Every novel, no matter the period, no matter the genre, no matter the author, is informed by a conception of good and evil (which may of course take the form of affectations to being “beyond good and evil”). Sometimes this is explicit; often it is implicit. For the most part I prefer to approach these matters obliquely, because the ongoing discourse is so terribly muddled and encrusted with clichés. But now and then it’s necessary to be more direct.
A year ago, I wrote about the novelist Peter Abrahams (“my favorite American suspense novelist,” Stephen King has said) and his alter ego, Spencer Quinn. Quinn’s novels featuring Chet, the narrating dog, and Bernie Little, private eye—together they make up the Little Detective Agency—are in a different vein from Abrahams’s books but equally skillful and rewarding.
Just this week, Forge published the tenth novel in the Chet & Bernie series, Of Mutts and Men, following last year’s entry Heart of Barkness. If you had told me, years ago, “Hey, there’s a book, Dog on It, comic crime fiction, narrated by a dog,” I would have thanked my informant politely, and that would have been the end of it. I read that first book in the series only because I learned that “Spencer Quinn” was in fact Peter Abrahams, a novelist I love. Though the set-up wasn’t at all enticing (I’m not even remotely a dog person, though I don’t actively dislike dogs), I decided to give it a try. By the time I’d finished the second page, I was entranced. That night I read the opening pages aloud to Wendy, my wife, who loved Chet as much as I did. (If you enjoy audiobooks, as Wendy and I do, the series is available in that form as well.)
Though cases have sometimes taken Chet and Bernie to distant locales, they are based in “the Valley,” as Chet says (in Arizona), and one recurring theme is Bernie’s brooding concern for “the aquifer.” Water is both a precious and a finite resource, and yet many people in the Southwest (and not only there) seem to be only dimly aware of that. They squander water.
“Oh, dear” some of you may be thinking. If you read a lot of crime fiction, you’ll remember the period, some years ago now, when the theme of environmental despoliation began turning up on every hand. Carl Hiaasen was in the vanguard. Books in this vein always feature individual villains, but almost always feature corporations as well, whose villainy is on a grand scale. That theme continues to appear in crime fiction, often in a way that feels perfunctory, clichéd, and preachy rather than morally compelling.
Spencer Quinn remains undaunted, and the presence of Chet (who valiantly continues to grasp what “the aquifer” is) provides reliable comic relief. But in the end, Quinn doesn’t care if someone says Bernie is too preachy to be a satisfying hero. What he’s preaching about is important enough to risk alienating some readers. In this new novel, Bernie—musing as he often does when he and Chet are on the road in their ancient Porsche—quotes Francis Scott Fitzgerald: a “vast carelessness.” That seems all too accurate a description of much that ails our national life.
There are other ways Quinn is quite deliberately preachy. In many of his books (as in Abrahams’s books too) there’s a rejection of Christian beliefs; in this book, it comes up in Chet’s thoughts about prayer—which will nevertheless resonate with many readers who, like me, pray every day. This seems to be a matter of principle for the author. But he cheerfully preaches in a positive way as well, in depicting the friendship between Chet and Bernie—certainly one of the most delightful depictions of friendship I've encountered in a lifetime of reading. That, more than anything else, I think, is what keeps readers coming back for more:
We drove away silent for a long time, the car full of Bernie’s thoughts. They were giants! And the West, which was where we lived—a fact I’d learned just recently—was a giant land, so we matched up perfectly. Bernie and the land, and me, too, of course. Don’t forget me. I like being in the mix.
No worries, Chet. None of us who have met you are likely to forget you anytime soon.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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