The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time and the Mystery and Suspense Genre


by Michael Cox


The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-TimeAdapted by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon. Produced by Speakeasy Stage Company and playing at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion October 20 – November 25.


Just after midnight in Swindon, a town 71 miles West of London, fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone finds a dog brutally murdered in his neighbor’s garden. Wellington, a cherished family pet, has been impaled with a pitchfork and is still pinned to the ground. Mrs. Eileen Shears, the owner of the dog and the garden, calls the police. And when they arrive they’re looking for answers. But Christopher can’t provide them. Instead, he assaults the officer.


As The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time unfolds, Christopher tells us his side of the story. He writes it down in a notebook as part of a school project, and he chooses to convey the experience as a murder mystery.

Audiences engage right away with the conventions of the mystery and suspense. The world is set off balance by a crime, a detective of some sort works to set it right, the investigator and the audience attempt to solve a puzzle, and the overall narrative answers questions and makes sense of an often-senseless world. This play uses mystery and suspense as a means to show how an outsider comes to terms with his society and they learn how to listen to him.


In order to tell his story, Christopher must first solve the mystery of who killed Mrs. Shears’ dog. So he casts himself in the role of the detective, the active center of many types of crime fiction. He models himself after the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, the name of this play is taken from one of Holmes’ tales, Silver Blaze.


In Silver Blaze, an atmospheric, late-Victorian murder mystery Holmes draws Scotland Yard’s attention to, “the curious incident of the dog in night-time.” When a confused officer of the London police force replies, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” the eminently logical Holmes responds, “That is the curious incident.” Holmes’ unusual ability to note both the presence and absence of details in his surroundings helps him solve the mystery of Silver Blaze, and it is this type of logician that Christopher emulates.


As David Schmid, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo and author of The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction tells us, “Where the crime represents the eruption of the irrational and the uncertain into everyday life, the detective personifies rationality and certainty and reestablishes the norm.”


Though Christopher may work to restore the norm, he is anything but the norm. Think back to when he first found the dog. If you’re like most people, you vividly imagine the scene. In fact, you probably fill in details that were never given to you. You imagine Mrs. Shears’ fear, the horror in her eyes; you empathize with her terror; and you, unlike Christopher, know the socially appropriate way to respond to a police officer.


Christopher does not intuit behavior, empathize, or respond to social cues. Whereas imagination, intuition and empathy are some of the primary tool most people use to understand the world – people like Christopher’s teachers, family, and neighbors – he uses a different set of tools. He sees the world in specific details and neatly organized formulas. And he draws his conclusions by means of reason rather than emotion.


This boy has a unique set of skills, but he doesn’t assimilate with the people around him. In fact, he has been labeled “special needs” by his society, and (though it is never identified in the play) the armchair psychologist would diagnose Christopher with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. To put it simply, Christopher is an outsider, which actually makes him perfect for his role as detective.


We can pinpoint the origins of the murder mystery detective to Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. “Poe’s most important contribution in developing the detective was to make that figure something of an outsider, marginal in relation to society at large,” says Schmid. And with his first murder mystery, Poe established the classical detective’s major traits.


First, a detective is rational. Christopher sees himself as a detective because he has the amazing ability to observe his environment and convert it into mathematical equations. Unlike the people around him, he notices human behavior in terms of its patterns rather than its emotional and practical motivations.


“I find people confusing because they often talk in metaphors,” Christopher says. “I think [a metaphor] should be called a lie.” He explains, “When I try and make a picture of the phrase [“he was the apple of her eye”] in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have any thing to do with liking someone a lot.”


Second, a detective has the ability to spot details that others miss. “In what quickly became a ritual element of the Holmes stories,” says Schmid, “Holmes deduces certain facts about the people who come to see him by examining their appearance.” Likewise, Christopher has the uncanny ability to observe and remember minute details.


“I see everything,” he says, “Most other people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing … and the information in their head is really simple.”


Finally, emotional thinking does not distract a detective. It’s no accident that the great classical detectives – Poe’s Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – were never married and never had intimate interpersonal relationships. These classic detectives, Schmid tells us, “personify a type of individualism that borders on isolation.” He explains, “Rightly or wrongly, they see this isolation as the price they need to pay to be both effective at their jobs and to control the world around them.”


Christopher is astonishingly unemotional, especially in contrast with his parents who are extremely emotional and often volatile. The teenager understands that fallacious reasoning is often the result of an emotional appeal, but to a general audience his actions seem unfeeling. When Christopher is asked if memories of his deceased mother make him sad, he replies unimpassioned, “…Mother is dead. So I would be feeling sad about something that isn’t real and doesn’t exist and that would be stupid.”


From Christopher’s perspective, solving the puzzle of Wellington’s murderer is the best thing he can do for the world. And from our perspective detecting is the best thing for Christopher. Because of his distinct worldview, Christopher disdains social interaction. Yet he must venture outside of his home and engage with the strange world around him in order to find answers to his mystery.


Though Christopher does not enjoy interacting with people, he chooses the conventions of mystery and suspense to tell his story, marking an interesting turn in his personal development. The mystery story is an inclusive genre, actively engaging an audience in a puzzle. This is important for Christopher because, even though he is not outwardly social, he wants to engage with other people.


Boldly, the boy begins to interview his neighbors, but they don’t seem to think this is a good idea. He is the only person interested in solving the crime. When he tells people what he is trying to do, he is met with both apathy and caution. It is as though no one else, not even Mrs. Shears, wants to know who killed Wellington. The people of the neighborhood either don’t care, already know the identity of the killer, or they feel that the answer will put the boy in danger.


For the most part, a mystery is satisfying for an audience when a puzzle is solved and the criminal is brought to justice. But Christopher’s father looks at his son’s investigative behavior as a problem. The boy’s parent is pushed to the edge of his patience by the fact that Christopher is “too noisy” and “difficult to control.” Ultimately, Christopher’s father insists that the boy stop his detecting, and then apprehends the notebook containing his son’s story. But Christopher discovers the identity of the criminal anyway, and so begins the second part of the play.


At this point, the story changes from a classical mystery to a tale of suspense as Christopher flees from Wellington’s murderer. And the act of fleeing marks the most significant changes in Christopher’s personality, because in order protect himself he must overcome a number of fears and develop skills that have lain dormant in him to this point. Conversely, the boy’s behavior becomes an even bigger problem for his parents, teachers, and law enforcement. Whereas Christopher focuses on solving a crime and establishing justice, his caretakers concentrate on his disruptive behavior, which they attribute to his condition.


“When someone gets murdered you have to find out who did it so they can be punished,” Christopher insists — even if the victim is a dog. If a crime is not treated as a crime then the criminal is not treated as a criminal. And it upsets Christopher’s sense of justice that no one is punished.


Justice is not served in the traditional sense in this play. Rather a different kind of social harmony is achieved. Christopher is allowed to tell his story, and this becomes the best treatment for what people consider the adolescent’s condition. In opposition to conventional logic, Christopher’s condition is not the way his brain works in relation to the rest of his society, his problem is the way he and his family relate to one another.


In a mystery and suspense story, there is an unwritten contract with the audience: The author will give all the leading clues needed to solve a puzzle, but she will also convolute those clues with distracting misinformation – red herrings – in an attempt to subvert expectations.


In the case of The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, the audience is distracted with the biggest red herring of all. Wellington’s murder is not the subject of this play, but what the legendary mystery and suspense practitioner Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a “MacGuffin.”


A MacGuffin is a plot device described as the thing the narrative appears to be about, but which, in fact, is merely a way of introducing the real subject of the narrative. This plot device usually comes in the form of a goal the protagonist pursues, which becomes less important as the main character grows and changes.


For Christopher to fit in with his community, he simply needs the opportunity to tell his story.  As the audience follows him on his journey, we realize the solution to his problem is not the answer to his question.


The solution is the process.

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