Janet LaPierre: Man's - and Woman's - Best Friend
In my family we’ve always had dogs. It began with Lady, a fabulous (to my father) German Shepherd, before I was born. Then came a short-lived male pit bull, followed by a sweet but not very bright female of that same species. Next was Tish, a female Gordon setter-fox terrier cross who was with us for many years.
And then I established what has become a family habit: I found a beautiful lost English setter, couldn’t keep her in my college dorm, and took her home to my parents. She was a success there, and was joined by, let’s see, a German shepherd puppy, followed by a Puli (named Icon for Iconoclast) who one day on a walk found a lost mostly-Basenji and brought her home. She stayed, and was named Bambi.
Meanwhile I finished college and taught school. Apart from one failed effort to keep a Gordon setter in my rented California apartment, I had to do without my necessary dog-companion until I was married, with two small children—who after all, surely needed a dog. So we found a wonderful standard poodle/Labrador retriever female, Griselda, who was followed in the natural course of things by a female registered standard poodle, and another.
And then one day my older daughter, now a college graduate, came to say that she’d decided to move to New York City and, in keeping with the family pattern, would need to leave Emmitt Smith, her nine-months-old male yellow Labrador, with us. Some six or seven years later, having decided that Labs were our destiny, we brought home a yellow female puppy, Dulcie, whom Emmitt adored and helped raise.
By now I’d been writing mystery novels for some time, and had included dogs in most of my novels. The main character in Children’s Games, Meg Halloran, has a Komondor, an enormous Hungarian sheep-dog; Grendel is serious protection for Meg her and her daughter, Katy. In Grandmother’s House, piano teacher Charlotte Birdsong and her son, Petey, have a good-tempered Labrador-poodle cross named George. In Keepers, private investigator Patience Mackellar has a small rescued terrier named Ralph; and in Family Business, a half-Akita, Zak, becomes the companion of Sylvie, the eight-year-old girl Patience, and her daughter, Verity, have rescued.
Each of these dogs has personality and character, and I think they all behave in recognizable dog fashion. But my most believable dog appears in Run A Crooked Mile, where the main character, Rosemary Mendes, finds herself living with a dog she didn’t ask for and doesn’t particularly want. Tank is a very forceful yellow Labrador and he plays an important and purposeful role in the story’s events. He really comes alive on the page, possibly because he’s largely based on a real dog, Emmitt. He does not, however, make decisions, or control events. Or perhaps he does, to some extent. But he does not talk. That possibility never occurred to me.
However, I have recently come across, with great pleasure, two writers whose fictional dogs do almost talk: the dogs are narrators of the novels. In Garth Stein’s remarkable, touching The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel, Enzo is a Labrador-something (he likes to think terrier) cross who lives with, and loves and understands Denny, a struggling race-car driver who supports his wife, Eve, and their child, Zoe, by working behind the counter in a fancy auto shop while angling for a seat in a race-car. With Denny and Eve at work, and Zoe in day-care, Enzo stays alone at home with the television Denny has left on for him, and enjoys watching movies.
Enzo believes that when he dies, he will turn into a human. He believes that man’s closest relative is not the chimpanzee, but the dog, and that if left on their own to evolve, dogs would develop thumbs and smaller tongues and be superior to men. Enzo loves Denny, and Eve, and Zoe, whom he vows to always protect. And he loves the idea of racing in the rain, and what he learns about it: “Your car goes where your eyes go.” He feels his life is complete when Denny takes him for a ride, on a race-track trial run, in the rain.
Enzo goes where Danny goes. He sees what Denny sees and to a large extent feels what Denny feels. And the reader goes where Enzo goes, and learns of happenings and feelings and results through Enzo’s observations. This should be an impossible way to tell a complicated, often sad story, but it works. I should add that there is a special adaptation of this book for young people, entitled Racing in the Rain: My Life As A Dog. I recently gave it to my granddaughter, but haven’t talked with her about it yet;I wanted to read the real thing myself first.
The second writer of dog-narrated stories I came upon recently is Spencer Quinn, whose first book in his series is Dog On It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery. Bernie Little is a West Point graduate, a former soldier, a former cop; now he makes a living, more or less, by running the Little Detective Agency, doing mostly divorce work. He himself is divorced, with a cash-flow problem as well as a son, Charlie, whom he sees on alternate weekends.
Bernie’s partner, and the narrator of this story, is Chet. Chet is a dog weighing over a hundred pounds and in very good shape who almost, he mentions, graduated from K-9 training. He is very much a dog, taking pleasure in extensive full-body stretches and long runs after whatever might be out there. He accompanies Bernie on investigations, riding in the back of an ancient Porsche; Chet always say “we,” or “me and Bernie” in describing their work. One of the “best perks in our line of work,” says Chet, is a car chase. “ . . . and I started salivating the way I always did when we were about to snap up the perp.”
The mystery story here involves a missing and possibly kidnapped teen-aged girl Bernie is hired to find, a father who is seriously in debt to dubious real estate developers with Russian connections, a near-death experience for Chet, and later a desert chase in search of the girl and the villains. It’s all rather wild-eyed and now and then stretches belief, but Bernie’s a good guy and a fairly believable character. Chet, however, is wonderful: smart and tough but all dog, given to distractions like a javalina chase, or an unattended hamburger, or the scent of a female dog up the hill–but when Bernie says “Go!” Chet does.
And there’s this. ‘‘Bernie laughed. I loved Bernie’s laugh.There’s this crazy run I do in the yard, zooming back and forth, that always works.”
So far Quinn has four Bernie and Chet mysteries in print: the one discussed above, Thereby Hangs a Tail, To Fetch a Thief, and The Dog Who Knew Too Much. I’m fairly sure there will be more to come. There is, of course, a web page for Quinn. And for Chet, there’s www.chetthedog.com. I actually read two more of the series, and did enjoy them; but it’s clear that the dog who won my heart and interest has done the same with other readers.
I should add that Spencer Quinn is in his other life Peter Abrahams, author of well-received mysteries and Young Adult for which he won an Edgar in 2010.
Maybe tonight, as I sit and watch the news with my one-year-old, fifty-plus pound Labrador puppy in my lap (briefly, anyway), I’ll think about putting her in a book. She clearly always knows what I’m about to do, and understands as much as she cares to of what I say. She isn’t big enough to pull down a bad guy, but she could outsmart him
A note: For anyone interested in dogs, I recommend “Beware of the Dog” in the February 27 edition of The New Yorker. Fascinating stuff.