Heart of Barkness
by spencer quinn
forge, 299 pages, $25.99
Our story begins with a recent piece by novelist Peter Abrahams that appeared in the Publishers Weekly guest column (“Soapbox”) featured at the end of each issue. In the print magazine, to which I faithfully subscribe, it was titled “Me and My Pen Name”; in the online version, it’s “What’s to Be Done with an Author’s Pen Name?” (grossly inferior to the print title—why does that happen so often?). Here’s how it starts:
Oh, no. Not again. Here in the parking lot at Stop & Shop? I live in a medium-size town where many locals are aware I have something to do with writing books. This guy—who I knew way back when he was a Little League umpire who made good calls—is looking at me funny and thinking, “How come it’s taking him so long?”
Because the answer is complicated! Because it’s nice of him to ask and it’s my job to be nice back, hiding my frustration in the process—which adds to my frustration. So, okay, ump, here goes. “Well, since my last Peter Abrahams novel came out—in 2009—I’ve actually written nine more, and that’s if we’re just counting those for adults. There are four middle grade mysteries as well. But the thing is, they’re written under another name.”
“Stephen King?” he asks.
That’s when the piece takes its first twist. It’s amazing how much Abrahams packs into one page, how deftly he shifts direction. He relishes the ump’s wit (which has a special resonance for longtime readers of Abrahams, who know that Stephen King once described him as “my favorite American suspense novelist”). He thinks about his mother (who “taught me most of what I know about writing, and wittiness—being funny with a deeper purpose in mind—was the most important tool in her bag”), and then returns to answer the ump’s question. “No, actually . . . I’ve been writing under my pen name—Spencer Quinn.”
The ump is delighted: “The ones where the dog tells the story? My wife loves those!” And here’s the next twist: Instead of brooding over the fact that many of his “old” readers don’t realize that he is still writing, and very productively, he’s now asking the ump if his wife ever reads Peter Abrahams. Turns out Abrahams is “a little too dark for her.”
Ah! Well, as Abrahams explains to the ump, that’s why the publisher wanted him to use a pen name when the series narrated by a lovable dog was launched. And the books in this series have turned out to sell better than the Abrahams titles. But . . .
There’s a long silence.
“You kind of feel trapped in this other guy who’s not you?” the ump asks.
“Exactly. Sometimes I’d like to kill him off.”
“Lots of people would love to have your kind of problem.”
“I know. . .”
The ump brightens. “But the killing off Spencer Quinn thing is a pretty cool idea.”
“Imagine what Stephen King could do with it.”
I think this “column” is actually a very short story smuggled into a space that usually features pieces in which, for instance, the author of a university press book complains that his local library didn’t order his book, followed by a column in which he’s dismissed as a clueless academic. What makes it particularly interesting is that the Abrahams column appeared just a few weeks before the publication of Heart of Barkness, the new Spencer Quinn novel (which I preordered so I’d receive it as soon as possible).
Let me assure you that, while there are no doubt many Spencer Quinn readers who would find that Peter Abrahams isn’t their cup of tea, and vice versa, there are others (myself very much included) who say you don’t have to choose between them. In our house there are copies of each of Peter Abrahams’s novels and the entire Chet & Bernie series (Chet, the narrating dog, assists Bernie Little, who presides over the one-man and one-dog Little Detective Agency). If you haven’t tried either one, why not investigate?
Heart of Barkness is a good place to test the Chet & Bernie waters; if you like it, you can go back to the start of the series. Do not suppose that, because these books are winsome (and very witty!), they are written with the left hand. All fiction—including so-called “realistic” fiction, especially the self-consciously “dark” variety—is highly stylized. One form that takes, mastered by James Patterson and his imitators, is to try to make readers forget that they are reading! The Chet & Bernie books, by contrast, while giving us a dog-narrator who seems delightfully “real,” are loaded with wordplay and other reminders that we are playing a game of sorts, which requires the author and his readers together to say “let’s pretend.”
One final note. “Me and My Pen Name” (whether fictional or not) leaves out an important twist in the story. In 2017, a non-Chet & Bernie novel, The Right Side, appeared under Spencer Quinn’s name. It’s a superb book, and I put it on my list of favorites at the end of that year. Writing for Christianity Today, I described it as “a wrenching new novel (set in the US and Afghanistan) about a woman you won’t soon forget (and a dog who comes to her aid). A war story, a story of ‘recovery’ without the schmaltz, The Right Side illuminates our present moment in a way that only the best fiction can.” The book didn’t get anything like the attention it deserved, and I expect it didn’t sell well, either. But Peter Abrahams has every right to be proud of it. After all, he wrote it.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.