Sherlock Holmes left his hound on the moors; any closer and the baying might have disturbed an opium dream. Lord Peter Wimsey never once dangled a full plastic bag from his long elegant fingers and looked anxiously about for a dumpster.
But in many a mystery, it’s the dog who sets the tone. Bluesy southern dawgs, stylish Schnauzers, bird dogs in Scotland, Poodles in Connecticut. The loyal mutt who plays sidekick to the detective. A mysterious yellow or black dog seen near the murder scene, icon of a stranger’s presence. Dogs are as useful as weather in creating a mood. They’re also handy at turning up bodies, alerting to danger or providing comic relief. And, in the hands of authors who understand them, they become far more than convenient clue-bearers. They become characters in their own right, with distinct skills and personalities, significant roles to play, and revealing relationships with the humans.
These are not dogs who type out lists of suspects or chat with the cat in English, cozy dog mysteries that anthropomorphize endlessly, with besotted fans who delight in every dogged pun. An increasing number of serious mysteries include dogs either as family members or working partners. Their authors rely on an old paradox: Dogs reveal human nature. Better yet, they improve upon it.
Had Holmes allowed the hound inside, he might have risked a chewed pipe stem, but he’d have taken himself less seriously. Wimsey might have winced at pawprints on his velvet smoking jacket, but routine walks would have grounded his flightiness. And Chief Inspector Morse would surely have drunk less with a Greyhound curled at his feet.
Keeping It Real
Award-winning mystery author Jan Burke thought long and hard about the archetype of the loner detective, cynical and unattached, embarking upon a solitary quest against overwhelming odds. It made sense; mysteries can be heroic tales of redemption. But for Burke’s detective, Irene Kelly, to feel real to her, she had to share her life with a husband, good friends, assorted family and beloved animals. As Burke wrote, she realized that when Irene’s relationships tangled or got stuck, her dogs often served as ambassadors, easing uncomfortable reunions and providing emotional comfort unavailable from human beings.
In Bones, when Irene is sitting in the doorway of her tent, frightened and claustrophobic, an expedition anthropologist sends his search dog Bingle to her with a quiet command: “Sleep with her.” Dubious, Irene lies down inside the tent. Bingle enters, circles, settles down and rests his head on her shoulder. Both fall asleep. In Liar, when Irene’s long-estranged cousin is overcome by grief, her own dogs are braver than she is about physically approaching to comfort him. “They pave the path,” says Burke, “and she realizes this is no time to stay aloof.”
Burke also uses dogs’ responses to reveal and develop other characters. “You cannot lie to a dog,” she points out. “You are being read. And they see things in us that observers, who are distracted by speech, perhaps can’t.”
On the Dark Side
Carol Lea Benjamin loved dogs long before she loved mysteries. “The way Konrad Lorenz’s geese bonded with him, I bonded with dogs,” she says. “They are smart, they know things other than what we want to teach them, and they give of what they know in the most honest and generous way.”
She made her name as a dog trainer and writer. Then, one summer in the early ’90s, she went on a “dog vacation” in Vermont. “We’d watch the dogs run, and then [we’d] sit around reading,” she explains. “We brought an L.L. Bean bag stuffed with books, and there were mysteries in it. It was an instant addiction. They are great escape and such fun, and they have this wonderful moral conclusion where justice is served. Unlike real life.”
Benjamin decided she’d write a mystery herself. Hard-boiled, not cozy. But with a dog in it.
“I wanted a real working dog, like the dog in my life,” she says. “I did obedience, won silver bowls and plates and hated every minute of it, and so did my dog. What I liked was solving problems, and finding ways for the dog to use inbred skills.”