Friday, February 14, 2014

TO FETCH A THIEF


Review of TO FETCH A THIEF by SPENCER QUINN
(third in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

This engaging mystery series starring a dog narrator wins me over a little more with each new book. Many of my comments in reviews of the first two books naturally apply for this third installment as well. For starters, these novels are even faster reads than their slim 300 pages look, due to formatting and lots of blunt dialogue exchanges (equally pages with many 1-3 word lines). Chet’s as lovable and appealing as ever with comical dog priorities and a short attention span that leads to both countless tangents and the focus frequently veering off from the actual case. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, I don’t recommend reading any farther in this review.

In TO FETCH A THIEF, Bernie takes his son Charlie to the circus, but the venue has closed due to a missing elephant and her trainer. Of course, it’s not long before private investigator Bernie (and his dog Chet) are on the case and dependably challenging everyone’s theories. That’s this book’s conflict, but Quinn has been spinning some overarching plot threads. Book one introduced the reporter Susie when she interviewed Bernie about his private detective agency. Throughout the past three books they’ve had a building romantic tension that never takes off from the ground. A little frustrating, because Susie seems like a perfect fit Bernie...except Bernie’s a typical, closed-off alpha male who does feel but can’t effectively communicate his feelings, which means he and Susie keep mixing up each other’s signals. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed that they find a mutual rhythm soon. In terms of predictions, for the first two books I felt 100% sure that Bernie and Susie will eventually wind up together, but TO FETCH A THIEF introduces a very, very mild - but nevertheless there - resurgence of affection between Bernie and his ex-wife Leda. Speaking of Leda, book two started an overarching conflict involving her. Bernie often finds himself taking “is my spouse cheating on me” cases to pay his bills and in THEREBY HANGS A TAIL he discovered one client’s wife was not only cheating on her husband...but cheating with Leda’s current boyfriend. Being the strong, silent type, it’s no big surprise that Bernie keeps this secret to himself, but now that information feels like a ticking bomb.

For the most part, I find the dog perspective wonderful. I always love seeing familiar elements from a fresh perspective. (It’s why I love reading retellings of the same fairy tales; I like discovering the new spin.) For example, Chet comments that humans always talk about night “falling,” but to him it seems like night rises from the ground with the sky last to go black. The only times the dog perspective works less well is when I catch glimpses of the human viewpoint “behind the curtain.” Let me present a few examples. First, all three books I’ve read so far contain a couple of remarks here and there about how men and women differ from a dog’s perspective...but I don’t agree with these supposedly factual, impartial observations that sound more like they’re coming from the male author than a dog. Second, Chet repeatedly mentions in each book that he loves the smell of cigarettes. I have no idea from personal experience how dogs experience smell, but I’ve never read anything in all my dog behavior research that suggests they would like cigarette smoke, so I’m at least curious where this character trait comes from: the author liking cigarettes, the author reading research that I haven’t, the author knowing a dog who reacts strongly to cigarette smoke, a purely invented fictional quirk - who knows. Third, Chet claims he can see the color red despite what humans think. The “despite” part suggests that Quinn knows research suggests differently. (Most recent findings say dogs do not see in only black and white as many think, but they do see a much more limited spectrum of color than humans that does not include red.) Again, this discrepancy mostly makes me curious behind Quinn’s choice to let Chet see red.

Quinn has, I’m sure based on his books as evidence, heard the writer advice: “leave out the boring bits.” The story jumps from one exciting event to another and maintains this fast pace with only Chet’s digressions serving as brief intermissions between verbal and physical confrontations of all types. I particularly love Chet’s digressions. He doesn’t pay that much attention and often misses important details or discovers an important detail and promptly forgets it. In some ways, this sounds silly and counterintuitive in a detective story but it works and, in fact, feels refreshing compared to more formulaic mystery plots.

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