[Guilty Pleasures] Like kale and cod liver oil, books about string theory or shenanigans on Wall Street are no doubt good for us. But are they what come to mind when we’re looking for something to read? No, they are not. When we want to relax and lose ourselves in an engrossing puzzle, give us a mystery every time, especially a well-written British police procedural. In this category, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series definitely makes the short list. These two Scotland Yard detectives, their lives with their sons Kit and Toby, and the nuances of their work are so well articulated that we were utterly gobsmacked to discover that Crombie isn’t British but rather, Texas born and raised. Today, she lives in northern Texas with her husband, German Shepherds and cats, and divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Read on for the origins of Crombie’s dog love.
The German Shepherds were my husband’s fault. When he was very small, his parents kept a German Shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. He adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as Shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog’s mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)
The German Shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs — a Bloodhound, a Boxer. But none replaced the German Shepherd in his imagination or affections.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats and she was afraid of big dogs — she’d been bitten as a small child — and above all, she didn’t want anything in the house that shed!
When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I’m sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy Poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.
But this dog, who didn’t care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.
My first dog as an adult was a buff Cocker Spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues Cocker Spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn’t bear being dogless, even for a week.
I’d had visions of an English Cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German Shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She’s 14 now, and frail. Our younger Shepherd, Neela, is seven, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog — brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.
Gemma, of course, got the blue roan Cocker Spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit’s Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk Terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.
Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead. Having resisted the temptation to give my primary f ictional characters German Shepherds, I’ve given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels.
Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I’ve had a particular fondness for black Labrador Retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan’s parents have a lovely Border Collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English Mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English Mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo’s owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.
But if working dogs have had minor roles in previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow, 2012). Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German Shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search-and-rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I’ve called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)
I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.
Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can’t imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.
There is one caveat, however — the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.
This essay first appeared in the “Animal” issue of Mystery Readers Journal and is reprinted with permission.