Hopes For Mark Haddon

What will Mark Haddon's talk be about? Let's speculate

Feature by Ryan Agee | 03 Aug 2012

Mark Haddon is still best known for his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but he’s worked in most literary genres. As well as novels, he has written poetry, children’s books and even television scripts. Curious Incident was published in 2003, and it was Haddon’s breakthrough as an adult novelist. He’ll be in Edinburgh to give a talk on Friday the 24 Aug, and it’s interesting to look at his career prior and since Curious Incident as a way of knowing what to expect, or to hope for.

Haddon began his writing life as a children’s author, and a popular one at that. For over 15 years prior to the release of Curious Incident, Haddon wrote well-received books for children. Part of this was a series called Agent Z, where the eponymous agent was fictitious within the fiction, a character that some school kids can use to take the blame for the increasingly elaborate practical jokes they play. It was an appealing premise that spawned a TV series based on one of the books, Agent Z And The Penguin From Mars. I mention this because I can remember enjoying this very show as a kid, without knowing who Mark Haddon was at the time, but enjoying the show for its writing anyway. Other kids have clearly enjoyed his writing too, such as the school class who all wrote to Haddon (though their teacher may have influenced this) to praise his book Gridzbi Spudvetch! Though this came after Curious Incident’s success, Haddon nonetheless revised and rereleased the book as Boom! It’s to be hoped that the sort of clarity and general entertainment value that Haddon brought to children’s books, which need a good helping of both, will be present during his talk.

These attributes were present in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book which is not too far removed from children’s fiction, in that the protagonist, Christopher, is only 15. However, the adult theme comes in because the book is told from Christopher’s perspective, and he has some kind of mental condition which affects the way he thinks. The covers of the books did identify this as Aspergers’ Syndrome, and the symptoms are similar, but the condition is never named in the book. In looking at what interested Christopher, Haddon did hit upon one topic which caught the imagination more than most: the Monty Hall problem. Monty Hall was a game show host who would hide a prize behind one of three doors, the other two of which concealed goats. A contestant would pick a door, and without opening it Hall would reveal one of the wrong doors and ask whether he or she wished to change their choice. It works out that making another choice is more likely to win, but people have a hard time accepting that. It’s to be hoped then that Haddon – who included a version of the problem on his old website to convince people – will set up this game at Unbound, simply to convince people in person.

After Curious Incident, Haddon wrote some poetry, much of which is quite good and worth reading – so it could be hoped he’d recite some during Unbound. He also wrote his second novel, A Spot of Bother, which suffered from a critical backlash after the success Curious Incident had enjoyed. It’s not as good, but it’s not a bad book by any means – so Haddon could talk about wavering critical reactions, bolstered by the fact that his new book, The Red House, appears to be enjoying some measure of praise, out of the shadow of Incident.

Of course, Mark Haddon could talk about any of these things, but the title of his talk, Swimming and Flying, doesn’t hint at these topics – it’s a talk about common fears. Nonetheless, hoping for any of the above topics teaches us that Haddon is not short of quirky and fascinating material, expressed in a clear and concise way. So bring on the new stuff. Or maybe the Monty Hall thing. [Ryan Agee]

Mark Haddon will be appearing at Unbound in the Guardian Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square, on Fri 24 Aug, 9pm. And it'll be free