Dog On It

Atria Books, 306 pp., 2009; $25
By Spencer Quinn
Reviewed by Susan Tasaki, May 2009, Updated June 2021

Look sharp, dog-loving mystery fans. There’s a new PI (private investigator to the uninitiated) team in town: Bernie Little and his sidekick Chet. Bernie’s personal life is in shambles—a bitter ex-wife, more bills than money, an aging car—and his background is hinted at rather than explained; he was once a policeman, it seems. Bernie plays the ukulele; loves Hawaiian shirt prints; misses his son, whom he only sees on assigned weekends; and still has friends on the force who drop over with beer and ribs. Likewise, the geographical setting is left vague, though the Southwest is suggested.

The story is told by Chet, whose background is equally sketchy; he was once in training as a police dog, but was knocked off this career path by an unfortunate incident, which Chet never quite describes. Narration from the dog’s point of view is hard to do without slipping into preciousness, but Quinn avoids this pitfall. In fact, Chet’s perspective is the highlight of the story. That may be because his dialogue sounds like what we imagine our own dog’s to be: “She took another tissue, blew her nose. Her nose was tiny, useless, so different from mine, but I couldn’t help wondering: What would that be like, blowing it? All of a sudden, my own nose got twitchy. Cynthia and Bernie went on for a while ...but I wasn’t really listening, caught up in all these strange feelings in my nose.”

Part of Chet’s charm is that, indeed, his attention is so easily (and frequently) diverted. In this debut, the duo is on the trail of a missing teenager whose divorced parents take very different positions on what needs to be done to find her, and even as Chet is being abducted by the bad guys, his thoughts stray: “My mind wandered over to Bernie. Did I mention his smell? The very nicest of any human I’d ever come across—actually, a bit doglike in some ways. Yes, that good. Nothing like mine, of course. Mine is the best…a mix of old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats…”

The stage is set for more Bernie & Chet mysteries, and this one ends with a cliffhanger: Chet’s groomer discovers an ominous lump on his back, and leaves Bernie a note about it when she drops Chet off at home; in a melee, the note is knocked loose and slips behind the recycling bin. Will Bernie find it? Is the lump serious? We definitely hope not.

Susan Tasaki, a freelance editor and writer, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her Husky, who wishes they both got out more.