Don’t Shoot the Dog
White’s first Bouvier, Holly, died while he was writing his first mystery. “On a very, very difficult day when my son was very sick, she got out of the back yard and got [was] hit by a car,” he says, voice dull. “Part of my catharsis was to write that into the story. I’ve gotten more negative comments about that scene than anything I’ve ever written. You can massacre people, but you cannot hurt a dog.” A child psychologist himself, he’s thought a lot about that phenomenon since.
“Doing something to innocence takes a different level of explaining,” he says slowly. “I think the same thing would happen if you developed a child’s character over time, and then the child got hurt. With a dog, though, people connect immediately.”
After the book came out, the calls and letters bombarded him, all indignant: “You killed the dog!” “No, I actually didn’t,” he says. “But I didn’t have the heart to tell them the real story. I thought, if these people can’t even take a fake dog dying, I’m not going to burden them with what happened. There is sufficient misery in the air already. “The dog that is Emily in the books actually died a year ago,” he adds, “but she’ll never die in the books. If this series continues, Emily is going to be the oldest dog in the history of the planet.”
Susan Conant understands White’s experience from both sides. “You can murder humans by the millions with nary a complaint from the reader,” she says, “but if the slightest harm should come to a dog, you will never be forgiven.” She avoids this peril in her own series, which features a magazine-writer detective and her Malamutes. But she also avoids reading such books. “I tried Cynthia Alwyn’s A Scent for Murder,” she confides. “Alwyn’s a very good writer; she introduced this wonderful dog and I was prepared to love both the dog and the series—and then the dog died. I couldn’t keep reading.”
Asked to introduce three Rex Stout novellas, Conant felt a wary tingle: one was entitled Die Like a Dog. She was convinced that her favorite character, “probably a German Shepherd, would rapidly and gruesomely perish.” Instead, she found a charming Labrador Retriever, “perhaps the most fleshed-out non-series character Stout ever created.” He was not anthropomorphized, she wrote; nor was he reduced, as so many dogs in mysteries are, to “what psychoanalysts might call a ‘part object,’ a nose that sniffs or jaws that menace; or an apparently lifeless possession, a sort of fuzzy umbrella meant to suggest the owner’s personality.” Too often, added Conant, dogs in books sit around like “woofy cuckoo clocks.” In Stout’s novella, the Lab “permits a rare glimpse of an emotional Nero Wolfe and of the boy he once was.”
Cracking a Hard Case
Secretly gone to mush, Nero Wolfe, in his usual peremptory manner, makes sure Archie keeps the dog. Another egoist, Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot, shows a rare moment of humility when he quizzes the corpse’s dog, the only living creature he’ll admit might have an answer he lacks. In Amanda Cross’s The Puzzled Heart, crisp, Scotch-drinking literature professor Kate Fansler adopts a St. Bernard pup on impulse, and suddenly seems warm and vulnerable.
Nevada Barr’s detective, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon, starts the series as a restless loner wary of commitment. As she matures, she grudgingly adopts a dog, Taco. Eventually, he saves her life, losing his leg in the process. And in one of the books’ most romantic moments, it is the sheriff’s tender care for the injured dog that convinces Anna that the man’s worth loving. Later, Anna brings Taco along with her on patrols and realizes that his presence disarms hostile motorists: “It was almost as if they didn’t want to appear to be total assholes in front of the dog.”
Dogs like us; we don’t want to disappoint them. They also ground us in everyday, physical reality. Jonathan Kellerman gave his child psychologist detective, Alex Delaware, a drooly French Bulldog named Spike simply as one more way to avoid the usual L.A. clichés. Spike doesn’t track cadavers underwater or bite through rope, he just hangs out at home. Yet throughout the series, his cheerful, frankly needy presence and his recurring need for walks and takeout add notes of domesticity that makes Delaware far more likeable.