Thursday, July 09, 2015

Chet and Bernie Close to the Bone:
Scents and Sensibility

Riding shotgun in Bernie Little's Porsche convertible to confront some bad guys, our narrator Chet "the Jet" places a reassuring paw on Bernie's knee, causing the car to lurch forward "in a way that never gets old."  In spite of his worries, Bernie laughs, and Chet, our canine narrator, considers, "Life couldn't be any better than this.  So why not just keep driving and never ever stop?  I tried to think of a good reason" (282).

Chet keeps up an internal monologue that never gets old.  Chet made me smile on every page, and I often laughed out loud, as when he explains how to open a locked door, "something Bernie and I had been working on.  You slide the bolt open with your paw and then get a steak tip: that's all there is to it.  Give it a try sometime" (186).  After this, the eighth book in the series, why shouldn't Chet and Bernie just keep going and never ever stop?

Still, author Spencer Quinn signals early on that this series may be reaching a climax.  For the first time, Bernie's neighbors, the Parsons (and little dog Iggy), are integral to the plot, bringing the story literally close to home.  Their sorrow and humiliations feel real, as Bernie investigates their son's ties to kidnapping, drug dealing, murder, and, incidentally, the uprooting of legally protected cacti.  A corrupt policeman named Mickles, who calls Bernie his "nemesis," shows up early and often, leading us to expect some kind of final showdown.  There are moments of doubt when Bernie wonders aloud if he's suffering early onset dementia, and the signs are there.   

Then, there's the emergence of Shooter, a puppy who looks and smells a lot like our narrator.  Longtime readers of the series will remember the night this puppy was conceived, but Chet has no such memory, only a sense of responsibility for the little guy.   To escape a dangerous situation, Chet takes a "less gentle approach" to making Shooter follow him, "although [Shooter] did most of his following from in front."  Chet reflects, "My less gentle approach had taken something out of me, kind of strange" (260).  Is Spencer Quinn laying the groundwork for "Chet and Bernie: The Next Generation?"

Scents and Sensibility cuts closer to the emotional bone than any of these novels since The Dog Who Knew Too Much got deep into the agonies of a bullied adolescent.  Characters we learn to like turn up dead; relationships we enjoy are at stake.  As sometimes happens in these books, Chet is separated from Bernie, and we come close to losing hope.  But, then, Chet pulls us through, as when he fails in "way beyond two" attempts to escape -- "When it comes to numbers, I stop at two," he explains -- and he crawls back to shelter:  "[I]t didn't mean I'd stopped trying to be free.  I was just taking a break.  We took breaks at the Little Detective Agency, just another feature of our business plan" (250).

I've heard a crime novelist on NPR -- Elmore Leonard, I think -- say that "you can kill off anyone you like, but don't kill the dog: the readers will never forgive you."  (Author David Rosenfelt offered the same advice at his website back in 2004.)  I'm not spoiling anything to say that, when I put this book down, I immediately did what Bernie does just before the glorious mayhem of the final showdown:  I knelt by my dogs to give them both a big hug.

[See reflections on the whole Chet and Bernie series, and on other series as well, at my Crime Fiction page.]

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