The crime-solving menagerie
It may be a stretch to dub 2008 as the literary Year of the Animal, but the stratospheric success of David Wroblewski’s novel “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” and Iowa librarian Vicki Myron’s true account of her beloved cat Dewey -- not to mention the crowds lining up to see the movie version of John Grogan’s doggy memoir, “Marley and Me” -- certainly bolster the notion that animals are a big draw for readers. In a review for the now-defunct genre book review website Crescent Blues, Susannah Frisbee identified four categories of “animal book flavors”: books featuring animals living with the protagonist, books where the animals aid the protagonist and move the plot along, books where animals boast a supporting point of view and books where animals are the protagonist.
The first two groupings, at least in mystery fiction, owe their continued popularity (and commensurate critical derision) to the editors of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, whose decision to publish Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Sin of Madam Phloi” paved the way for the first of her series of “The Cat Who . . . " novels in 1966 -- as well as countless sequels and the birth of the animal-centric American cozy.
The last two categories are more difficult to pull off in convincing fashion, so it’s hardly shocking that few writers have tried. Those that do, however, find it worthwhile. Both Rita Mae Brown’s and Carole Nelson Douglas’ successful series featuring cat narrators (and, in Brown’s case, given co-author credit) vary wildly in literary quality, but the early entrants featuring Sneaky Pie Brown and Midnight Louie, respectively, are high on entertainment value and craftsmanship. Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s long-running series, which continues with “Cat Playing Cupid” (William Morrow: 368 pp., $16.99) has its cat narrator, Joe Grey, playing even more of an active investigative role.
Animal protagonists also allow for more postmodern approaches, such as the collective flock of sheep solving the mystery of their shepherd’s murder in Leonie Swann’s delightful “Three Bags Full” (Flying Dolphin Press: 352 pp., $13.95 trade paper), Akif Pirincci’s “Felidae,” a Kierkegaard-inflected account of cat serial murder (with several untranslated sequels from the original German) or Nick Smith’s genre-bending adventures featuring Julius Kyle, a feline journalist and crime writer exposing his town’s dark underbelly in “Milk Treading” (Luath Press: 220 pp., $12.95 trade paper) and “penning” the Chandler-esque novel “The Kitty Killer Cult” (Luath Press: 256 pp., $13.95 trade paper.) Interestingly, none of these experiment-minded authors are American (Swann, too, is German, while Smith hails from Scotland), less an indication of greater intellectual rigor than de-emphasis on the rigid subgenre classification that persists here. That stratification is evident among two new excellent offerings of “anthropomorphic noir.”
If Spencer Quinn had allowed Bernie Little, chief and sole proprietor of the Little Detective Agency, to narrate “Dog On It” (Atria: 306 pp., $25), the end result would have been an above-average P.I. novel but not necessarily a memorable one. There is a missing teenager, encounters with Russian gangsters, secretive clients and a fractured love life punctuated with trips to the liquor cabinet -- all common elements in such books. But instead, the reader views Bernie through the canine prism of his partner, Chet, a steady and stalwart companion who doesn’t just steal the show, but is the show.
Through Chet, Bernie reveals himself to be a competent investigator who is skeptical that young Madison Chambliss has run away or that her divorced parents are telling the truth about anything -- not to mention that Bernie’s ready for a fight, eager for a wisecrack (“I wasn’t actually smart enough for law enforcement, that’s why I’m a private eye”) or puzzling over the intentions of his intrepid reporter pal Suzie Sanchez. But Chet reveals himself to be a clever if attention-deficit-disordered hound, using his sense of smell, sound and sight to aid his human best friend -- all in one continuous narrative gulp.
That Quinn is able to sustain Chet’s earnest yet knowing viewpoint through “Dog On It” is nothing short of masterful: Not only do silences and dialogue take on added meaning, but the declarative sentence style seem a natural way for a dog to express himself. Sequels are a given, and a must.
The pseudonymous Swedish writer Tim Davys unpacks a more audacious concept to open his -- or is it her? -- new series, readily apparent in the opening paragraph of “Amberville” (Harper: 344 pp., $19.95): “Early one morning at the end of April there was pounding on the door to Eric Bear and Emma Rabbit’s apartment on brick-red Uxbridge street.” The translation continues to be clunky, the tone remains hard-bitten and violent, and the characters’ names are anything but ironic: They are stuffed animals living in the plush toy world of Mollisan Town, where all its denizens live with the knowledge that their fates may be sealed by a Death List -- that is, if such a thing really exists.
Eric Bear thinks it does, especially after his onetime boss, the shady gangster Nicholas Dove, threatens to consign Emma to mortal doom if Dove’s name can’t be stricken from the fatality record. Helping Eric on his quest are his old cohorts in gambling and crime, though they were hardly “inseparable musketeers. Sam Gazelle was most often so drugged up he had a hard time telling one musketeer from another, and Snake Marek was only loyal to a single animal: himself. . . . Eric was the energy; he was the ignition key while Tom-Tom [Crow] was the motor, the force.”
As they come together, it’s a given that Eric’s carefully ordered, upwardly mobile world will be blown apart like the threat to his wife, but the giddy thrill comes in how Davys accomplishes the obvious. The narrative zigzags through a number of disparate viewpoints (such as Eric’s mirror-image twin Teddy, the grudge-wielding poet Hyena Battaille and a mysterious baddie dubbed “Twilight”) that colors in ambiguity about every major character until the realization hits for both reader and anti-hero alike, to paraphrase a certain iconic 1970s film noir: “Forget it, Eric. It’s Amberville.”
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (https://www.sarahweinman.com.)
Dark Passages runs monthly in https://www.latimes.com/books.
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