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Sniffing Out Crime

Dashiell, the Pit Bull in her mystery series, tracks by scent. He also protects; does therapy at nursing homes; and provides company, cover and foil for Rachel, a smart, solitary detective with a caustic sense of humor. He is modeled on Benjamin’s dog Dexter, a rescued Bull Terrier who took it upon himself to become her service dog, easing the pain of a chronic illness. “Dexter did solve a mystery,” she points out. “He figured out where the pain was and how to help.”

Benjamin was determined to keep Dash a real dog and not fall into the “dog mystery” trap. By the third book in the series, however, she felt secure enough to set the story at a dog trainers’ symposium, killing off each victim by his or her training method. “People e-mailed me for weeks,” she laughs, “saying, ‘You forgot to kill so-and-so.’”

Including Dash in the story presents Benjamin with only one dilemma: Her books are funny in spots, but overall, they’re darker than readers, relieved by the dog’s presence, might realize. “I don’t think murder is a puzzle, I think it’s a tragedy,” she says quietly. “But people have these Disneyish expectations of dogs, as though they are in the world in the same way that Mickey Mouse is. So they read my very dark stories and say, ‘I love your mysteries, they are so funny!’”

Lighten Up
Dogs do offer comic relief. Scottish writer Gerald Hammond created John Cunningham, a dog breeder and trainer as well as a detective. In one novel, the police demand to search Cunningham’s grounds, so he turns all the pups loose for “their exercise,” which includes licking the constables’ faces and baptizing their pant-legs.

Beneath the surface, however, mysteries are dark. They deal with deliberate, unnatural violence—evil, for want of a better word. And dogs, unless they are made vicious, are free of such impulses. When evil shatters the façade of normalcy and throws people’s assumptions about one another into chaos, dogs remain trustworthy. Unlike humans, they are generally knowable and controllable and loyal, and can be reliably trained. They bear no grudges. They are the only character in the mystery that we don’t have to suspect, the only creature whose impulses we can trust.

“Dogs are the stability in the storm,” says child psychologist and mystery writer Stephen White. “Their affection is predictable, their routines are predictable. At the same time, they are playful, they are spontaneous in the way that children are.” White says that if his detective, child psychologist Alan Gregory, didn’t have a dog, he’d get one. “His dogs fit into the stories the same way dogs fit into my life. It’s a cliché, but dogs are family. They provide an emotional anchor.”

When he began writing, White didn’t realize the fictional purposes a dog might serve. He doesn’t outline or strategize, so Emily, the loyal Bouvier, and Anvil, a mischievous Miniature Poodle, just show up in the story whenever it feels natural. But he does realize that their appearance cuts the tension, creating a moment of calm that heightens the suspense when it begins to build again.

A little projection might take place too: Emily and Anvil need to be fed and petted and played with, and that usually happens at tense junctures, when the reader is also feeling a need for comfort. If Anvil’s antics prompt an involuntary smile, all the better. “Anvil—Nate, in real life—is that kind of dog,” White explains. “The dogs are the only characters in my books I don’t make up. They have no fictional traits.” Authors can stick their favorite dogs into their books without fear of lawsuit or severed relationships, which may be one reason dogs add a note of naturalness to mysteries’ elaborate, necessarily contrived plots.

In White’s newest, Blinded (due out February 2004), there’s a moment when Alan is deeply worried. “Emily comes in, and with her beard totally soaked from the water dish, she lays her head in his lap,” says White, “as if to say, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Which is something Bouviers do. It’s not something I made up, it’s something I learned from my dog.”

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