather than Ted’s memories of prior events, thereby making it impossible for the reader to access any information that Ted lacks. In addition, she uses Ted’s deep interest in the weather to signpost her narrative so that readers are able to follow the storyline more easily. Her use of weather metonyms rather than metaphors, which Ted has difficulty grasping, further emphasizes that he is in control of his own story. Dowd’s decision to privilege her autistic narrator as the only person capable of solving the mystery has the potential not only to empower actual children with ASDs, but to create a greater sense of empathy within the neurotypical reader.
The Curious Incident of the Autistic Detective
In Autism: Explaining the Enigma, Uta Frith theorizes that Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps most detectives from the “golden age” of detective fiction, were “on the spectrum” (124–25, 154). She argues that “the detached detectives of classic mysteries are not only eccentric and odd, but they are reminiscent of extremely clever people with autism” (24). The “oddness” Frith...