Spencer Quinn, Dog On It [Library of Babel]

It’s been a while since I did a straight-up booklog post here, but most of what I’ve been reading lately hasn’t really demanded one. I picked this up the other day after seeing a pile of them in the front of a Barnes & Noble, though, and it does deserve comment.

Dog On It is a twist on a hard-boiled private eye story: It’s narrated by Chet, a former police dog cadet now owned by Bernie Little, a down-on-his-luck private detective in the Southwest somewhere (it’s not entirely clear where– Chet’s a little fuzzy on geography). Really, how could I pass up a book by a talking dog.

Obviously, the attraction of this sort of book is not so much the mystery, as the dog voice. I’m happy to say that Quinn nails that, as shown by this passage where Bernie decides to take up jogging:

There were lots of outings where Bernie walked and I ran, but Bernie running would be a first. We went out the back door, through the yard, out the gate, into the canyon. Bernie started running, sort of, up the trailthat led to the hill with the big flat rock on top. It was nice out, the sun hidden by the distant mountains but the sky still light, the air not too hot. I loped along beside Bernie, then ran circles around him, and when that got boring, took off for the hilltop.

And right away spotted a lizard, one of those green ones with the tiny eyes! He saw me, too, and darted toward higher ground. I tor after him, closed the distance fast, and sprang, my front paws outstretched, and came down right on him. Or not quite. What was this? He’d bolted down a hole, a small round hole in the dirt. I started digging right away, real fast, got a nice clawing rhythm going, all four paws involved, and soon had a big hole under way. But all of a sudden I caught a whiff of something, a nasty smell with a bit of bacon mixed in, that meant one thing and one thing only: javelina.

I raised my head, sniffed the air. No doubt, and it was coming from down the hill, closer to the trail. I glanced around, saw that I’d dug a hole, although I wasn’t sure why. I lowered my nose and trotted after the scent.

Writing from the POV of a dog allows a nice dodge around one of the big problems facing mystery writers, namely, constructing a mystery that is straightforward enough for the reader to put everything together, but not so obvious that the PI looks like a dolt for not figuring it out twenty pages in. When most of the critical facts are known only to a scatterbrained dog, though, it’s much easier.

Quinn also avoids the big trap of dog-centered stories, which is unrealistic communication between the dog and a human. There’s no “What’s that, girl? Timmy fell in a well?” business here– when Chet barks to try to communicate key information, he’s more likely to be told to knock off the racket.

There are a few glitches, of course. At a couple of points, there’s a kind of deus ex machina quality to the ways that Chet gets to and back from the places where he needs to be for the story to work. But those are easy to forgive, because the dog voice is so charmingly… doggy.

It’s a little hard to believe that nobody has done a PI novel from a dog’s point of view before, and maybe they have. Whether the idea is entirely original or not, though, Quinn has absolutely nailed it, and I hope to read more Chet and Bernie books in the future.