Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mystery Animals

by Michael Dymmoch

In spite of their titles The Man Who Understood Cats (Man Who...), The Death of Blue Mountain Cat (Death...), and Incendiary Designs (St. Martin’s wouldn’t publish it under its real title—Cats Burning. NO FOUR-LEGGED CATS WERE HARMED IN THE PRODUCTION OF THE STORY!), my books aren’t about cats!

Except as metaphor: the cat as a metaphor for the detective, the solitary hunter, the creature driven by curiosity and oblivious to social approbation. The human protagonists in my books exhibit stealth, patience, occasionally guile—cat qualities. They’re compulsive observers. They can’t ignore a movement, however subtle, on the part of their natural prey.

While the human characters in my books may be catlike, the cats (there are cats) are realistic. Freud and Skinner (a black domestic short hair and an orange tabby respectively) are no more talented than any feline you’ll find at your local S.P.C.A. They fight. They cough up hairballs. They bring mice home for their people. They don’t contribute materially to the solution of crimes. (Although they did inadvertently save Dr. Caleb’s life once.) Psyche, a tiny calico who made her appearance in Death..., is adorable, but no more so than any kitten.

My books also feature dogs. Toby, John Thinnes’s yellow Labrador, is a bright, friendly creature, but no Rin Tin Tin. To date, Toby’s only contribution to the solution of a crime was to call attention to himself by relieving himself at a crime scene (Death......). In a future book, Toby may assist on a stake-out by allowing Thinnes to pose as a dog-walker. But that will be the limit of his involvement. Toby’s a civilian. And the cops don’t like civilians screwing up their scenes. Toby’s not the only canine in my series. Miata, the Doberman pincher who makes a cameo appearance in Incendiary Designs, is a real dog whose human, Deen Kogan, bid in a literacy benefit auction to have Miata named as a character in Incendiary Designs.

Besides suggesting parallels to the human actors, the animals in my books help define character. Dr. Caleb is a man who understands cats and, by extension, cat-like humans. He’s a man who lives alone but prefers company—hence his cats. Detective Thinnes is a hard boiled Violent Crimes cop, a man who cannot bring himself to tell his wife he loves her. But he’s also a man who’ll spend his last five dollars to feed a stray dog. Neither Thinnes nor Caleb would ever talk to himself, but neither would hesitate to discuss things with his familiars. Toby also provides the opportunity for insight into Thinnes’s relation with his son, Rob, and a chance for the author to point out the irony of callused cops going marshmallowy around ducks and puppies.

Not all fiction is autobiographical, but belonging to a pet gives an author plenty of free material (the mouse incident, for instance). And if the realism is in the details, details like the antics of a family pet contribute significantly to the verisimilitude of the story.


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Libby Hellmann said...

Does this mean there are more Thinnes and Caleb books coming? I hope so!!

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