Monday, February 11, 2013

Dog Mysteries: Westminster, Deborah Crombie and Dogs

The Westminster Dog Show, one of the preeminent shows in the world, starts today in New York. I'll be watching on TV, of course, but for those dog lovers who love dogs in mysteries, here's an essay by Deborah Crombie that appeared in Mystery Readers Journal: Animal Mysteries (Volume 27, No. 3, Fall 2011). Be sure and check out the table of contents of this issue HERE for other articles or to order.

Deborah Crombie writes the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James crime novels set in the United Kingdom. Latest in the series comes out in a matter of days: The Sound of Broken Glass (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.

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