It aggravates me mightily that if ten random test-subjects were shown the word “serial” as a prompt and asked to write down the word they first associate with it, nine of them (if not all ten!) would likely answer “killer”! That says a lot about the state of our society (not least about the influence of “the media”). What would a better answer be, “better” in the sense of being truer to our quotidian experience? I propose “thinking.” Human beings are incorrigibly serial thinkers. The Latin word series, etymological guides tell us, derived from the verb serere, “to join, link, bind together.” It is the distant source of our English word “series,” first recorded in the early 17th century, meaning “a number or set of things of one kind arranged in a line.”
These “things of one kind” include the days of the week and the months of the year; they also include much of our popular entertainment. A series—in stories or books, on TV or some related medium—appeals to us in part because it combines, in an artful and concentrated way, the combination of the predictable and the unpredictable at the very heart of our lives. Often the proportions are carefully calculated to leave us reassured (Sherlock Holmes will solve the case at hand), but sometimes they are deliberately adjusted to leave us uneasy (which provides its own satisfaction: We are mature enough, we’re encouraged to think, to face the dark truth).
In our day, writers of crime fiction are particularly likely to create a series with which they can build a loyal readership over time (though of course there are plenty of stand-alone crime novels). While there are obvious benefits, writing a series poses distinctive challenges. The novelist may grow weary of his characters and of the elaborate frame for their adventures that he has so carefully constructed. He may even come to nurse unspoken grievances against some of his ardent fans. He may feel trapped by his own creation. For their part, readers may simply lose interest. The quirks of character and setting and point-of-view that so charmed them for eight or ten books may suddenly pall (that’s what happened to me, alas, with the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency).
The best writers in this vein, so I think, are those who overcome such nagging aggravations by embracing the challenges of the form—Spencer Quinn, for example, whose Chet & Bernie series is one of my favorites in the entire genre. Chet, you may recall, narrates the books (no, he is not a “talking dog,” but thanks to the alchemy of art we are privy to his consciousness); with Bernie Little, he makes up the Little Detective Agency, based in Arizona. It is common to deprecate so-called “genre fiction” for its adherence to certain conventions, in contrast to what is sometimes called “literary fiction,” a preposterous term. All fiction works within constraints and conventions; all fiction, whether “serious” or otherwise, is (among other things) a game of sorts, with the equivalent of a set of rules. Discovering the implicit “rules” that govern a particular novel, whether by Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Thomas Bernhard, is part of the fun. The Chet & Bernie series foregrounds that collaborative enterprise; the author says to his readers, “let’s pretend.” In It’s a Wonderful Woof, the painter Caravaggio (previously unknown to Bernie) plays an important role. When Chet and Bernie pay a visit to a small art gallery, Celare Artem, presided over by a woman named Jada Brooks, Bernie asks her about the name of the gallery:
“From a Latin expression. Ars celare artem.”
“‘The art is to hide the art.’”
That could be an epigraph, not just for this novel but for the entire Chet & Bernie series.
It’s a Wonderful Woof concludes with a Christmas dinner (earlier in the story, there’s a lighting of Hanukkah candles), and in an unobtrusive way it’s a Christmas book. If you know someone who loves good crime fiction, especially of the witty variety, this wouldn’t be a bad gift. If he or she is a dog-lover, better yet—though I should add that this isn’t required to enjoy the series. Wendy and I immediately fell under Chet’s spell, despite our love for cats, of which Chet would surely disapprove.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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