Friday, January 24, 2014

THEREBY HANGS A TAIL


Review of THEREBY HANGS A TAIL by SPENCER QUINN
(second in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

Chet, the narrator of this delightfully entertaining mystery series, won me over in the first book and left me eager to read the rest of his adventures. In this second installment, Bernie (Chet’s owner and a private investigator) is hired as a bodyguard for an award-winning show dog who has recently been threatened. As with the first book, the story does not proceed in a linear, orderly fashion but twists and turns down entirely unexpected corners.

The style of narration won’t appeal to everyone. Quinn writes these novels from the perspective of Chet the dog, companion to the private investigator Bernie. Anthropomorphized animals are always tricky, because where’s the line between how they think like a human and how their thought process differs? At times Chet’s worldview can seem somewhat arbitrary in terms of what human phrases he understands and what simple words confuse him, but all in all Chet has the air of a simple-minded but endearingly trusting and friendly character. As for narration taste, his attention span will amuse some readers and irritate others. When I say the story twists and turns, I mean that doubly: on the one hand because the plot develops in directions the reader won’t likely suspect and on the other because Chet is, let’s say, easily distractible. He’ll pick on a major clue only to be sidetracked by a good smell, favorite toy, interesting person, etc. This builds a sense of dramatic irony to the books that feels unlike anything else I’ve read.

Of course, this hyper tangent-tendency becomes a huge part of why Chet feels so real. In writing myself, I’ve learned about the importance of getting into a character’s head. Rather than a simple scene where they walk from point A to point B, throw in details that build the individual: a leaf blowing by reminds them that they need to rake their backyard, a smell of cinnamon buns brings forth memories of their deceased mother who baked those every Sunday, they almost trip and flash back to an embarrassing fall in high school. Real people think in tangents….which means Chet must be a real “person” multiplied by a factor of at least 10. In every chapter, sometimes multiple times within a page, some detail sends Chet off on digressions that lead from an observation to a memory and perhaps to a memory after that and after that. While this narration style obviously amuses, after awhile another strength emerges: Chet increasingly becomes the most well-developed character in the series! He has countless backstories, some big and some small, and we’re entirely in his doggy mind.

Telling people how to handle their pets often overlaps with the dangers of telling a parent how to raise their children. As someone with plenty of dog training experience myself, I can’t help but notice when people (fictional and real alike) do things with their pets that 1. I wouldn’t do or 2. I consider flat-out irresponsible. Note here that any of my criticisms are purely about Bernie as a pet owner and not meant as a negative against the book. Bernie clearly loves Chet, but he’s one of those pet owners who treats his dog like a person rather than a dog. (In some ways that’s fitting for this series, since Chet’s perspective imagines him as more human-like than a real dog.) Besides taking Chet into dangerous situations, my more minor quibble is how much human food Bernie feeds his dog! He’s always giving Chet scraps and junk food and oh so many donuts. A scene in which Bernie throws the rest of his apple to Chet particularly stood out to me regarding this topic, since most dog experts know apple seeds are poisonous. Highly unlikely to kill a dog based on one apple (we're talking small quantities of poison), but toxins nonetheless that a responsible pet owner shouldn’t be feeding their beloved companion! This is a tangent of my own, but I can’t help hoping Bernie might change his ways regarding this habit, at least a little, as the series progresses.

These are especially fast reads and when I looked closer the reason became immediately apparent: there’s a lot of dialogue, often quite brief exchanges. In terms of a page view this means lots of chunks of very short paragraphs that make one page go by particularly fast. In fact, I would be curious to know the word count of this novel. It’s around 310 pages, but read more like 150 to me.

I would recommend these reads to pretty much anyone except those who can’t stand a narrator prone to frequent irrelevant tangents. They’re light, easy, fun, laughter-inducing, and emotionally affecting. Great for dog lovers, mystery fans, anyone who likes a good laugh, or readers looking for something lighter to “cleanse their literary palate” between darker or deeper books. It probably won’t be long before a review of the third book in this series goes up on my blog!

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