Chet and Me

Back to reader questions tomorrow but meanwhile I’m delighted to have been included in the special Animals in Mystery issue of Mystery Readers Journal. Lots of good stuff in there! Here’s Chet and Me, my little contribution:
People often lie to others, sometimes lie to themselves, but never lie to their dogs. That thought came to me early on in the writing of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, which will reach number fourteen with the publication of Up On The Woof Top in October. Fourteen and counting. Although Chet isn’t doing the counting, since he doesn’t go beyond two.
Whoa. Better back up a bit. The Chet and Bernie mysteries steal the set-up devised by Conan Doyle, where the master detective’s sidekick tells the story in the first person. But there are differences. For one, Bernie, the detective, is no master, except in the eyes of Chet. Second, Chet, the sidekick, is not a physician. He’s not even human. He’s a dog—in fact, a K‑9 school washout. And you couldn’t really call him a sidekick, since he’s a full partner. Plus it turns out that in many ways Bernie is indeed a master detective. Are we clear now?
I didn’t think so. Blame my wife. She was the one who said, “You should do something with dogs.” Excuse me? Hadn’t I often had dogs in my novels—Buster, say, in Oblivion, or Nigel in The Tutor? But those were dogs in supporting, trot-on roles, and you never saw inside them. So therefore… my wife meant something else, like… a dog narrator! A dog narrator! Why hadn’t I thought of that? But one thing I’ve learned over the course of writing forty-six novels: It never pays to mull over the source of inspiration. Didn’t Chuck Close say inspiration is for amateurs? Or was it Chuck Jones? No matter. Within fifteen minutes of my wife’s suggestion, I’d gone over to the office and written the first page of what became Dog On It, first in the series. And now’s a good time to deal with a question I’ve fielded many times: Should the series be read in any particular order? Answer: that’s a question Chet would never ask.
If the Chet and Bernie series works, it’s for one reason: Chet is not a talking dog. He’s as canine as I can make him. He doesn’t know anything a dog wouldn’t know, although of course he’s accumulated lots of special and even unusual knowledge from his law enforcement background. So: he narrates but does not talk. Everything the reader learns about the story comes from him, which for one thing means entering a world where the senses of smell and hearing are just as or at times more important than the visual sense.
The plotting of a traditional mystery novel has similarities to the solving of real crimes. A chain of clues is constructed and a logical conclusion is drawn. Well, Chet can’t do any of that. And even if he could he might sniff a Cheeto behind a fridge at a key moment and miss something important. Yes, dear reader, he’s an unreliable narrator! As though I’d gotten an MFA in creative writing. Which I did not! Instead I just wrote. But the introduction of an unreliable narrator into the strict mystery format blew up the whole thing, and all sorts of fun began to happen. What’s fun for the writer isn’t necessarily fun for the reader, of course. That’s where self-discipline comes in.
Once I was on a panel and an audience member asked about writer’s block. The other panelists bemoaned it but—knocking on wood—I said I’d never had it. If I feel a blockage looming I step back and remind myself of the beating heart of the story, the spirit of the book, and then a narrative route always suggests itself. The beating heart of the Chet and Bernie mysteries? That’s an easy one. It’s the love between Chet and Bernie.
Which sort of brings us back to where we started. People don’t lie to their dogs. While it’s true that not everyone talks to their dogs, lots do, myself included. “Nice day, huh, Dottie?” Or “Hey, Pearl, where did I put the car keys?” Bernie talks to Chet, revealing things he reveals to no one else, so in this simple, direct way, we get to know him better than anyone in his life. It’s analogous to Shakespeare’s soliloquies, where Hamlet, say, turns to the audience and spills his guts. But that’s so artificial. My way is better. If Shakespeare had married my wife instead of Anne Hathaway, there’s no telling what he might have accomplished.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 20th, 2023 at 8:08 am and is filed under Chet The Dog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 Responses to “Chet and Me”

  1. Wose-The Small and Meek
    9:27 am on September 20th, 2023


    What a great post, and what a brilliant idea to do something with dogs from PA/SQ’s wife. Where would we, the readers, be without her suggestion?

    Make today awesome!

  2. Herd of Hounds
    12:40 pm on September 20th, 2023

    Talk about a blast from the past! So many other things that’s Spencer wrote there
    Made me think about his books other books our dogs other peoples dogs. It was really and expanding idea.

  3. dawson
    12:55 pm on September 20th, 2023

    Many thanks to your wife!

  4. mlaiuppa
    1:54 pm on September 20th, 2023

    Great explanation. I don’t think OFA’s wife has been given enough credit for providing us with the Chet and Bernie mysteries.

    Hat tip to Dottie, Pearl and the others as I’m sure they provided a little inspiration too.

    I used to talk to Caesar a lot. He never used to answer but as he aged he did come up with some dog mumbling sounds he never used to make. I always thought it was his version of human speech. Ramses did a bit too.

    I don’t talk to Diana and Freyja so much, but I do talk TO them. Telling them how pretty they are and what good girls they are. But I don’t consult them or tell them my complaints or the happenings of the day. They seem to have enough on their plates already.

    As do I.

  5. Hobbit
    4:51 pm on September 20th, 2023

    Now I have a question: how many dedications to your wife in your 46 books or is only once allowed in the unwritten writing rules?

  6. Chet The Dog
    7:49 am on September 21st, 2023

    Hobbit – certainly more than 1!

  7. marjorie
    10:07 pm on September 22nd, 2023

    Wow, what a trip down memory lane! Spencer’s writing transported me to a world of endless possibilities – from his books to our furry friends, and even other people’s pups. It’s amazing how one idea sparked such a wealth of inspiration and creativity.

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