Mystery Fiction Goes to the Dogs

It seems that every dog is having its day in mystery fiction. The genre that was ruled by cats as animal protagonists (really, a cat’s going to care if you’re murdered?) has been putting man’s best friend in the spotlight. After the success of Spencer Quinn’s Chet & Bernie series, we’ve seen James Rollins add an Army dog to his Sigma Team and even cat mystery practitioner Rita Mae Brown has gone to the dogs with her Mags Rogers series. Now bestselling author Robert Crais contributes to canine crime fiction with Suspect.

The hero dog here is Maggie, a marine trained German Shepherd. We get an intense introduction to her when she loses her handler, Pete, to a sniper in Afghanistan. She looks at the both of them as a pack with Pete as the alpha. Without the alpha, there is no pack and Maggie is nothing.

The next chapter gives us another hero losing a partner, LAPD patrolman Scott James. Scott and fellow uniform, Stephanie, get involved in a violent and well written gunfight. He watches her go down before he’s shot. Badly wounded and unable to remember many details of that night, he blames himself for his partner’s death.

Obsessed with finding the culprits, Scott chooses to stay on the force, but he doesn’t want a partner. This leads him to the K-9 unit and Maggie, who is about to be returned since she has not worked out as a police dog. Scott sees a kindred spirit and asks to be given two weeks to work with her. With the help of a female detective who caught his case, working through the trauma of that night, and Maggie, Scott starts putting the pieces together.

Suspects is best when dealing with the dog side of things. Crais gives us an inside look at the K-9 unit. We get some of the techniques used to train a dog to react to certain smells, take down a perp, and most important, keep calm in a tense situation. He also looks at what dogs do to an individual, what we project on them, and the gaps they fill. When the unit’s hard-ass commander, Leland, gives a speech to his trainees about dog,s he seems to be saying more about what he thinks of humans:

“These dogs are not machines, goddamnit. They are alive! They are loving , feeling warm blooded creatures of God, and they will love you with all their hearts! They will love you when your wives and husbands sneak behind your backs. They will love you when your ungrateful misbegotten children piss on your graves! They will see and witness your greatest shame, and will not judge you! These dog’s will be the truest and best partners you can ever hope to have, and they will give their lives for you. And all they ask, all they want or need, all it costs YOU to get ALL of that is a simple word of kindness. Goddamnit to hell, the ten best men I know aren’t worth the worst dogs here…”

Crais does a strong job of writing Maggie’s perspective. He avoids giving her human traits, which makes her believable. By emphasizing her sense of smell, he puts us in her point of view and inside her thought process. By never veering away from the fact she is a dog, she ends up being the most humane character. We root for Scott to become her worthy alpha.

Suspect‘s set-up could have led to an over sentimental or precious novel. Crais’ straightforward prose style avoids this. He develops emotion through action and dialogue and knows just when to temper a situation with humor. With  this lack of manipulation and a liberal use of gunfire, Suspect proves to be a unique and solid take on the boy-and-his-dog story.

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