Thereby Hangs a Tail, Spencer Quinn

As mentioned in Dick’s recent post, Edgar-award winning Eph author Peter Abrahams ’68 went undercover last year, adopting a new pen name (Spencer Quinn) and a new voice, that of a clever canine detective, a mixed-breed answering to the name of Chet. Not long after the softcover release of Quinn’s debut, Dog on It, hit the mystery bestseller list in late 2009, Chet returned with the second entry in the series: Thereby Hangs a Tail, and it’s every bit as enjoyable as the first.

Make no mistake: Chet is not just a canine sidekick. From where he sits (shotgun), he’s an equal partner in the Little Detective Agency. His partner, chauffeur, and straight man is ex-cop, ex-soldier, and quasi-nerd Bernie Little, who keeps Chet leashed into the human world. And if Bernie hasn’t yet figured out how to get full benefit from Chet’s dog-enhanced senses, the two share a close-enough bond that together they can overcome even the cleverer of their opponents.

In Thereby Hangs a Tail, Chet and Bernie’s world intersects that of a champion showdog, Princess, and her wealthy owner, Adeline. When Princess and Adeline are abducted and Chet and Bernie are shot at, they pursue the perpetrators, with plenty of stops for steaks, crullers, firetrucks, and bones as they crisscross the Southwest from the fast-growing Sunbelt city they call home to remote mesas, ghost towns, and Las Vegas.

The mystery won’t prove difficult for many readers to solve, but by creating a likable protagonist with a unique, nose-centric perspective, Quinn is able to create a compelling story that doesn’t rely on complicated sleight of hand or convoluted plot twists. Chet’s adventures and Quinn’s prose are a real treat, particularly as Chet tries to understand Bernie’s use of common expressions. (A real stumbling block: the wild goose chase. Chet: “Whoa… Not the first time that had come up, but we still hadn’t gone on one, and oh, did I ever want to, real bad. I glanced around, saw no geese, no birds of any kind.”). At other times, as the well-read Bernie mines his education for advanced metaphors, Chet’s lack of comprehension becomes a surrogate for the reader’s efforts to follow Bernie, rather than a source of humor.

Dick Swart is not the first to note that Bernie appears to be a somewhat “bumbling” private eye. That’s true. But one of the most intriguing questions to ponder as you read the Chet and Bernie books is whether Bernie’s shortcomings are real compared to other humans, or are just a part of the shortcomings of people, as seen from a dog’s point of view. Or, for that matter, are they the shortcomings observed by all those who know us best, are usually filtered by human social convention, but can pour forth when pondered in the canine mind. (Undoubtedly Quinn’s description of Bernie’s gait as “shambling” helps bring the word “bumbling” to mind).

As Quinn, well-polished veteran Abraham is still perfecting his technique. Fans of Suzie, Chet’s treat interest (and Bernie’s romantic interest) from the first novel may be disappointed by the amount of time that Suzie spends off-stage in Tail. Similarly, Chet’s tendency to get distracted and to share captivating snippets of other stories may be a lot more charming after Quinn has had the chance to prove that we’ll get to see those stories on the page sometime soon. Nonetheless, these are books you’ll want to take with you when you need light reading. Or when you need something to read with your closest canine companion. He or she will probably take to Chet.

One further note: for those who have already inhaled the two Chet books and can’t wait for the third (To Fetch a Thief, due in September), Chet keeps a blog (whose posts also conveniently appear in EphPlanet ,on the left side of Ephblog), tracking the further adventures of Chet and Bernie to the Dry Gulch Steakhouse and Saloon, Donut Heaven, and on the trail of other mysteries.

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