Monday, October 4, 2010

Animals in Crime Fiction: World Animal Day

Today is World Animal Day! Mystery Readers Journal has had two themed issues on Animal Mysteries: Winter 1998-99 (Volume 14:4) and Winter 1990 (Volume 6:4). Because it's been over 10 years since the last and it's such a popular theme with crime writers, I plan to have another issue of MRJ devoted to Animals in 2011. So if you have a mystery set in the world of animals, or there's a prominent animal in your novel, consider writing an Author! Author! essay. Contact me for more info.

There are all kinds of animals in mysteries, from narrating dogs to trusted dog friends. Cats are easy for detectives to have around since they fend for themselves, but dogs need to be walked. There are also some unique animals, non-pets, in crime fiction. You'll have to check out the table of contents of the above issues for those: horses, goats, zoo animals. Whatever the connection, I'm usually glad to have animals in crime long as they don't get hurt. Murder and mayhem amongst the humans is just fine, but don't harm an animal.

Want to see some other lists and articles about Animal Mysteries: Stop You're Killing Me has a list Here and  Margot Kinberg blogs on Purrfect Crime Fiction HERE.

So to celebrate World Animal Day, here's an Author! Author! essay by Laura Lippman that appeared in the Mystery Readers Journal in 1998

Rover à Clef by Laura Lippman (Baltimore, Maryland)

I write rovers à clef.

There are two characters inspired by real-life dogs in my mysteries. Most people know only one: Esskay, a rescued racing greyhound introduced in my second book, Charm City (Avon, 1997). In describing the first meeting between private investigator Tess Monaghan and Esskay, I fell back on real life and simply transcribed my first encounter with Dulcie, the greyhound who came into our family five years ago.

It was a dog, a bony, ugly dog with dull black fur and raw patches on its hindquarters. The brown eyes were vague and unfocused… the shoulders hunched in an uncanny imitation of Richard Nixon.

Okay, not quite love at first sight. But let me tell you, putting ointment on a dog's bedsores accelerates the bonding experience. In a ridiculously short time, the shy, colorless dog we brought home from our local rescue group had blossomed into a confident, happy hound, with gleaming fur and bright eyes. She pranced down the street, sure that everyone was looking at her. After all, she was named for Dulcinea, Don Quixote's maiden fair.

Everything about Dulcie fascinated me. I liked watching her run at full speed around our small backyard, rear legs kicking up like a crazed kangaroo. I adored her grin, no other word for it, reserved for our homecomings and certain treats. I noticed how she laid her long body down in pieces, a section at a time, until the head landed with a loud thunk. There was even a part of my mind that sat back, taking notes, as I pried a small dog from Dulcie's jaws one morning. (It was a tiny puncture wound, harmless to the dog, although the vet bills wiped out my winnings in that year's Kentucky Derby.) With Baltimore Blues (Avon, 1996) finished, I looked around for inspiration and saw Dulcie spread out on the couch, legs twitching as if she were forever chasing that elusive mechanical rabbit.

And so a greyhound appears in Charm City, winning Tess's heart as surely as Dulcie won mine. The fictional Esskay -- named for a local sausage company -- is a wonderful character to write, as odd as that may sound. She's my Harpo Marx -- silent, sweet, a crazed cherub that you ignore at your peril.

The second "dog" in my work is named for the dignified springer spaniel my husband brought to our marriage. I asked John once if he desired any hidden tribute in my books, and he replied: "I want there to be a bookie named Spike who says, 'I'll never take a bet on a dog race.'" And so Spike -- who resembles a springer spaniel, with his pointy, freckled bald head and soulful brown eyes -- came along. He is a bookie and a bartender and, true to the bargain I made with my husband, he has uttered the immortal line: "I'll never take a bet on a dog race."

The summer before last, the real Spike unlocked our back gate. The neighbors, who had seen this escape act at least a dozen times, later told us he would put his head beneath the pickets and nudge the gate up and down until the latch popped out. On this scorching July day, he wandered into the alley and was hit by a car. Or so we conjecture. Whoever hit Spike left him there, still alive, blood pooling in his lungs, one leg broken, his ribs cracked. We found him in time to take him to the vet, where he died on the table.

I think a lot about the person who hit our dog. The alley is rough, a bumpy patch of pavement where children play -- how fast were you going? Did you know Spike was still alive, or did you just continue, assuming he was dead? Are you one of my neighbors? It's rare for anyone else to drive down this one-block stretch that leads to nothing but driveways. I also think about our personal responsibility in Spike's death. Why didn't we fix the gate?

These questions, however banal or melodramatic they may seem, go to the heart of each mystery I write. Evil is fascinating, as are monsters, but I am more interested in ordinary people who find themselves crossing some line they never thought they would cross. In a world where few secrets seem essential to keep and where shame is virtually non-existent, how does an average person rationalize one's way into murder? Disregard for human life often begins with disregard for animal life. At the same time, a local woman who starved her own daughter to death fretted when she was detained for questioning. She was really worried she wouldn't get home in time to feed the cat.

I may never sort out the feelings I have when I sit down at my desk, which overlooks the alley where Spike was hit. But I can make this promise to my readers: No matter who dies in Tess Monaghan's world, Esskay the greyhound will live forever, and Spike the bookie-bartender will never take a bet on a dog race.
Celebrate World Animal Day! Give the dog extra kibble. Treats for the Cat! A carrot for the Horse! or go to the Zoo!


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post :-). I'm a dedicated animal lover (I even did a post about animals in crime fiction not long ago), so this one was really a special treat :-).

Yvette said...

I didn't know about today, so thanks Janet. for posting this. I've linked your blog to mine and also posted a list of ten favorite fictional animal books - just for the heck of it.

Ingrid King said...

What a wonderful post (and thank you to linking to Margot's guest post on The Conscious Cat!). I'm so sorry about Spike - what a horrible way to loose a wonderful dog. I'm glad that he gets to live on in your books - it must provide at least some small comfort.