Chet & Bernie Mysteries – Reviews

Spencer Quinn. Dog on It. New York: Simon, 2009. Print.
—————. Thereby Hangs a Tail. New York: Simon, Print. 2010.
—————. To Fetch a Thief. New York: Simon, 2010. Print.

I have told my students that quoting from a book’s blurb is usually not a great idea. The observations tend to be brief and superficial like sound bites. If the book quotes a publication or reviewer that sounds interesting, I tell them, go to the original source and read the whole review.

However, the back cover of Dog on It, the first in a series of detective stories by Spencer Quinn, has a serious and glowing paragraph by Stephen King. That would get a lot of attention. The cover also had a more typical one-line quotation from Robert B. Parker (Spenser for Hire) and one on the front flap by Lisa Scottoline. This is praise from high places.

Dog on It, Thereby Hangs a Tail, and To Fetch a Thief are all detective stories. What sets them apart is that Private Detective Bernie Little is normally accompanied by a K-9 trained German Shepherd named Chet. The stories are told from Chet’s point of view. This means fun.

Chet is pure dog. Of course, his hearing and smell are superb. He solves cases before his master because of those senses. However, his sense of color is not so great, he thinks of food constantly, and he is easily distracted. “Was I barking?” he asks himself several times when he gets excited.

Dog on It is the first in the series. A teenage girl is missing. The case is complicated because her parents are divorced, and no one seems to be giving Bernie a straight story. Chet himself is trapped in an abandoned mine—that’s right, the dog is trapped. This is not Lassie! The Southern California setting suggests something noir-ish, but who ever heard of a depressed dog?

Thereby Hangs a Tail concerns a kidnapped show dog and its owner. We see a pattern in these stories. Bernie prefers missing persons cases, though like most detectives he does not get many of those. Still, in this one the Contessa di Borghese is missing along with her dog. Chet locates the missing person and canine before the humans do, but of course things get complicated. In spite of knowing something of the solution to the mystery, there are twists and turns that do keep the reader guessing till the end.

A rival dog owner has sent a threatening letter to the Borgheses. Bernie’s reporter friend is looking for information at a desert ghost town beyond the California valley where they normally work and live. Bernie spots her car, but she is nowhere to be found. It looks like another missing person. And it turns out the rival dog owner is a real estate speculator who owns the ghost town. It is a genuine, well-crafted mystery on its own, but the dog’s perspective maintains the overall lightness.

To Fetch a Thief keeps the same tone. We realize that even the title, a play on the novel and Hitchcock film title, is from a canine perspective. A small circus has come to town and the elephant trainer and elephant disappear with hardly a trace. Though Chet has never encountered a scent as strong as an elephant’s, the trail ends at a highway. The police are pressed not to follow the case, but Popo the Clown hires Detective Little.

Russian mafia, a slightly retarded deputy sheriff, corrupt Mexican officials fit into these stories. So does the cute reporter that Bernie has some interest in. And when he tracks an unfaithful wife to a motel rendezvous with his ex-wife’s fiancé, what is he to do? He does want his son to have a stable life, but he also does not want to lose visiting rights to his son because his wife gets ticked off. Interesting problems.

The dog is the narrator. These are not just stories about a dog like Lad: A Dog or Lassie Come Home. They are not a third person stories told from a dog’s point of view like several Jack London tales. They are more like Virginia Woolf’s Flush. Experimental detective fiction? No, not literary, but certainly entertaining.

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