Canine mystery stories have long been popular with dog lovers and mystery readers. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us, considering how many people passionately love their pups, whether they’re the size of a rodent or a VW bug. In my house, our two little ankle biters are a huge part of our family. No discussion. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
A canine mystery usually represents a dog in one of three ways, as a pet, as a dog on a job (K-9s), or telling the story from their point of view.
Humans often have a special connection with their dogs. Our first two dogs, sisters from different litters, had very different personalities. The youngest, a black miniature schnauzer, was nervous and became so attached to me she didn’t want anyone else, including our other dog, near me.
But the other dog, Polly, a salt-and-pepper, loved everyone and other dogs. She seemed to have a connection where she knew when to play and when we needed just to chill. When we had a death in our family, she was the one who climbed on the couch beside us and laid her head on our laps.
Some dogs just have that special connection. And that works well with the emotions characters encounter in dog mystery or K-9 mystery stories.
Sometimes the author needs a way for the character to discuss their thoughts without them talking to themselves or seeming to navel gaze or be in their thoughts too much. That’s where the sidekick, whether two- or four-legged, comes into play. The author can make a scene more entertaining by having the character play catch or sit on the stoop rubbing a poodle’s belly than if the character is just walking around talking to herself.
Not that talking to yourself is a bad thing. (Cough, cough.)
History of Dogs in Mysteries
Dogs have been in mysteries since the early years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the earliest mystery authors who used dogs in his stories. At least he is the most popular.
Who hasn’t heard of The Hound of the Baskervilles? The mysterious mastiff-mix who haunted the foggy moors waiting to kill the Baskerville heir. Sherlock Holmes’s story may be the reason some people get goosebumps when they hear a dog howling at night.
But the mysterious hound wasn’t the only dog Sherlock encountered. In the short story, Silver Blaze, from 1892, Sherlock investigated the disappearance of a famous racehorse and the murder of its trainer. The case turned on the absence of anyone testifying to having heard the guard dog bark.
Dashiell Hammett may have been the first mystery author to make the dog a family pet and give it a larger role in the story. In his Thin Man series, Asta, an Airedale in the book but a wire fox terrier in the movies, sometimes stole the scene, especially in the movies that I love so much.
Not only was Asta the family pet, but he also assisted Nick and Nora Charles in their investigations. In one movie, he helped to disarm a would-be killer in their upscale apartment. In The Thin Man, Asta sniffed out the buried body of a businessman named Wynant in his workshop.
Dogs as Pets
In many canine mystery novels, the dog is the main character’s pet. Especially if there is a family. And the pet doesn’t become part of the plot. But there are exceptions. Sometimes, even a tough man needs his best friend. This is the case of Sheriff Longmire in the series written by Craig Johnson.
In the back seat of the sheriff’s crew cab pickup is his sidekick, Dog, a hundred-and-fifty-five-pound best friend, campfire mate, and protector who he found wandering on the reservation. In Daughter of the Morning Star, Dog leads Longmire into a canyon where he hears a mysterious singer and loses over twenty-four-hours. Later, Dog leads Longmire through a fence surrounding a warehouse, and the Doberman on guard rolls on his back.
Maybe this is the backup more sheriffs need.
Another early canine mystery character was Spenser’s Pearl, a spoiled German short-haired pointer. The author Robert B. Parker based Pearl on some of his own dogs.
K-9 officers are dogs with a specific job or jobs. They are the working dogs found in several professions, whether military, security, tracking, or law enforcement. Whether trained to sniff out bombs, discover drugs, or for search and rescue, dogs have excelled in all of these jobs.
Although we generally think of the German Shepherd as the typical police dog, in canine mystery and in real life K-9 officers come in all sizes. Small dogs like terriers can also work, especially in searches for lost children where their size may be less scary to the small child. And searching through rubble where they can more easily get into tight areas.
A book that kept me spellbound was Alex Kava’s Breaking Creed. Ryder Creed, an ex-Marine turned K-9 rescue dog trainer, became the target of a hit squad. The squad’s biggest mistake was attacking Ryder at home, where his team of K-9s were able to put their training into action. Kava did a great job of choreographing the movements of his many different breeds of dogs to protect him and keep the animals from being hurt.
I don’t know how possible using and communicating all the cues to the dogs would be. Of course, I have trouble walking and chewing gum. But it’s an amazing and thought-provoking story to read.
We’ve heard how helpful dogs are when used as therapy animals. Sometimes, the healing works both ways. In Suspect, by Robert Crais, the men who killed his partner also injured LAPD Officer Scott James. Enraged and ashamed, he became unfit for duty. Then they teamed him with Maggie. Maggie, a German Shepherd, served two tours in Afghanistan, sniffing for explosives. Together, they search for the men who killed Scott’s partner. Fox 2000 has optioned the book for a movie by the producers behind The Hunger Games.
From the Dog’s Point of View
Some authors of canine mystery novels want their readers to get a different perspective by seeing the story from the animal’s point of view. One of the most popular series that does this is Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy Mysteries. She even includes “Sneaky Pie Brown”, her cat, as her co-author. The series began in 1990 and the next book, Thrill of the Hunt, goes on sale in May.
Much of the enjoyment of the books comes from the antics of her four-legged pets and helpers. Although if you ask them, they are the ones in charge.
Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is a postmistress for the town of Crozet, Virginia. Her husband, Pharamond “Fair” Haristeen, a veterinarian who cares for horses, often helps in her investigations. Many of their cases involve the animals on the nearby horse farms.
But the real stars are closer to the ground. Tee Tucker, the corgi, and Pirate, a sweet puppy, are often playing mental catch up to the real sleuths in the stories, the cats Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat, and a fat gray cat named Pewter.
When it works, the two separate stories involving the people and the animals complement each other. Some stories are more effective at pulling that off than others.
Another canine mystery series from the dog’s point of view is the Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn. Unlike many of the books from the pet’s perspective, these are not cozies. There is a darkness, and Quinn puts both characters through the wringer.
PI Bernie Little is the owner and down-on-his-luck investigator for the Little Detective Agency. Thankfully, he runs into Chet, the wise and lovable canine narrator. And the brains of the pair. So far there are thirteen books in the series.Canine Mysteries @Tim Suddeth @OpeningaMystery #mystery #amreading Click To Tweet
Dogs and crime, what a dynamic combination. A pet can make the character seem more real or bring out an additional dimension that he or she hasn’t shown before. Just like in real life, dogs can deepen the life of the character. And isn’t that why we like to read about them?
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