Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Sound and the Furry

I'm hooked. Hokey as the books may sound, Spencer Quinn's Bernie and Chet series, narrated by the canine member of the partnership, Chet the Jet, has captivated me.

It's not only Quinn's rendering of the doggy viewpoint, which is something of a tour de force, it is the Carl Hiassen-level humor he employs in narrating his simple mysteries. I use the plural, even though I've only read the one, the latest, because I'm confident the same mastery is maintained throughout the series.

It is of course a sleight of hand to have a dog narrate a story using vocabulary much more sophisticated than what he professes to not understand in the dialogue. But like any good illusionist, Quinn distracts you from this conundrum with his portrayal of Chet living in the moment, losing his thread of "thought," getting distracted by anything remotely resembling food. There is Chet's total lack of self-awareness, so that even as he's narrating the story he becomes aware of his instinctive actions -- barking, growling, snatching a chicken wing, carrying a straw hat away with him -- only when Bernie calls him on it.

Anyone who has spent time with a dog, interacted with a dog, or who just likes animals can't help but appreciate the consistency with which Quinn portrays the simple joie de vivre of the narrator. Whatever depredations the human characters engage in, the reader feels upbeat because Chet feels upbeat.

Bernie Little is not that much different than your typical PI -- flawed, undisciplined, broke -- but seen through the prism of Chet's narration, his heroic side comes to the fore. Not that he's any more heroic than the rest of us, but he is a hero in Chet's eyes, and it's contagious.

The plot itself is not half-bad. You scarcely notice, immersed as you are in Chet's being in the moment, that the plot is moving along, clues are being uncovered, red herrings identified, villains chased down and clients rescued. In this case, Bernie and Chet go to Louisiana bayou country to find a missing person and unravel a mystery involving a ton of stolen shrimp and birds dying of petroleum immersion.

Bernie's choice of vehicle -- a well-used Porsche -- is a plus because it reminds me of my brief ownership of a well-used Porsche. There is little description of Chet in this book -- perhaps there is more detail in the earlier books -- beyond the fact that he weighs 100 pounds-plus. So I have taken to imagining him as a shaggy German shepherd mutt. Once, when he sees Bernie and himself in a mirror, Chet is amazed, saying it looked like Bernie with a tough-looking member of the nation within (Chet's expression for the parallel dog population), realizing only belatedly that it's -- ME.

So I've already downloaded the first book of the series, Dog on It, and will work my way forward. I'm hoping I'll be able to ration them and not just binge-read the whole series.

Spencer Quinn is a pen name for Peter Abrahams, who has written numerous thrillers and young adult books under his own name. Stephen King is a fan and listed four of his novels in his book recommendations in On Writing. So now I've downloaded Lights Out as well.

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