Monday, January 10, 2011


Should it be ‘somewhere a cat purred’?

According to recent chatter in the blogosphere, most novelists can't resist including a dog barking in the distance.

I like the slightly forlorn and creepy mood created when a distant dog signals something: loneliness, alarm, approaching burglar, whatever. But for those of us who dwell on the cozier side of mystery, a distant bark hardly does the trick. We like our furry barkers closer to home. So close, in fact, dog (or a cat if you must) should have a name, a description and a clearly defined place to sleep.

Well, really it’s the least you can do. The dog (or cat I suppose) gives us a sensory connection to the narrative as well as an emotional connection to the animal and to the animal’s current custodian. If a character has or finds himself or herself looking after a dog/cat/hamster, I immediately assume that the character is someone I would like and relate to. Of course, I need some specifics about this critter. Pets in fiction deserve every bit the attention that other characters get. Maybe more. In fact as a reader as well as a writer, I want to sense the silky/spiky/curly or whatever type of fur the pooch has (or the cat if you insist).

The regular contributors to Mystery Maven Canada have their own mystery pets: Barbara Fradkin has given Inspector Green a very large dog to complicate his family life. Joan Boswell’s Hollis Grant goes nowhere without her golden McTee. Linda Wiken wouldn’t think of letting Erika Chase start a series without a purr-fect companion.

In my own books, I like to bring it to your attention if the dog has wet fur (not a happy scent) or has recently stolen a plate of beans. The resulting sensory impact can keep the reader awake. In the Charlotte Adams books Truffle and Sweet Marie dislike cold and wet weather and spend a lot of time cuddling warmly, when they are not stealing small treasures and making mischief. This should get you to let your guard down. In the Camilla MacPhee books, Gussie, Camilla’s purely temporary dog has been just visiting for roughly five years, during which he or she has been fairly consistently flatulent. Just so you feel that you’re there – although you might want to leave. By the way, in case any cat people are getting agitated around now, let me add that Camilla has been taking pretty good care of Mrs. Parnell’s little calico cat since 1999. I don’t want to get hate mail.

Back to my train of thought, the in-house animal companion can add a little audio interest by snoring, purring or belching at the right moment and they keep the protagonist honest and human by requiring care and feeding and endless walks. For the writer, the pet can be a boost to the plot and a good excuse for the sleuth to be out and about at any time of day or night. Trust me, the reader will be along for those walks.

The occasional person may get a tad over-involved with these pets. I once had a complaint that Charlotte Adams contacted her lawyer when she got arrested instead of calling someone to walk Truffle and Sweet Marie. If that was you who made that comment, please note that Jack Reilly always (and without being asked) walks and feeds the dogs when Charlotte is being questioned by the police or unexpectedly delayed by some sleuthing hitch. If she had a cat, he’d take care of that too. She knows this. Nuff said.

What about you? Whether you read mysteries or write them or both, how important is a dog in a book? Oh fine. Or a cat.

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three, soon to be three and a half, mystery series. You can check them out at


  1. I know I can relax when reading a Charlotte or Camilla. Responsible dog owners both - they take the hounds for walks, feed them regularly and even (be still my heart) undertake Therapy Dog Training. But we've all read mysteries where the dog or cat is only put into the book for plot purposes and the author forgets about them in the scenes where they're not required. I was horrified when one protagonists took off on an overseas flight with no mention to me, the reader, of who would be looking after Spot. Harrumph.

  2. I promise never to do that! I think you can tell people who really have pets!