Love at first listen:
I’m crazy about a dog who doesn’t exist
It all started at the library one afternoon as I cruised the audio book section for something to keep me company on my exciting drives to and from the grocery store, the gym, CVS, the gas station and other exotic destinations. There they were: eight books by Spencer Quinn, featuring private investigator Bernie Little and his faithful canine companion — partner really — Chet. Together they operate the Little Detective Agency. I was intrigued by the fact that Chet narrates the books. He doesn’t actually talk to anyone; he sort of thinks the story to the reader, or something like that.
I don’t have a dog, but I am owned by a cat. And I have a thing for talking animals, or animals who share their thoughts. Remember Black Beauty? If it’s a movie and the lips move through the magic of CGI, all the better. Babe is a favorite. I also love the two Dr. Doolittle films featuring Eddie Murphy in the title role. I watch talking animal videos when I need some cheering up. Check out the “Pets Add Life” guinea pig interviews. Someone recently introduced me to the TV series “Downward Dog,” starring an adorable pooch discussing his concerns about his relationship with his owner. He talks like a millennial dog; every other word is “like.”
I started with the first in Quinn’s series, Dog On It. It was love at first listen, and I quickly went through the rest: Thereby Hangs a Tail, To Fetch a Thief, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, A Fistful of Collars, The Sound and the Furry, Paw and Order and Scents and Sensibility. A narrating dog and such fabulous titles!
Quinn has imagined a dog’s thoughts so vividly that when I find myself with a friend’s dog I can’t help but think that he could communicate if only I were smart enough to understand. I imagine them talking like Chet: “That’s the way we roll, me and Bernie. No doubt about it.” “I felt a breeze behind me and realized it was my tail.” “This case would end up like all the rest, with my mouth around the pant leg of some perp, who’d soon be breaking rocks in the hot sun wearing an orange jumpsuit.” When I pull over in my car to greet my neighbor and his husky, the dog jumps up, filling the window with his huge head and paws. Just like Chet, I say to myself. I wonder what he’s thinking: Hey, Ann, you still into cats?
Chet and Bernie live on the edge of a desert in Arizona, where they roam when they’re not on a job. Chet has some memory issues, but he picks up on things we humans would miss with our feeble senses. He can determine multiple smells at great distances, including a wide array of illegal drugs and the various components of a pizza. If someone has a dog biscuit in his pocket, Chet knows as soon as he jumps from the shotgun seat (his favorite spot) in Bernie’s car. When he discusses how superior his sense of smell is to that of humans he adds, “No offense.” Chet sometimes solves a crime before Bernie. If only he could talk!
In Dog On It, Russian thugs trap Chet. He’s caged, muzzled and starved. I found that tough to listen to. Yes, I know it’s fiction, but so what? Rough stuff happens in more than one book. Bernie gets his head banged during several adventures, but it didn’t bother me as much.
Bernie has difficulties with finances, to Chet’s dismay. When Bernie puts a client’s check in his shirt pocket, Chet is fit to be tied because sometimes the checks fall out. “No Bernie! The pants pocket! Not the shirt!” Chet sympathizes with Bernie’s yearning for more time with his son Charlie, who lives with Bernie’s ex-wife and her new husband. Chet and Bernie consult with their police buddies (Bernie was once on the force), often in the parking lot of Donut Heaven, where Chet gets his fill of crullers. These meetings stimulate Chet’s memory of failing the police dog test some years back. “Something to do with a cat,” he recalls, but tries not to think about it. In a delicious plot twist mid-series a mysterious puppy appears in the neighborhood, bearing a strong resemblance to Chet, who vaguely remembers a good time, but that’s it.
Most of the cases involve the Little Detective Agency’s specialty, missing persons. (Chet and Bernie do divorce work, too, although they hate it. It helps pay the bills.) Things get dangerous at times. People get killed. Sometimes the pair is separated and each is worried sick about the other. Never mind how much I worry! Their investigations include the disappearance of a dog show champion (Chet finds her snooty, but eventually they become friends) and her owner, a missing circus elephant (with whom Chet strikes up a friendship) and his trainer, and a movie star with a dark secret who owns (shudder) a cat named Brando.
Along the way Bernie falls for Suzie Sanchez, a reporter for the local newspaper. The romance continues through the series. Eventually she’s hired by the Washington Post and moves to Washington. Their ensuing long-distance relationship is hard on everybody. By book #7, when Chet and Bernie visit Suzie in Washington, I began to wonder if Bernie would follow her there. Most important: how would Chet manage the relocation? Would D.C. be too urban for him?
The eighth book, Scents and Sensibility, opens with the theft of a saguaro cactus from the Arizona desert, quickly followed by a murder. The feel of this book is different. Suzie is offered yet another job, this time with the Post’s London bureau. She wants Bernie and Chet to join her there. I could feel the tension. Could Bernie have a professional life in London? Would London be a tough adjustment for Chet? Chet is hurt in this book, and their trusted vet asks Bernie if it’s fair to expose Chet to danger so often. “Yeah, Bernie, listen to her,” I said to my steering wheel.
As the case is solved, Bernie collapses from injuries incurred fighting the bad guys. I’m driving with groceries flying around in my trunk, and the next thing I know Chet is describing how everyone is crying — the ex, the girlfriend, Bernie’s friends on the force and Charlie. Chet tells the readers he is “going out of my mind.” As Bernie lies unconscious in the hospital, Chet is let into the room. He hears a person ask, “Where’s the ventilator?” Someone shakes his head. As the book ends, very abruptly I might add, Bernie’s hand reaches out to touch Chet. A glimmer of hope? And then it’s over! I hear someone yelling, “Hey! No! It can’t be!” It’s me.
I rushed into the house fuming. Is Quinn trying to be unpredictable? How could he do this to his fans? I scoured the internet and found Chet’s Facebook page, where a fan asks whether or not there’d be another book in the series and if Bernie survives. The answers seem to be in the affirmative. I was so relieved I was surprised at how relieved I was. Now I’m on Facebook with Chet so I can know when the next book comes out. I know, it’s nuts. It’s fiction. I don’t care.
For now, I wait, dreaming about possible titles: A Tail of Two Cities. The Canine Mutiny. Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Dog Quixote. Or, for something different, The Great Catsby. Mr. Quinn, I hope you’re writing!
— Ann Green
Ann Green is a freelance writer, editor, PR consultant and tutor.