The Southern half of Evelyn David thought things had gone pretty well. It was her first library talk after the publication of Murder Off the Books. Good turnout, delicious refreshments, the group had laughed at the jokes and listened with interest to the creative process that goes into writing a murder mystery. She opened up the floor to questions.
"Can you promise me that no dogs or humans are killed in your book?"
Well, it was easy enough to promise the first. We guarantee that no animals were harmed in the creation of this mystery.
But as to the second? No vows could be made.
In fact, as a murder mystery, it seems to me that there is an implicit agreement between readers and the author: somebody will bite the dust. In Murder Off the Books, in fact, somebody kicks the bucket (or has the bucket kicked for them) in the first paragraph.
We decided to ignore the old showbiz warning: Never work with kids and dogs. Whiskey, the adorable and adored Irish wolfhound in our book, weighs 120 pounds, is six feet tall when she stands on her hind legs, and has never met a cheeseburger she didn't enjoy. She instinctively knows the good guys from the bad guys, offers licks to those she loves, and growls to those who are dangerous. She brings warmth, goodness, and yes, humanity, to a book that explores the origins and effects of evil.
Animals in books serve many purposes – much like they do in our lives. Of course, Whiskey is a plot device. In Murder Off the Books, the hairy beast is a sounding board for our protagonist Mac Sullivan's inner thoughts. Whiskey is also comic relief, our version of the gravedigger in Hamlet. She provides the audience with a laugh in the midst of murder and mayhem. And unlike the humans who surround her, Whiskey is clearly drawn with no shades of gray. Everybody, but bad guys, likes Whiskey.
But including a dog in the narrative is tricky. You have to appeal to readers without turning them off. I still can't re-watch Old Yeller because while I understand the dramatic purpose of the dog's death, I vividly recall the childhood trauma of hearing the rifle shot and understanding what had transpired off-screen. I'm perfectly fine with killing all the villains in whatever gruesome manner an author chooses – but anything with four legs must survive. Thank goodness Trusty in Lady and the Tramp had no more than a broken leg.
I recognize that over-crowded animal shelters and Michael Vick's off-season "hobby" are clear evidence that, in real life, animals are frequently at risk. And yet, I can't write fictional stories with that kind of storyline. It's not that those books can't be done with taste and care – but my imagination won't let me travel that road.
Clio, the Irish terrier who shares my office while I write, fulfills many of the same roles that Whiskey does. She's privy to my musings on how to create fictional havoc; she offers comfort when writer's block descends; she's always good for a laugh as she rolls on her back, four legs in the air, and waits for a tummy rub. Maybe that's the reason why I can't create stories where animals are harmed? It's too close to home.
In the meantime, I'll just re-read The Thin Man. I'll visit speakeasies, sip martinis with Nick and Nora, and toss a treat to Asta. She's a schnauzer with a nose for murder. I'd like to introduce her to Whiskey.