Spencer Quinn. Q is for Quinn. This article appears in the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Volume 27:3): Animal Mysteries.
Spencer Quinn is the pen name Edgar Award winning crime fiction writer Peter Abrahams uses when he’s writing the New York Times bestselling Chet and Bernie series. Book four, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, just came out Sept. 6, 2011.
From a writer’s point of view, the most important thing to understand about Chet, narrator of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, is that he’s not a talking dog. Chet’s a narrating dog. Anyone at all familiar with dogs knows they have a life narrative unspooling in their heads. That’s what I try to get on the page in these books. Chet is not a human in a dog suit. But he is an intelligent mammal, and so is Bernie Little, private eye and Chet’s partner in the Little Detective Agency, and that gives them some points of commonality.
So – how to get into a dog’s head? You could read a lot of scientific studies and try to bring a tower of data to life. You could make a list of canine attributes, such as being lower to the ground than humans when standing, and have that list on-screen at all times. Or, you could do what I do, and just jump in, relying on the writer’s most powerful tool – the imagination. And, jumping right in, I began to discover something I loved about Chet: his joie de vivre. Readers have responded to it over and over. Chet forgets the bad. He forgets the good, too, but much more slowly. Good mysteries give more than just plot, more too even than plot, character, mood, sparkling writing (as we climb the ladder): they’re also about something. The Chet and Bernie series is about love, specifically the love between the two main characters.
Jumping right in is my M.O. At the beginning of my career (The Dog Who Knew Too Much is my 27th novel) I went in for long A-Z outlines. Then, when I’d finally worked up the nerve to begin, I’d find at around C, for example, that a character would blurt something unexpected, or I’d see the whole affair from a different angle, knocking D to Z right off the rails. Now I don’t use outlines. I make sure I know: the beginning; the engine that drives the story (not the same thing as the plot); a few big scenes along the way (Chet and the stolen elephant Peanut alone in the desert in To Fetch A Thief, say); and that the story is resolvable in a believable way; and then I begin.
Another thing that draws me to Chet is his short, sometimes non-existent, attention span. The solving of crimes in detective fiction depends on following links in a chain. Chet can’t do that, of course, so setting him loose in a traditional P.I. story guarantees it will be challenging for the writer, but if done right different from everything else out there. It’s like playing classic themes on an unusual instrument. Chet’s an unreliable narrator, of course, and that’s something I’ve been drawn to in the past. There’s Nick Petrov, the P.I. in Oblivion, after his brain hemorrhage, to take one example. But Oblivion, like all of my novels prior to Chet and Bernie, was written in third-person close. I’d written just one single short story in the first person but I knew Chet would work best that way.
I’m the kind of writer who stares out the window a lot while I’m working. We live beside a salt marsh and we’ve always had dogs, and they’ve always played outside. So I’ve been observing dogs for years. Not in any organized way, more an osmosis kind of thing, but some part of my mind, while other parts wrestled with whatever was on the screen, must have been processing canine life. Maybe for that reason, Chet’s narrative voice just seems to flow out of me. Or has there been some DNA mix-up in my ancestral past?
Now for the crazy part. I’ve learned from Chet to be more upbeat in life, the way he is. How can a fictional character that comes out of your own mind give you something that wasn’t there before? Thanks to Chet, I’m not going to spend a second worrying about that.
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