I volunteered to give a talk tonight at the public library. It's part of a series co-sponsored by the English department and the med school - they take four novels with medical themes and then pair up an English prof with a med-school prof who each give a half-hour talk about the novel. I'm excited about it, not least because I've been paired with the chair of autism research to talk about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is the man Bub is on a two-year waiting list to see, and I'm hoping to be able to pick his brains a little bit before the evening is through.
I have a dearth of time for blogging this week, so I thought I'd post my opening remarks.
I have long been a fan of detective fiction, and I’m also a big fan of the vast over-generalization. So I thought I’d start this talk by making a vast over-generalization about detective fiction. Detectives can be divided into two groups: there are detectives who solve crimes by relying on science, and then there are those who rely on intuition. A good example of the latter group is Miss Marple. In Agatha Christie’s novels, physical evidence usually functions as a red herring. Readers are invited to take notice of a footprint, or a strategically placed brooch, and these items distract us from the underlying relationships and psychological dynamics that will turn out to be the key to the mystery. That’s why someone like Miss Marple – who has spent her whole life listening to village gossip – is especially well-positioned to solve these crimes. She is deeply acquainted with the dark recesses of the human heart, and she’s adept at ferreting out the connections and motivations that a more superficial interpreter might miss.
Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is the forerunner of the scientific detective – he is the one who pioneered the sharp attention to detail that led eventually to the CSI model of detection. Holmes is famous for his powers of deduction and for his sharp eye. He sees things – literal, physical things – that other people miss. In section 107 of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher mentions that The Hound of the Baskervilles is his favourite novel. Christopher goes on to explain the points of resemblance between himself and Holmes: both are capable of emotional detachment, and both are capable of sharp observation.
What Christopher doesn’t realize is that this chapter is not the only reference to Sherlock Holmes in the novel: the title, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is actually a quote from a story called "The Adventure of Silver Blaze." The title of this novel is one example of our privileged knowledge as readers – Christopher, presumably, has no awareness of the title of the novel of which he is a part (indeed, the words of the title are the only words in the book that Christopher doesn’t control and produce).
As it turns out, "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" is a story that illustrates certain things about the way Christopher perceives the world. In the story, a horse mysteriously disappears from his stable in the middle of the night, and Holmes solves the mystery by observing that a dog who was kept in the stables did not bark at the time the horse went missing. The failure of the dog to bark suggests, of course, that the man who stole the horse must have been someone the dog knew and trusted.
I’ll confess that I didn’t catch the Sherlock Holmes allusion myself: it was pointed out to me in the book Stumbling on Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The reason Gilbert mentioned the story was to show how unusual it is for anyone to notice things that fail to happen. Our minds are wired to notice things that do happen: we pick up changes in our environment, but it’s often difficult for us to detect the absence of change. On the whole this is a useful way for our brains to work: we cannot give equal attention to every single bit of physical evidence in front of us: the only way we can make it through life is by rapidly and instinctively sorting out all the sensory input we receive and paying conscious attention only to the things that are most likely to be significant. This is, in fact, precisely Christopher’s problem when he goes someplace new: he is busy processing all the new information – he can’t select just a few bits, but has to notice the exact number of cows and the exact pattern of their spots. Our processes of appraisal allow us to function without shutting down, but they also mean that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, we’re likely to overlook information that may be essential to solving the crime.
In the story of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes sure we notice how unusual Sherlock Holmes’ powers of detection are by contrasting his observations with those of other, more ordinary persons. In this case, Holmes has a conversation with Colonel Ross (who is investigating the crime). Colonel Ross asks him, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" and Holmes replies:
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
The Colonel is confused. "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That," Holmes responds, "is the curious incident."
Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant sleuth precisely because he notices things that other people do not – and the point of the story is that his mind works very differently from the way normal minds work. As readers we are invited to share Dr. Watson’s attitude towards Holmes, which is one of awestruck admiration. In The Curious Incident, though, when we recognize the similarities between Holmes and Christopher, our reaction might be a bit more complicated: we experience admiration but also concern, because Christopher is not simply a brilliant detective: he is also a boy with autism. As readers, we have an unusual relationship to Christopher – on the one hand, he has power over us, because he is narrating his own story, but on the other hand, we have an advantage over him because we are supposedly "normal" and he is not. Throughout the novel, Haddon constantly balances our awareness of Christopher's deficits with a growing awareness of our own.
Maybe tomorrow I'll sum up some of my supporting arguments. I'll tell you how it goes.