Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Dog Mysteries Come in Many Breeds: Spencer Quinn, Sheila Webster Boneham

A rainy week, a slow couple of days in the day-job category ... and my prize was enough time to enjoy every page of A FISTFUL OF COLLARS, the new Chet and Bernie mystery from Spencer Quinn (a.k.a. Peter Abrahams).  That was a very good thing. Usually the newest Chet and Bernie mystery erupts when I'm racing through three jobs at once, I notice that it has plenty of reviews and plenty of readers, and I zip along to something more shadowy (and less entertaining), to dig into the dark side of mysteries and crime fiction.

Spencer Quinn provides the light side. In A FISTFUL OF COLLARS, characters arrive without horrendous gaping emotional wounds causing them to grieve or suffer from depression or explore the depths of evil. Bernie Little, of the Little Detective Agency, has some issues, sure -- his ex-wife, for one, and the fact that he doesn't get enough time with his son Charlie. But to Chet, the hundred-plus-pound dog who adores Bernie and tries hard to remember what Bernie expects of him (except when a cat walks by or a hot dog is lying under a nearby bench), Bernie is the best. No question. And the two of them are the best possible team. Chet knows that every "case" will end with a finale when he gets to grab the "perp" by the leg and wrap things up. He puzzles over human phrasings -- like "clear as a bell," or "peachy" -- but never worries long. He's too happy seeing Bernie headed toward him or, hurrah, getting a good scratch on his back from Bernie.

Chet's point of view is always rich in hero worship and affection, and as a narrator, he's a hundred percent canine in viewpoint. Take this moment when Bernie's trying to get some information from his friend Gronk, whose job referral for Bernie may have been a setup.
"Spill it," Bernie said.

"You can't just leave this simply as me getting a chance to do you a small favor and seizing the opportunity?"

"Not if it didn't go down that way."

"But what's the godda** difference?"

"Life and death," Bernie said.

"I don't get it," said Gronk.

Whoa! You can smell the difference right away, poor [XXX] in the dumpster, for example. But Gronk wasn't in the business, so maybe I was expecting too much.
Yes, that's Chet's voice. (He's one of very few dogs to have his own blog:

Quinn's characters are understandable and his plots are brisk and make sense; the narrative (interrupted with Chet's quick runs in one direction or another) is enjoyable; and most of all, friendship, loyalty, and love win out. I'm putting this book on the re-read shelf, marked for opening again when I've got a cold or cough this winter -- it's the book that will get me feeling better again.

Another canine entry in the mystery field this season is DROP DEAD ON RECALL from Sheila Webster Boneham, whose 17-book writing career has been nonfiction until now, praised in the fields of cat and dog care and particularly animal rescue and canine sports. That all goes into the detailed background of interesting discoveries in this first in the "Animals in Focus" series from publisher Midnight Ink.

Pet photographer Janet MacPhail and her Australian Shepherd dog Jay won't make top rank in the American Kennel Club dog trials, mostly because Janet is relaxed and friendly toward her dog and only expects him to make a passing grade -- unlike Abigail Dorn, an unsmiling and competitive handler whose dog Pip, a Border Collie, is terribly confused by Abigail falling flat on her face in the ring. (Boneham gives a list of characters at the start of her book, including the breed of each dog; the capitalization of breeds is her style.) Quick to respond, helping Abigail's husband in every way she can think of, Janet's eagerness leads her to make moves that seasoned mystery readers will recognize as sure to bring investigation of her as a "person of interest," once Abigail's death is seen as suspicious.

Boneham, like Quinn, portrays the affection between person and pet in every chapter, but from a very different point of view, that of the responsible and concerned owner. Janet's attraction to "hunky" Tom Saunders, another dog-owning competitor, confuses her reactions in trying to straighten out what's actually happened in her ring of friends and colleagues and pets. And soon she's taking risks that put her, and her dog and cat, at serious risk from a killer growing more desperate in every turn of the plot.

Boneham's debut has some slow patches, and could have benefited from judicious cutting, but it's a good amateur sleuth tale and I'm interested in what she's got already lined up, with a promised release in 2013. Animal lovers will want to check her website for the generous ways in which she's assisting the animal health field while introducing her fiction, too:

CALENDAR REMINDER: Check in on Friday Oct. 5 for an insightful guest post from Carole Shmurak, on academic ("professor") mysteries!

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