Animal Crackers

I’m a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy involving alien species–some species spooky, others lovable–and I occasionally read mysteries with clever cats, corpse sniffing dogs, or artificial intelligences that help the human protagonist solve crimes.  By and large, though, I prefer my detectives human.  I especially prefer to stay out of the heads of cats, dogs, and robots.  Fine, have a Dachshund investigator, but give him a human Watson to interpret.  All the same, there should be animals in fiction.

As a reader, I want major characters to be human, but contemporary mysteries reflect contemporary society, and we are pet-oriented people, no doubt about it.  At one point when my son was in grade school our family had six cats–each acquired separately, not as a litter–and a goldfish named Oshunoggafur.  (My son’s spelling improved when he got to junior college.)  He and his wife now cosset half a dozen Ibizan hounds at their house in the country.  My mother raised six kids then raised Pomeranians followed by orange tabbies.  The existence of these animals was part of daily life.

When I write a novel, I try to mirror the society.  If I’m going to do that well, my books ought to include non-human species.  When I look at my novels, however, only one contains an animal with sufficient presence to require a name.  Towser, the Rhodesian ridgeback in Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, sneaked into the book because I was obsessing about realism.  I took Meg, my heroine, for a walk around her new neighborhood.  Meeting an unleashed dog is one of those adventures people have when they go walkies.  Towser bounced onstage.

Ridgebacks bounce.  They are sight hounds–lion hunters–and they bounce to get above tall-growing grass for a view of the landscape.  Towser bounced at Meg, put his paws on her shoulders, knocked her down, and licked her all over her face.  Very affectionate dog.  Then he took over the plot.  Or tried to.  Fortunately, I had the wit to stay out of his viewpoint.  He stayed in the book right to the end, but at least he let the humans do the detecting.

I didn’t trust him, though.  I mentioned him in the next book but kept him strictly offstage.  If I hadn’t, I would have been in danger of writing a dog-series, and I really, really did not want to do that.  The third and fourth books don’t mention him, and that is sadly realistic because the dog life-span is not long by human standards.  Since then, I’ve been reluctant to introduce a strong-minded animal into any of my fictions, not even the regency I wrote last year.

So I wonder about alien species.  Mystery writers have some difficulty including a variety of people in a novel.  Take a look at character surnames.  Fairly often they’re all British names, or British with a seasoning of German or Scandinavian.  I don’t think writers should be forced to include viewpoints that are alien to their experience–that would be asking for bad characterization–but I do think a passing admission that non-Anglos exist would make their novels more believable.  Human diversity and species diversity are not the same problem for fiction writers.  Species diversity requires straddling the gap between genres.  I admire any writer who can, and admit that I don’t want to–not again.


5 Responses

  1. This makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s one reason my new book includes a Westie who punctuates action and is part of it, part of the characters’ lives.

  2. Sounds like the Westie is the best kind of pet-character. Don’t forget to feed him!

  3. Hi, Sheila.

    What a wonderful, animal-rich household you and your children have had! And I love Oshunoggafur. 🙂

    Although I’ve read and loved mysteries all my life, I got my start as an author in science fiction and fantasy, so I guess it wasn’t too much of a leap when I wrote my Doodlebugged mysteries, which are narrated by an obedience-impaired labradoodle—admittedly, still a form of fantasy,

    But good science fiction and fantasy has lots to say about humans and society, and sometimes an alien point of view can show things a human point of view might not. I think that can also be the case with animal narrators—not so much the ones that are simply humans wearing fur and being cute, but those who try to capture the point of view as it just might really be from a dog (or cat) who’s perhaps a bit (okay, perhaps a lot) smarter and more articulate than our own pets.

    The wonderful Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn (starting with Dog On It) has rich and complex human characters and well-wrought mysteries, all delightfully, sometimes hilariously, observed by Chet the dog.

    In addition, an animal protagonist in these circumstances can be a bit of an unreliable narrator because of limitations in understanding—which can be used for comic or tragic effect and which I find interesting as a writer and reader.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

    Susan Kroupa


  4. Ack! That was supposed to be a period not a comma in the webpage at the bottom.

  5. I’m not a fan of talking animals in mysteries, but I like what Sue Kroupa does with her Doodle dog. We’re in his head, and he thinks like a dog, for sure. Smarter than the average dog, he can’t just tell the people he cares about what’s obvious to him, and he certainly doesn’t alwaysuse good judgment. Come to think of it, he has a lot in common with the kids he cares about–and the ones who read about him.

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