Told in the voice of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with “special needs,” this work of literary fiction depicts with doting empathy what exactly makes Christopher special, and what his very precise needs are. It also functions, at least in its first half, as a fairly straightforward whodunit. Early on, someone drives a pitchfork into a neighborhood dog named Wellington, with lethal results, and Christopher sets out to investigate the crime. The novice sleuth, repeatedly citing the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, in effect roots his quest in the grand tradition of defective detectives—of men like Sherlock Holmes, for whom the solving of puzzles was quintessentially a special need. (The title here, of course, echoes a famous passage from a Holmes story.) For people cast in that mold, many of whom suffer from a variant of autism (as does Christopher), detection has the power to soothe a savage brain. In later chapters, the tale becomes one of escape and adventure, as the hero flees his home in Swindon, England, and travels to London, a place that serves for him as a crucible of tribulation: So many people, so much information, so few clues as to what it all means! Through it all, Christopher remains an all-too-reliable narrator, constitutionally unable to lie. Among the factors that distinguish his special condition is an inability to use language in any but the most literal way; he’s as incapable of summoning a metaphor as he is of uttering a falsehood. So we believe him when he recounts his brave exploits. And we cheer for him when, in the end, he does get his man.
[ADDENDUM: The title of the book, which quotes directly from the Holmes canon, refers to what’s probably the best-known fictional example of a negative clue—of a clue, in other words, that hinges not on something present at the time or place of a crime, but on something absent. In “Silver Blaze,” Holmes extrapolates an entire theory of the case from the fact that a dog remained silent when one might have expected it to bark. Haddon doesn’t really take up the negative clue motif. In his tale, the silence of a dog has a different, and rather darker, significance. Indeed, while the story follows an essentially comic arc, it starts from a nocturnal canine incident that is (to Christopher, at least) catastrophic rather than “curious.”]