Pets

Pet Connection: Dogs and cats on the case

Cozy or noir? Thriller or mystery? Talking cat or working dog? Whatever your poison in literary murder and mayhem, there’s a book for you. And chances are good that a dog or cat is a character in his own right, either as a four-footed detective or as a sidekick to a human protagonist.

Think Lilian Jackson Braun’s Siamese sleuths Koko and Yum Yum, who first made an appearance 50 years ago; or feline Mrs. Murphy, her Persian nemesis, Pewter, and their corgi buddy, Tee Tucker, in the Mrs. Murphy series by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Editors and agents used to tell authors that a “pet viewpoint” worked only for children’s books, but from Braun on, writers have proved them wrong.

“It takes having a well-known and successful ‘name’ author to take the plunge and show it’s something readers like before it becomes a trend,” says Amy Shojai, author of three thrillers featuring German shepherd service dog Shadow. “James Rollins (a veterinarian-turned-writer) was one of the first best-selling thriller authors to include an animal viewpoint in his work, with a war dog partnered with an ex-military man. Robert Crais followed with a similar war dog-type character partnered with a damaged-cop character.”

In her own series, Shojai, drawing on her background as a behavior consultant, wanted a viewpoint dog character with some chapters told from his perspective. “Not as a human-in-a-fur-suit, but as I perceived a dog might truly think and behave and with motivations suitable to a canine,” she says.

Shojai’s fellow author Clea Simon has written 20 mysteries, all featuring cats. Simon began her career as a journalist, and along the way she realized she could combine her love of writing with her interest in and appreciation for cats.

Her third nonfiction book, “The Feline Mystique,” explored the relationship between women and cats. “That was sort of the kickoff for my cat-related mysteries,” she says. At first, Simon went the traditional route. In her first series, featuring music journalist Theda Krakow and her cat, Musetta, cats didn’t talk – at least, not in English. “But after that, I realized that we all talk to our pets, and we all imagine how our animals respond,” she says.

That led her to explore different ways of including a cat’s viewpoint. One is her Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, which lead with the information that the character’s cat, Mr. Gray, has died. He returns to her as a friendly ghost who is a comforting and wise presence. Simon’s newest mystery, “The Ninth Life,” is narrated by a feral black cat who is saved from drowning by a homeless girl. It’s a dark tale with a mean-streets vibe, a transition from the cozy, amateur-sleuth territory of her first books. In both instances, Simon explores her interest in the relationship between people and cats.

If you read Shojai or Simon – or other authors who include animals in their plots – it’s not unusual to find arcana about dog shows, training or animal behavior. Many writers find their work to be a way of delving into some of the issues or controversies surrounding animals. Shojai covered dog fighting in her latest, “Show and Tell,” and Simon addressed animal hoarding in “Mew Is for Murder” and puppy and kitten mills in “Cattery Row.”

“One of the rules I live by, though, is that I could never seriously hurt or kill an animal in a book,” Simon says. Shojai is on the same page. “I don’t write dog abuse scenes,” she says. Instead, she highlights the setting, fight paraphernalia and laws and issues surrounding the crime.

What’s the pleasure in reading a mystery with purr-sonality or canine charisma? “I think mysteries that feature or involve animals mirror real life,” Shojai says. “Readers identify with the hero of the book who cares deeply about a pet.”

THE BUZZ

Cats as well as dogs can become ill from a new strain of canine influenza (H3N2) virus, according to experts at the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. “Suspicions of an outbreak in the cats were initially raised when a group of them displayed unusual signs of respiratory disease,” says Sandra Newbury, DVM, the program’s director. “While this first confirmed report of multiple cats (at an animal shelter in Indiana) testing positive for canine influenza in the U.S. shows the virus can affect cats, we hope that infections and illness in felines will continue to be quite rare.”

▪  Just how smart are dogs? The average dog’s intelligence is estimated to be at the same level as that of a 2.5-year-old toddler – in other words, curious and creative. Among the discoveries researchers have made in their studies of canine intelligence are the ability to read human cues, show emotional connection to their owners, display jealousy and learn hundreds of words. Vox reporter Joseph Stromberg says, “It’s likely that these abilities have been shaped by evolution – over thousands of years, we’ve selected those dogs best adapted to live with humans.”

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.

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