Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Favorite Dog Fiction

In case some of you have not noticed, I love making lists, especially book-related lists. Best this, Best that, Books to be read, you get the idea. As I've made myself more and more familiar with the many excellent book blogs across the blog-O-sphere (Is that word still in use? Probably not, I always seem to be playing catch-up.), I do see, though, that I'm not the only one with a list fetish. And that is a very good thing. How could we exert some control over our reading if not for lists of one kind or another? Lists make us feel as if we are actually in control, even if we're not.

Since I'm never far from being in a listing sort of mood, I thought tonight I'd post a list of my favorite dog books. I got the idea from this piece in Publishers' Weekly on the suddenly noticeable (at least according to PW) popularity of dog books, the glut, if you will, of dog related books now on the market.

This week's issue also has a brief article by Elizabeth Thomas Marshall author of one of the best non-fiction dog behavior books I've ever read, The Hidden Life of Dogs. (Once you've read this book you'll never look at your own dog in quite the same way again.)

The following list, though, is about fictional dogs and they all have one thing in common: they all have happy endings. (And they've all been published mostly within the last ten or so years. ) Yes, it's true, I will not, willingly, read a book where the dog dies in the end. That's my own particular bug-a-boo. When I'm looking over a novel where a dog plays a major part, I always check the ending first. Don't care who the author is. Don't care how much the book's been recommended. Don't care if I've loved the author's previous work. Nope. There are to be no fictional dead dogs for me, ever. Not if I can help it. (I've had enough of that in real life, thank you very much. My wizened old heart can only stand so much.)

So I guess you could call this my happy list and you wouldn't be too wrong and except for the last one, they're all, coincidentally, mysteries.

Of course, the first book on the list breaks my rule immediately. But it couldn't be helped, since the incident didn't happen at the end. But I managed to keep reading and accepted what happened since the writing was so good and the story so intriguing. And besides, there is another dog in the story who filled in almost immediately. How the author manages this touchy plot point is a tribute to her talent for story telling and to the charm of the dog who steps in to help carry the plot.

The book: SCENT OF MURDER by Cynthia G. Alwyn. I had assumed it to be the first in a series, but since I've not seen any other books by this author, who knows what happened.
At any rate, it's worth hunting around for this debut first published in 2001. This is the only book I've ever read to feature my favorite breed of dog, the Bouvier des Flandres. I've been lucky enough to have lived with two Bouviers in my life and I can state that their charm, their affability, their strength, their devotion, their self-awareness, their love of children can never be over estimated. They are purely wonderful dogs AND they don't shed.

The author of SCENT OF MURDER, Cynthia G. Alwyn, was (and still may be) a search and rescue volunteer so the details in this story of kidnapping and murder, ring true. Her main protagonist, Brenna Scott is the head of a search and rescue team in Sacramento, California. She also works part time for her friend, private investigator Jett Culpepper. When a murderer begins taunting Brenna over her help in the search (while on a business trip to Seattle), for a missing four year old girl, Brenna and her dog can't help but be drawn into a harrowing hunt for a killer. A terrific book well worth looking for. An added plus: the original book features a wonderful cover - it never hurts.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a dog trainer and author of dog behavior books who also happens to write one of the best mystery series out there. The main thing I like about her books is that they just get better and better as they go along, the characterizations deepen as the stories grow even more intriguing. (I am a big fan of character driven fiction.) Private detective Rachel Alexander and her pit bull Dash (named after author Dashiel Hammett, of course) live in NYC's Greenwich Village. Author Benjamin 'gets' the gritty city details down, as well as the nuts and bolts experience of living with a dog in downtown Manhattan. Here's a list of the titles in the series in the order of publication.










All these books are terrific, but my very favorite is the emotionally complex, WITHOUT A WORD, a book that, under the guise of being just a mystery, explains in its own quietly intense way, the idea that some women are not cut out to be mothers. Not an earth shattering idea of course, but handled here in a different way by the author. The interesting thing about it is that although what a certain character does is very hard to reconcile, it is not inexplicable. A thought provoking book in more ways than one.

The last book in this series, far as I know, THE HARD WAY is also memorable for its moving characterization of a doomed young man living on the streets of NY. Benjamin has really matured into a truly fine writer. I wish she were writing more fiction.

My next to last choice is a relatively new series by Spencer Quinn. Quinn is the pen name of an author who has written several other books including the Echo Falls series, as Peter Abrahams. As Quinn, he has fashioned a wonderful, heartwarming (yes, I said it and I'm glad: heartwarming) series told from the point of view of a fine fellow who happens to be a dog. Chet the dog is the partner (as he refers to himself) of a hard drinking sad sack named Bernie, a guy barely making a living as a private eye. The main thing I love about these books is Chet's 'voice'. Author Quinn never EVER gives in to sentimentality or cutesy-poo doggy behavior with Chet. The dog's first person narration is perfectly in keeping with the way a dog would think if we, as humans, actually knew HOW a dog would think. Stephen King says that Spencer Quinn speaks "...two languages - suspense and dog - fluently." He is perfectly right.

No matter how Bernie behaves, good, bad or indifferent, to Chet, he is a hero. According to Chet, Bernie " always the smartest human in the room." The devotion Chet shows to Bernie, a devotion which is reciprocated, is the most touching thing about the series. I love when Chet explains that Bernie is a great name for a human. I mean, who wouldn't want to be named Bernie? And of course, his own name, Chet, pure and simple, is just right.

It is Chet's personality that carries these books. "I'd been the best leaper in K-9 class, which had led to all the trouble in a way I couldn't remember exactly, although blood was involved."

Chet's wry observations of humans and their foibles, his short term dog memory, his inability to reason like a human keep him, despite his narrative skills, behaving strictly like a dog. "Who says no to a chew strip?" That is the charm of these books. Chet never truly understands Bernie's emotions or behavior unless it relates directly to him, Chet, in some basic way. That's the beauty of Spencer Quinn's achievement, the fact that despite this self-imposed limitation,
he still manages to make these suspenseful mysteries work.

First in the series, DOG ON IT, has Chet and Bernie involved in the investigation of a missing teenage girl. Chet's trained nose leads the way into the desert where biker bars and unsavory types don't take kindly to being questioned. It isn't long before Chet and Bernie (in a very harrowing episode) are separated and Chet almost comes to a bad end. I was on pins and needles waiting to see what would happen next.

THEREBY HANGS A TAIL is the second book in the series. This time, Chet and Bernie are investigating threats made against a show dog. What may be a joke turns deadly serious when the dog and her owner are both kidnapped. As good as the first, these two books rely primarily on the brilliant characterization of Chet and Bernie and damn if I'm not smitten with them.
The third book in the series is titled, TO FETCH A THIEF. I can hardly wait to read it.

Okay, one more mention: ONE GOOD DOG by Susan Wilson. A friend of mine strongly recommended this book to me and the first thing I asked him was: Does the dog die at the end? He assured me not, but I've been lied to before. (Another friend once got me to read BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by promising me it had a happy ending. Am I gullible or what?) Anyway, I double checked before I took the plunge.

ONE GOOD DOG is the gripping story of a Boston man, Adam Marsh, trying to live down a stupid incident which has cost him his livelihood, his marriage and basically, his life. In atonement, he has been sentenced to community service in a homeless men's shelter. It's also the story of Chance, a street-wise pit bull, trying to escape the dogfighting ring, who helps teach Adam how to survive in this new life minus the social and monetary trappings Adam had previously held so dear. A well-written book with, again, wonderful characterizations of both dog and man.

Obviously there are many other dog books, but these are a few of my fictional favorites. You really can't go wrong picking up any one of these. Dogs rule.


  1. I've heard of the Chet and Bernie mysteries and have them on my TBR list already, I have the first one, I just haven't read it yet. I loved dog stories, and I know what you mean about happy endings, although one of my favorite dog stories ever (Lad: a dog) doesn't have one. :( Good post, I will add several of these to my list!

  2. Oh Julie, you're in for a treat. The Chet and Bernie books are SO WONDERFUL! I purposely left off the older classics from this list because most of them have sad endings and I wanted to concentrate on 'newer' more positive books. Although I know classics are classics for a reason. :) Your post reminded me of LASSIE COME HOME. A story with a happy ending but I cried buckets anyway.
    Thanks for posting!

  3. I have a great dog book - not really the same as the above but one of my fav's - Amazing photos and stories of the rescue dogs.

    Dog Heroes of September 11th: A Tribute to America's Search and Rescue Dogs

  4. Sounds like a good one, Skye. Thanks for posting. ;) (I'm surprised no one's yet written a fiction book based on the rescue dogs of 9/11.)


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