Sleeping Dog by Dick Lochte (Arbor House: $15.95; 273 pp.)
First, imagine Katharine Hepburn at 14.
Next, in your mind’s eye, replay Humphrey Bogart, at his middle-aged best, as Sam Spade.
Now picture this oddest of couples as the newest duo in detective fiction, and you’ll have a perfect portrait of the memorable leads in “Sleeping Dog,” Dick Lochte’s intriguing first novel.
Snippy and sharp-tongued teen-ager Serendipity Dahlquist has a dog named Groucho, who is missing.
The police, with more important crimes loading their casebooks, impishly steer the kid to ex-cop-turned-down-at-the-heels private eye Leo G. “Bloodhound” Bloodworth.
A missing pooch, of course, is not the type of case any self-respecting shamus would pursue. And Leo has self-respect.
But when the slimy peeper who shares office space with him is found dead, that does catch his attention. That, and a beating at the calloused paws of an unhappy client of Hound’s deceased “partner,” a chiseler he didn’t like in the first place.
Thus, the pursuit, and the fun, begins. And it’s a wild, often bloody trail that Lochte leads us down now, a road rocky with murder, blackmail, more beatings, disturbing echoes from the ‘60s, and a tension-filled tour inside the vicious world of illegal dogfights (“The doggies. Some of ‘em they rig with special choppers and shoot ‘em so full of dope they could rip the hide off a rhino.”)
Balancing violence and humor is no easy feat. Yet Lochte has done it, and done it well.
Besides giving us some shrewd and satirical observations about life in California, he tells the story in the first person--but with Leo and “Sara” alternating the narrative, a choice device seldom used since Vera Caspary’s “Laura.”
That technique, though, nicely sets up the culture and generation gap between the two protagonists, often to hilarious effect.
But then the Spunky-Sprout versus-the Old Salt has always been sure-fire, especially when the kid is a young girl. Remember “True Grit”? “Paper Moon”? “Little Miss Marker”?
Add to that charming and comical contrast a cast of colorful, and believable, characters--including Mama who was a flower child in the ‘60s and has gone to pot and more since--and you’ve got an arresting entertainment.
If there’s a quibble, it’s a small one. Private eyes, traditionally, always have been drinkers. And if the brews they downed lacked dignity, at least they were distinctive. But the beer the Hound guzzles isn’t fit for a dog.