Of course, you'll have to put up with setting aside any skepticism about horse whisperers and people who "get" what a dog or cat is saying to them. It shouldn't be too hard. Pru herself is at pains to point out that her midlife ability to "hear" the thoughts of animals in words is actually not what it seems. Her cat Wallis, the mature adult in all of this, reminds her often that the "words" are simply Pru's own mind imposing a framework on the information and emotions coming her way from, say, Growler the (gay) dog she walks regularly, Frank the ferret, and a not-so-talkative rabbit whose owner is hiding some secrets of her own.
And as someone whose four nearest neighbors all have dogs living with them and running their lives, I'm inclined to ride with Pru's take on the situation in her small, western Massachusetts town.
This time she's worked up right away abotu what looks like a "moneyed older man" manipulating a beautiful young woman, a ski bunny in town to enjoy the nearby snowy slopes while also collaborating in an affaire. But if you're reading this, you pay attention to crime, both fictional and non, right? So if I say, "Think Whitey Bulger and his girlfriend," you'll see things differently from Pru's line of vision. Of course, all the clues are in front of Pru. But she's a bit stubborn, and the fact that her pet wrangling's being demanded by a woman she sees as weak, and another (the rabbit owner) who's somehow afraid, doesn't make for clear insight.
Take this scene, for instance, when a human corpse has already been discovered (this is noir, remember?) and Pru is searching the nearby woods alone for a dog she's sure she heard barking before the death was revealed. Of course, the nearby birds and squirrels are making their own sort of racket in Pru's mind.
"Where is she? Where?" A new voice had joined the cacophony -- and this one I did understand. What I heard as a question was the sharp bark of a little dog, racing toward the development -- and me. ... "Where? Where?" The barking was growing louder, and I turned. It would be a sad circumstance if the little dog were hit by a car just as he emerged from the woods. ...Readers of the earlier books in the series (Dogs Don't Lie, Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, Panthers Play for Keeps, and Kittens Can Kill) will get extra pleasure from the appearances in the book of Pru's held-at-a-little-distance police officer lover, and know right away that Pru's efforts to keep both her animal insight and her crime-solving out of Jim's focus are in trouble. There's also a criminal figure from earlier books, the very dangerous Gregor Benazi. Well, this is noir, right? Some evil, plenty of danger, collaboration with people you know aren't trustworthy?
The car -- a silver Honda -- braked and a redhead -- Cheryl Ginger -- stepped out. ... "Did you hear him?" she asked. "Is he here?"...
The woman beside me knelt as the dog -- a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, from the size and silky coat -- leaped into her arms. "I've been looking for you everywhere." She was talking to the dog, but I saw her glance at me as he reached up to lick her cheek. When she caught me looking, she turned to work a small twig out of her pet's jeweled collar. "Where have you been?"
The dog didn't answer. Then again, I had the feeling her line of questioning had actually been for me. I wasn't sure what the pretty ski bunny was about but I knew a staged scene when I was placed in one.
No, you don't need to read the other books first. Clea Simon (who writes three or four mystery series) is adept at inserting just enough background so you can steam through these chapters, chasing the killer and his or her motives along with Pru. And yes, I understand being a bit reluctant to trust the narrator about animal communication -- but trust me on this one, Simon's ingenious in how she outlines Pru's talent and its costs. Set the issue aside and focus on the clues and twists. Above all, this is a fiercely traditional crime novel, with red herrings (not fish, but four-legged and two-legged) and a relentless trail of risk and discovery.
Grab a copy while the book's in its first printing -- you can make time later to collect the entire batch if you get hooked. And please check out this evening's OTHER Clea Simon review. This prolific author has two mysteries releasing on March 1, and the other one's the start of an even darker set.
WHEN BUNNIES GO BAD is in the hands of Poisoned Pen Press -- more proof that this specialty mystery publisher knows when to carry on with an intriguing and successful series.