A lifelong reader of mystery novels—thank you, Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie—I’m partial to what’s known as Nordic noir, Scandinavian crime fiction that’s often as dark and cold as the landscapes in which the books are set (UK-based police procedurals are also high on my “must-read” list). However, when a new book by American writers Spencer Quinn, David Rosenfelt or Laurien Berenson comes out, I’m on it like a dog on a liver treat.
Wishes were granted recently when the following tumbled onto my reading list: Heart of Barkness (#9 in Quinn’s “Chet & Bernie” series/Minotaur), Bark of Night (#19 in Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter” series/MacMillan) and Bite Club (#23 in Berenson’s “Melanie Travis” series/Kensington). Part of the pleasure is meeting up with old friends, which is what, by now, these characters have become. Another part is the writers’ reliably entertaining styles. And, of course, there’s the dog thing.
Not to be underestimated is the palate-cleansing nature of these stories. Yes, there’s usually a murder (or a few murders) involved, and yes, there are blind alleys and misdirection and the occasional dangerous moment. But by comparison, after a run of books by writers such as Jo Nesbø, Val McDermid or Denise Mina, these puzzles are rays of sunshine.
In Heart of Barkness, a country singer’s past is full of secrets that are coming back to bite her (which Chet the dog would never do). PI Bernie Little, who not only loves the singer’s music but is also afflicted with more curiosity than six of your average cats, stops by a local dive bar to hear the singer, sees things that puzzle him and sets out to help her, even though she clearly doesn’t want his help. A murder in the present sends him back to a murder in the past. As always, Chet’s narration makes the story a fine ride; Spencer Quinn’s ability to write in the voice of a dog and have it read as absolutely authentic is unmatched. Plus, Quinn knows his way around the Southwest and its environmental issues, and has a deft way of including them.
Moving on to Bark of Night, reluctant New Jersey defense attorney and committed dog rescuer Andy Carpenter again sidles sideways into a case after being contacted by his vet about a young and healthy French Bulldog dog brought in by a sketchy stranger to be euthanized. The vet, who didn’t carry out the instruction and still has the dog, turns to Carpenter for help. The pup’s real owner—a documentary filmmaker—turns up dead, and the young man who’s arrested for the deed becomes Carpenter’s client. In this case, we know “who dunit” at the start of the book; we just don’t know why. As the story unfolds, however, that becomes clear, and we wait for Carpenter (and the police) to catch up as bodies accumulate and the attorney looks for something he can use to get his client off the hook.
Where Bernie Little is heartfelt and serious and Andy Carpenter is a self-deprecating wisecracker, Berenson’s Connecticut-based Melanie Travis is, in many ways, sister to Susan Conant’s Holly Winter. Where Winter organizes her life around Alaskan Malamutes, Travis has Standard Poodles. Both fictional women have supportive male partners and a few aggravating relatives. And both look at the world through dog-colored glasses. So, no surprise that in Bite Club, Poodles play a big part, as do other breeds, since some of the action is set at dog shows and on grooming tables. It begins with Travis’s idea to assemble a few friends to talk about dog books and drink wine (aka, the Bite Club). In short order, the infant book club is highjacked by her aunt, a dog-show judge who makes the most stubborn Dachshund look like the soul of cooperation. She expands the guest list considerably, much to Travis’s chagrin. One of the club members, a man no one knows well, adopts a Bulldog puppy and turns to Travis for help training him. Well, it’s a murder mystery, so someone’s going to die, and it turns out to be the puppy’s owner. Who would want to kill such a nondescript guy? Half the people in the book club, Travis discovers when she starts snooping around (um, investigating) on her own. As in the “Holly Winter” series, not only do readers get a diverting story, they also get lots of behind-the-scenes intel on dog shows and the main character’s preferred breed.
Also on the reading list is what’s billed as the first in a new series by Kylie Logan: The Scent of Murder (Minotaur), set in Cleveland. Jazz Ramsey is a girl’s-school administrator who trains cadaver dogs in her spare time. While helping out a fellow cadaver-dog trainer, she and Luther, the young dog she’s working with, actually find a body, not something she anticipated. Even more surprising, she recognizes the victim, who had been a student at her school. At that point, the police are called in and Ramsey’s off-license detecting has more to do with people and less to do with dogs. Which leads to a small quibble: in this book, the dog connection is more peripheral than central. Still, it’s an entertaining read, and provides some interesting details about how these dogs are trained. Since Ramsey also has romantic history with one of the police detectives involved, there’s a little emotional tension as well.
If you’re in the market for a diversion as the weather (eventually) cools and the days get shorter, give these books a try—reconnect with an old friend or make a new one!