Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dog On It--a mystery for dog lovers

Dog On It
Spencer Quinn

Reviewed by Carol

★   ★   ★

Light fun. If you are a dog lover with a tolerance for whimsy and in the mood for some mystery, Dog On It should fit the bill.  Definitely a clever concept tailored for canine fans, Quinn mostly succeeds by staying faithful to the concept of dog as narrator.

Chet is waiting for his owner and partner Bernie to come home. When Bernie arrives, he smells a little boozy and Chet’s “back teeth were floating,” but needless to say, Chet’s a forgiving sort.  It isn’t long before a woman drops by, begging Bernie to find her missing fifteen-year old daughter. Bernie reluctantly agrees–the five hundred dollars she waves at him will make a huge difference paying overdue bills. Naturally, Chet accompanies them to the woman’s home–he was trained as a K-9, after all (if only that cat hadn’t crossed his path!). Bernie inspects her room, Chet sniffs out a bag of pot they forget to mention to the mother, and to no one’s surprise, the girl shows up while they are still there. Chet approves; she’s a fan of his mismatched ears and has a gentle pat. Case solved, they return home and to bed. The next morning, they’re awakened early by Bernie’s ex-wife and a female reporter doing a story on Bernie. In a moment of deja vu, they are called again by the teen’s mom–she’s missing again. It is soon clear that this time there’s something wrong.

So, cute concept executed reasonably well. Quinn’s strength is in characterizing Chet during his many doggie activities. He captures the (likely) time-sense of a dog well, remaining focused on the moment, whether it’s the pleasure of burying a bone, or digging it up again. Chet also makes an enjoyable narrator because of his zest for life and general enthusiasm. Really clever–although Bernie may have his human moments of frustration, depression and withdrawal, Chet remains upbeat.  However, I’d have to say that while Quinn catches a wide range of doggie behaviors, the range takes place over a few weeks at most. It comes out like a person who loves their dog and wants to share all the fun and funny things they do, and sounds less like the course of a normal day. Still, it’s fun. I found myself giggling every time neighbor dog Iggy was mentioned:

“I had never seen a real swan and was wondering how catchable they might be when I heard Iggy’s bark. Iggy had a high-pitched bark, an irritated-sounding yip-yip-yip. I barked back. There was a brief silence, and then he barked again. I barked back. He barked. I barked. He barked. I barked. He barked. We got a good rhythm going, faster and faster. I barked He barked. I –
A woman cried, ‘Iggy, for God’s sake, what the hell’s wrong with you?’ A door slammed. Iggy was silent. I barked anyway.”

Maybe I found it amusing because it happens so many times, that strange dog duet where the humans are annoyed and wondering what’s going on, but the dogs aren’t necessarily thinking anything at all, just barking because another dog is barking, and that’s what you do, duh. There’s lots of moments like that, that made me chuckle because Chet’s matter-of-fact, literal, and in-the-moment perspective so nicely represent the canine. For instance, say someone visits who smells of cat. You have to check it out, right?

“‘Hey! what the hell’s that dog doing?’
What was I doing? My job, amigo. And at that moment my job meant checking out this black car… for the presence of cats. How do you do that without standing up on your back legs and planting your front paws on the door to get your face right up close to the window? That’s basic.’”

Quinn says with emphasis that the series is “not a cozy mystery,” partly because of all the challenging things that happen to both Chet and Bernie. Which is too bad, since that’s where my problems were.  

In one particularly packed section (not the first time Chet is challenged, mind you), Chet is dognapped, Tasered, threatened with whipping and dog fighting, runs into a mountain line, temporarily joins a biker gang and is dropped off at a high-kill animal shelter. It’s excessive and not in keeping with the majority of the story in either tone or plotting. I suppose Quinn wanted is to heighten the sense of drama, and emphasize Chet’s resiliance but I ended up skimming over it, especially the shelter and the hugely coincidental rescue.


The mystery itself wasn’t particularly suspenseful or interesting, and to be honest, is a little genre trope-ridden. In this case, Chet’s voice was an asset. Because he is so focused on the moment, with limited sense of past, the readers are spared the familiar trope of Lassie leading her owner where they need to be.  That was an astute decision. 

Overall, a fun little read that is likely most enjoyable for dog lovers. I’ll catch the next book, but it’ll be from the library. If you’d like a sample of the narrative style, you can catch Chet at his blog.

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