DOG GONE IT. By Spencer Quinn. Atria, February 2009. 305 pages. $25.
If dogs could translate their thoughts into English, they would undoubtedly sound pretty much like Chet, canine co-owner (or so he fancies himself) of the Little Detective Agency in some unspecified western state: “Bernie rose. Me too. Enough of this chit chat. It was time to crack this case the way we usually do, with me sniffing out the perp.”
As written by Cape Cod writer Spencer Quinn in this first of a projected series, Dog On It (Atria Books, $25), Chet is a big black dog with mismatched white ears, of mixed parentage, but the reader gets a sense of him as part German shepherd, part Labrador retriever and, of course, all Phillip Marlowe, in a doggy sort of way.
Chet and his owner, Bernie, have a lot going on in their partnership: Bernie’s bitchy wife, Leda, has left him, but not before cleaning out his accounts and skedaddling (except on alternate weekends) with their little boy, Charlie, who laughs uproariously whenever Chet licks his face like a pan of gravy drippings, so the child is sorely missed by man and beast. The fearless twosome is handed a runaway teen case, and pretty soon they’ve got their teeth — of varying lengths — sunk into unscrupulous developers, ruthless Russian mob guys, kidnappers, dognappers, a sexy lady reporter who saves the day on more than one occasion, a not-totally vicious biker gang, and one misadventure heaped on the next, all of it loaded with genuine suspense and times out for lizard chases, intoxicating desert scat smells, and the two-gulp wolfing down of all sorts of questionable materials that end up getting upchucked half an hour later.
Through it all, Chet misses all the nuances, but goes straight to the heart of the matter: “Water puddled the floor, as always after Bernie’s showers. I lapped some up and noticed that Bernie [about to go out with Susie for the first time] was standing in a strange way in front of the mirror, twisted around and peering over his shoulder.
“‘Christ! I’ve got back hair.’
“So? What was wrong with that? I’ve got back hair, lots of it, thick and glossy, and no one’s ever done anything but praise it.”
On the dust jacket, among many blurbs by the likes of Robert B. Parker, Stephen King and Sharon Kay Penman, author Joseph Finder notes, “You don’t have to be a dog lover . . . to find Dog On It an exciting, stylish page-turner.” On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a dog owner not experiencing extra heights of euphoria reading this mystery novel, even if said dog owner could care less about mystery novels. But if you combine a dog lover with a mystery aficionado, that reader might as well hang a sign on the door: “Do Not Disturb Until Further Notice.”
Again, gleaning from the dust jacket, Spencer Quinn is a pseudonym for a well-known writer of detective novels who remains nameless. A couple of red herrings led this reviewer to speculate that the real author is Robert B. Parker, given that Spenser and homicide detective Quinn are both on-going characters in his Boston-based Spenser novels.
Also, Parker is clearly mad about canines, considering another recurring character in his series, Pearl the Wonder Dog, and the fact that on his dust jackets he is always pictured with his own four-legged boon companion.
However, a bit of judicious Googling reveals that the author of the new Chet and Bernie series is, in fact, Peter Abrahams, author of 18 novels before Dog On It, including the best-sellers End of Story, Oblivion, and Lights Out. Once you’ve read Chet and Bernie’s first set of adventures, however, you’ll hope that Mr. Abrahams has put on his Spencer Quinn cap to give us the second installment of a long-running series.
Part of the gimmick of narrating events from a dog’s point of view is that Chet, through his own misguided exploits, has already figured out who’s where and what’s up and precisely how the bad guys smell (to a keen-nosed canine detective), but he’s unable to communicate his well-honed clues other than through barks and tail wags. Since he already barks or wags at squirrels and his and Bernie’s favorite rib joint, most of his attempts at early case solving go unheeded. All the same, he pulls Bernie out of one jam after the next, just as he himself gets un-jammed, as in the following rescue by a gang of bikers grouped around a desert campfire:
“‘Hey, pooch, wanna burger?’
“Not long after that, I was sitting around the fire, working on a burger, not my first, socializing with the bikers . . . .
“I really didn’t. What I liked was water, but there didn’t seem to be any around. Someone filled an old hubcap with beer. I took a sip. Not bad, not bad at all. I lapped up some more . . . The moon came up. I did some howling at it. So did a biker or two. They were real good howlers, almost in my class. Someone refilled my hubcap.”
This reviewer’s final advice: Buy this book, don’t borrow it or check it out of the library. Whenever in the future you feel a little bluesy, you’ll want to crack open a page and enjoy some excellent hang time with Chet and Bernie.