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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn (trade, $15, due out 9/29/09)

I loved Babe, Hank the Cowdog, the rabbits of Watership Down, and the animals in 1984. It didn't bother me that I was reading an insider's view of how animals think. I hesitated, however, when store manager Jean plopped this book in front of me, as she stifled a guffaw and said, "Here. Read." What's this? A book about a dog detective -- from the dog's point of view? An adult book about a dog detective from the dog's point of view. I thought maybe Jean was barking up the wrong tree.

As it turned out, this book combines the best of all possible mystery attributes: It has humor; a smart dog; a charming, if somewhat shambling, human; and a plausible mystery to solve. Chet, the dog, is a mongrel – and what's wrong with that? – with one black ear and one white one. He is loyal but easily distracted and, as far as doggie authors go, a heck of a good writer with an authentic doggie voice. To wit:

"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…."

Now that's doggie writing at its best! I was rolling on the floor, laughing.

Bernie Little has a detective agency set in a nameless valley, but not unlike California's San Fernando Valley. He has an ex-wife he tolerates and a son he adores. He gained custody of Chet in the divorce, not a difficult accomplishment. As far as sidekicks go, Chet is head and shoulders over Sherlock Holmes's Watson. Could Watson sniff out the path to a bad guy's place? On the other hand, Watson wouldn't be distracted by a fire hydrant (presumably). Maybe we should call it a draw.

Bernie is called in to find a teenage girl who didn't return from school one day. Madison's frantic mother cannot get the police interested because her daughter has been missing for less than a day. Bernie reluctantly takes the case. Within a short time, Madison reappears, a lie on the tip of her tongue and very little remorse in her bearing. Case closed.

When Madison disappears for real a few days later, it's a bigger deal. Bernie and Chet again are called upon to research and sniff out what happened to her. Strangely, Madison's father seems less forthcoming with his help in locating the daughter he says he loves. And what's this phone call by Madison to her mom saying she just needs time to think; don't look for her anymore. Bernie and Chet both smell something rotten.

Then Chet is dognapped. Then Bernie is man-napped. And is Madison really kidnapped? How can a dog, even a really smart one like Chet, keep this all straight. Chet has to struggle to focus, especially with such exciting distractions as a female dog barking in the distance, a first-ever glimpse of a road runner, and a squawking bird who says, "Light my fire."

Spencer Quinn impressively maintains his doggie narrator's voice throughout the book but still manages to intelligibly describe the humans and their stories.

It's good enough. It's smart enough. And, doggone it, I liked it.

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