From The Wilmington Star News
April 4th, 2010 07:00am
Whodunit goes to the dogs
by Ben Steelman
Face it, the mystery genre is a cat’s world.
Lilian jackson Braun wrote nearly three dozen “The Cat Who …” mysteries starring the ex-journalist Qwill and his Siamese cats KoKo and YumYum, who generally policed matters in Moose County, in upstate Michigan. Rita Mae Brown “co-authored” a series of novels with her cat Sneaky Pie, mostly stazrring the feline sleuth Mrs. Murphy.
Dogs generally fare less well in the mystery universe; witness the hapless (and mistreated) title character of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
So it was nice to discover “Dog On It” by Spencer Quinn, published last year by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster and now available in paperback.
(Thanks to John Wood, the witty and erudite retired professor who turned me on to this wonderful work. Wood — who happens to be married to former Wilmington City Council member Margaret Haynes — can often be found volunteering at the information desk at the Wilmington airport, and he’s well worth getting to know.)
Quinn’s novels so far are narrated by Chet, a sharp and generally cheerful mixed-breed — he got upset, briefly, when a newspaper reporter described him as a “mongrel” — with mismatched ears.
Chet was going to be a K-9 patrol dog for the police, until he flunked his exam. (Why, oh why, did that cat have to wander onto the training field at just the wrong time?)
So now, Chet lives and works with Bernie, an ex-West Pointer, ex-cop and current private eye with an ex-wife, a son he doesn’t see often enough, a weakness for bourbon and chronic money troubles.
Chet and Bernie live in a fast-growing, unspecified Southweatern state, probably Arizona (although they take detours to Las Vegas and parts of New Mexico). Missing persons cases are their specialty, and in “Dog On It,” they land a corker.
The ex-wife of a high-rolling developer calls the team in when her teenaged daughter, Madison goes missing. (Chet, with his top-notch nose, quickly finds the bag of marijuana hidden in her bedroom.)
The surly high schooler quickly shows up, claiming she detoured to a movie with friends, but Bernie — who knows how to interrogate — quickly figures out she’s lying. (After all, “Dr. Zhivago” doesn’t have a tennis scene.)
Before long, Madison goes missing again, this time for real — and the trail quickly goes cold. Chet and Bernie will have to contend with Russian mafiosi, biker gangs, surly punk rockers and a host of denizens of the New West.
As mysteries go, this is a highly satisfying exercise, with a good supply of red herrings, plenty of character and a minimum of wasted space. Quinn has a subtle sense of humor (a kid named Fletcher turns out to be a high school archery star — look it up), and he keeps a steady pace.
The real strength of the book, however, is Chet, one of the most winning and convincing canines in recent literature.
Chet is a dog who thinks like a dog. He distrusts birds — his prime suspect is Cap’n Crunch, Madison’s foul-mouthed pet parrot — and anyone who feeds him is his best friend for life, like Cleon Maxwell, the estimable proprietor of a first-rate rib joint.
He’s vague on human concepts like ”a million,” and (rather like Ziva on “NCIS”) he has trouble understanding the idioms (like “red herring” or “whole ball of wax”) that Bernie likes to throw out from time to time. He can also be distracted by passing road runners (the birds, not the humans) and javalenas.
In his own way, however, Chet is extremely smart. He notices things that Bernie (who’s no slouch) doesn’t, like the aroma of borscht — although, since he can’t speak English, getting Bernie’s attention can sometimes be difficult.
He’s fearless, and utterly devoted to his boss — which is fortunate, since Chet has to take as much damage and abuse in this first book as Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer. In this volume, he’s stabbed in the flank (by a perp who’s slashing Bernie’s tires), locked in a trunk by the bad guys, has the tip of one ear slashed off, and winds up — temporarily, thank goodness — on Doggie Death Row at a local pound, when the bad guys steal his collar. (Moral: Make sure your pet pooch has The Chip.)
Chet’s narration has that trimmed-down, almost hardboiled quality of good American crime fiction, but with an air of poetry, too:
“One thing about humans: They like to get high This comes up over and over again in our work … But the actual getting-high part was something I never understood, puzzled over for a long time. What was it all about? And then one day it hit me. What was my favorite thing to do in the whole wide world? Riding shotgun in (Bernie’s) Porsche, far and away. Sitting up high, wind pushing my face all out of shape, and sights and smells — especially smells — rushing by so fast I couldn’t take them all in. Speed, rush, sensation: I knew about getting high, had been high lots of times.”
Happily, there’s already a sequel out: “Thereby Hangs a Tail,” released by Atria in January ($25, still in hardcover). Through the good offices of their police buddy Lt. Stine, Chet and Bernie get a security gig at a big Westminster-style dog show — guarding a pedigreed pooch named Princess. Then Princess and her owner are both abducted. I can’t wait.
Happy Easter, everybody. Tomorrow back to Colonel Bob – except did Bakersfield come up? So maybe …
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