Have you ever wondered what it would be like if classic literature were retold through the eyes (or, perhaps more frequently, the nose) of a dog?
If “On the Road” was about the adventures of a stray poodle who traveled back and forth across America, looking for bones to chew and rear ends to sniff?
If “Crime and Punishment” followed the self-inflicted psychological tortures and maddening guilt of a borzoi that had bit a mailman?
If “The Grapes of Wrath” was about a family of migrating Labradors who, in a reverse of an early scene in the original, ran over their pet human with their jalopy?
You probably haven’t thought any of these things, and I don’t really blame you. However, at least one writer must have wondered, at some point recently, what it would be like to do a mystery series told from the viewpoint of a dog because now we have the “Chet and Bernie” series, which I recommend to you today.
The consistently high demand for mystery novels has sometimes inspired writers to try unusual narrative techniques. I have read mysteries narrated by cats, for example, and mysteries narrated by ghosts.
I would classify my experience with such oddly-narrated novels as “mixed at best.” (I would describe one popular ghost-narrated series, which I will not name here, as consistently awful.)
However, Spencer Quinn (only recently discovered to be a pseudonym for established author Peter Abrahams) really hits the mark with his dog-narrated “Chet and Bernie” mysteries. The series currently contains eight books, all of which are titled with annoyingly good puns (“Dog On It,” “Paw and Order,” “To Fetch a Thief,” etc.).
The series avoids the sickening cuteness that threatens any animal-narrated story: Chet is a large former police dog who is not afraid to leap into a fight with teeth bared to help his human, the hard-boiled (but not too hard-boiled) private detective Bernie Little. The various books have the duo working against gangsters, kidnappers, shady government agencies and so on.
The strength of the writing, insofar as Quinn is able to give us a believable rendition of how a dog might tell a story, is the main attraction of the series. For all his tenacity in sniffing out clues and battling the bad guys, Chet is a dog, and often goes off on tangents about strong smells or the vital importance of marking his territory with urine. Quinn does well in having Chet describe certain dog traits, such as wagging his tail or barking at squirrels, as occurring automatically: “‘Stop that barking!’ Bernie cried. Had I been barking? Possibly. I didn’t think so, but I’ve been surprised before. ”
Chet also struggles with figurative language — when Bernie mentions that the duo seems to be on “a wild goose chase,” Chet goes into fowl-hunting mode, nearly missing a vital clue while trying to sniff out the nonexistent goose.
In the end, however, you can always count on Chet to find some important piece of evidence to help crack the case and to perform some kind of heroic action to pull Bernie out of an impossible scrape.
As the dog himself says, “That’s just how we do things at the Little Detective Agency.”