Sniffing Out Crime

A round-up of fictional detective sidekicks
By Jeannette Cooperman, November 2008, Updated June 2021

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.


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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.”

Dashiell, the Pit Bull in her mystery series, tracks by scent. He also protects; does therapy at nursing homes; and provides company, cover and foil for Rachel, a smart, solitary detective with a caustic sense of humor. He is modeled on Benjamin’s dog Dexter, a rescued Bull Terrier who took it upon himself to become her service dog, easing the pain of a chronic illness. “Dexter did solve a mystery,” she points out. “He figured out where the pain was and how to help.”

Benjamin was determined to keep Dash a real dog and not fall into the “dog mystery” trap. By the third book in the series, however, she felt secure enough to set the story at a dog trainers’ symposium, killing off each victim by his or her training method. “People e-mailed me for weeks,” she laughs, “saying, ‘You forgot to kill so-and-so.’”

Including Dash in the story presents Benjamin with only one dilemma: Her books are funny in spots, but overall, they’re darker than readers, relieved by the dog’s presence, might realize. “I don’t think murder is a puzzle, I think it’s a tragedy,” she says quietly. “But people have these Disneyish expectations of dogs, as though they are in the world in the same way that Mickey Mouse is. So they read my very dark stories and say, ‘I love your mysteries, they are so funny!’”

Lighten Up
Dogs do offer comic relief. Scottish writer Gerald Hammond created John Cunningham, a dog breeder and trainer as well as a detective. In one novel, the police demand to search Cunningham’s grounds, so he turns all the pups loose for “their exercise,” which includes licking the constables’ faces and baptizing their pant-legs.

Beneath the surface, however, mysteries are dark. They deal with deliberate, unnatural violence—evil, for want of a better word. And dogs, unless they are made vicious, are free of such impulses. When evil shatters the façade of normalcy and throws people’s assumptions about one another into chaos, dogs remain trustworthy. Unlike humans, they are generally knowable and controllable and loyal, and can be reliably trained. They bear no grudges. They are the only character in the mystery that we don’t have to suspect, the only creature whose impulses we can trust.

“Dogs are the stability in the storm,” says child psychologist and mystery writer Stephen White. “Their affection is predictable, their routines are predictable. At the same time, they are playful, they are spontaneous in the way that children are.” White says that if his detective, child psychologist Alan Gregory, didn’t have a dog, he’d get one. “His dogs fit into the stories the same way dogs fit into my life. It’s a cliché, but dogs are family. They provide an emotional anchor.”

When he began writing, White didn’t realize the fictional purposes a dog might serve. He doesn’t outline or strategize, so Emily, the loyal Bouvier, and Anvil, a mischievous Miniature Poodle, just show up in the story whenever it feels natural. But he does realize that their appearance cuts the tension, creating a moment of calm that heightens the suspense when it begins to build again.

A little projection might take place too: Emily and Anvil need to be fed and petted and played with, and that usually happens at tense junctures, when the reader is also feeling a need for comfort. If Anvil’s antics prompt an involuntary smile, all the better. “Anvil—Nate, in real life—is that kind of dog,” White explains. “The dogs are the only characters in my books I don’t make up. They have no fictional traits.” Authors can stick their favorite dogs into their books without fear of lawsuit or severed relationships, which may be one reason dogs add a note of naturalness to mysteries’ elaborate, necessarily contrived plots.

In White’s newest, Blinded (due out February 2004), there’s a moment when Alan is deeply worried. “Emily comes in, and with her beard totally soaked from the water dish, she lays her head in his lap,” says White, “as if to say, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Which is something Bouviers do. It’s not something I made up, it’s something I learned from my dog.”

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.

Mystery writer Laurien Berenson found that caring for a couple of Standard Poodles added a note of authenticity to her detective’s life. “I get fan mail from people who are amazed: ‘Your dogs actually go out to pee, and they eat on time,’” she says. “The dogs give a structure to Melanie’s life, they keep her busy, they make her more real.” Dogs aren’t just useful literary devices, warns Berenson. As in life, they must be handled with love and knowledge. “If you are not absolutely through-and-through a dog person, don’t just slap a dog into your book because dogs are hot right now,” she says. If you’re sincere, fine, include the dog, “but remember that dogs are dogs. And write the dog as well as you write the person, with actual traits,” she finishes sternly. “Black with a nice nose doesn’t do it.”

The dog’s a character.

And he knows things the humans can’t even guess.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 25: Winter 2003

Illustration by Red Nose Studio

Jeannette Cooperman has written several nonfiction books and a murder mystery, A Circumstance of Blood (Endeavour Press, 2015)—and yes, there’s a dog in it. She was a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine, she goes home to a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Ill., where she and her husband live with a standard poodle named Louie.