Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Animals in and Out of Books by Deborah Crombie: National Pet Day

April 11 is National Pet Day.  Topper, my golden retriever, will have a special treat in honor of the day. The cats--well, they think every day is Pet Day. They're cats.

Mystery Readers Journal has had several issues devoted to Animal Mysteries. The last issue devoted to Animal Mysteries (Volume 27:3 2011) is still available as hardcopy or PDF. Go here for the Table of Contents and ordering info.

The following is an Author! Author! essay that appeared in that issue.  Deborah Crombie writes the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James crime novels set in the United Kingdom. Latest in the series is No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow). Crombie lives in North Texas with her husband, German shepherds, and cats, and divides her time between Texas and Britain.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Animals In and Out of Books

The German shepherds were my husband's fault.

When he was very small, his parents kept a German shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. My dear hubby adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog's mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)

The German shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs; a bloodhound, a boxer. But none replaced the German shepherd in his imagination or affections.

I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats. She was afraid of big dogs—she'd been bitten as a small child—and above all she didn't want anything in the house that shed!

When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I'm sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.

But this dog, who didn't care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.

By my late teens, I'd rebelled (well, I was still living at home so perhaps not all that rebellious) and had finally talked my mother into letting me adopt a kitten, a six-week-old tiny orange ball of fluff. That sweet little thing grew up into the cat from hell, which terrorized everyone and everything in the household, including my second acquisition, an enormous and completely goofy Great Dane.

Eventually I went away to college, the Great Dane went to a family with small children and a big yard, and the hellcat stayed with me until I moved to England a number of years later.

And I've continued ever since to make up for my pet-free childhood. There have been a great number of cats—one, a purebred Himalayan, brought back from England. I was living in Chester at the time with my then-husband, and we'd found the kitten in a newspaper advert. Her breeders lived in a farmhouse near the Cheshire market town of Nantwich. Here reality bleeds into fiction again—that farmhouse, and that town, made such an impression on me that a decade later they became the models for Duncan Kincaid's parents' home.

Then came the dogs. My first dog as an adult was a buff cocker spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues cocker spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn't bear being dogless, even for a week.

I'd had visions of an English cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She's thirteen now, and frail. Our younger shepherd, Neela, is five, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog—brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful, and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.

Gemma, of course, got the blue roan cocker spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit's Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.

Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead.
Having resisted the temptation to give my primary fictional characters German shepherds, I've given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels. Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I've had a particular fondness for black Labrador retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan's parents have a lovely border collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo's owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.

But if the working dogs have had minor roles in the previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her. Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search and rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I've called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)

I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.

Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can't imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.

There is one caveat, however—the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.


vallerose said...

Wonderful article. The MRI animal journal is the best. back to dogs. when i was small we had a Welsh Terrier whose was Taffy. We pronounced it Tuffy. she was a recuse dog and came with the name. She lived to be 17. I have always had cats and I know that my current one, a blackish tortoiseshell will talk. She reminds me of Tobermorry by Saki. My husband loves German shepherds but never got one because of the sadness when they die. My brother has a border collie-I want her. I have a lot of foster dogs-ones who belong to others. Maybe I'll introduce the cats to a real one some day. We also live in a sea of cat hair.

Periphera said...

Nice catch, thanks! The animals who weave in and out of Crombie's books are part of their charm for me. I literally can't imagine life without pets.

Rosie123 said...

Super Article !!

Eloise Hill said...

What a delightful post! I've had more of a cat-filled history (Audie in The Eight of Pentacles is a combination of several of my girls) but did get to rough house with a golden lab for one glorious summer while a neighboring farm family was relocating. Enjoyed the backstory behind Gemma and Duncan's pets...and your Hallie and Neela are both lovely.

AnnOxford said...

Great, Deb, thank you! Lovely to hear about all of your pet experiences and to review Duncan's and Gemma's pets over the series. No Mark Upon Her was a fine way to honor all SAR workers. I learned a lot throughout the book. As you know, I look forward to seeing what pets and adventures Gemma and Duncan have in the future.

Dutcher said...

Great post! Enjoyed reading about your dogs (& cats)--real and in fiction.