Thursday, April 17, 2008

Animal detectives

Last night we met to discuss “animal detectives,” books in which animals take center stage to solve the mystery, writes Jeannine. As expected, it was a pretty wild meeting. I didn’t even bother using the bell, it was too much fun watching them gasp for air, and their faces turn red because they were laughing so hard (you know who I mean – the “little lambs” need to be separated in future). Silly doesn’t begin to describe it.

We raided our closets, the children’s department and our pets’ toy and food bins for decorations. There were lots of stuffed animals on the table, including a big yellow dinosaur that gave the room that really formal feel. There were cat toys (the missing tail on the mouse is a clue) and dog biscuits. We were thoughtful and kept the “real” dog biscuits on a silver platter (naturally) on the sign in table, while the dog bone cookies were on the food table. Didn’t want anyone to get confused and break a tooth (or what if they liked them?).

I’ve noticed the less food I bring to a meeting (this month: none), the more that piles up on the table. Why didn’t I think of this before? There was a tabouleh/pasta salad, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), Monkey bread, buffalo flavored goldfish crackers, dog bone sugar cookies, several snack mixes that we will designate as kibble, bird seed and rabbit food. There were Vienna sausages referred to as “really small hot dogs,” and chocolate covered donuts, or dinosaur droppings (this seemed to upset some people, I don’t know why).

We started off with the mystery that raised the most eyebrows: Three Bags Full: a sheep detective story by Leoni Swann. The shepherd is murdered and the sheep set out to find out what happened, led by the intrepid ewe, Miss Maple. Oddly enough, the story takes place in Ireland, but is written by a German author and translated to English. We had 4.1 people who read this (one only read 10 pages), and 4 thumbs up. As one person said you “really get inside the head of a sheep.” Yes, this struck the rest of us funny too, but as they explained, the sheep would be going about their detecting business, discussing the possibilities, when “oh, look, clover!” and stop to graze. There were real characters and real character development, “in a sheepish kind of way” (unquote!), and even some deep themes, as well as sheep mythology and theology (evidently there’s some controversy whether the minister or the butcher is God). All who read it (the whole book) enjoyed it immensely, even the ones who didn’t expect to. They said it could have used a little editing (some repetition is what stopped the fifth reader), and thought it was extremely entertaining, but can’t imagine there being a follow-up. One reader said the sheep had always wanted to visit Europe, so saw the possibility of a sequel, which led to images like that of the children’s book Sheep in a Jeep, which then led to the movie version “Sheep on a Plane,” and remarks about sheep falling out of the overhead compartments, and by then the discussion was pretty well out of control.

But they were having so much fun, I didn’t ding them.

We decided to stick with the more unusual detectives, and moved on to the series by Eric Garcia that features Vincent Rubio, a velociraptor private detective in Los Angeles. In Anonymous Rex, the dinosaurs, like the vampires, have continued to live among us without our ever knowing, aided by latex masks and tail girdles. Really! This is what she told us. Rubio is the classic hard-boiled detective, with hot babes and cool criminals, and basil and oregano (in lieu of alcohol) to relax with. She said it was clever, but not witty, cute but boring, and too gimmicky to get past the fifth chapter. It was like a movie trailer, where are the best bits are there (in the first chapter), but the rest just falls flat. Oh well.

A few people read from the Cottage Tales series by Susan Wittig Albert, that takes place on Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm, and includes Ms. Potter and many of the animals as characters. The animals talk to one another, but not to the people. Like Potter’s book illustrations, some animals wear clothes, some do not, for a bit of a Wind in the Willows feel to it. It sounds cutesy, but we were assured that it is just very cozy, with pleasant and different mysteries in each book. Not a rave review, but not negative either.

Combining a bit of science fiction into the mix are the Joe Grey mysteries of Shirley Rousseau Murphy. The first book in the series, Cat on the Edge, explains how Joe is different from other cats; he comes from the Catswold and can speak and understand English, among other talents. It takes a while for him to understand this, and then to make his person, Clyde, believe it. After that the series becomes more traditional mysteries, with the special talents and abilities of cats being used to solve the mystery in a less traditional manner (i.e. they’re very sneaky). Some readers had difficulty getting past the cats’ ability to talk, but for some that was just part of the fun (the cats like to call to have pizza delivered). While some of the plots sound less than cozy (a cult killing children, serial killer, etc), there’s no blood or graphic depiction of death.

Quite a few people read books from the Mrs. Murphy series by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown, with quite a few different reactions, sometimes from the same people! A positive thumbs up went to Murder at Monticello, featuring the postmistress’s cat Mrs. Murphy, and the Welsh Corgi, Tucker. Small own characters and animals, good mystery, the reader enjoyed it. Another reader read Cat’s Eyewitness, which is later in the series, but said there was too much back story missing to enjoy it. She said the animals were okay, but she couldn’t tell when they actually solved the mystery. Another reader had read many and enjoyed them, thinking they featured a companionable village and characters; that the animal relationships were interesting, and enjoyed how the animals tried to steer their humans to enlightenment by pushing things strategically in front of them. The fourth reader didn’t like the one she started at all, not able to get past the animals talking (to each other, not to the humans), especially when they called the postmistress “Mom.” The final person enjoyed the first few read, but couldn’t make it past page 58 in Pawing through the Past, but thinks it may have been the subject matter. Action revolves around an upcoming high school reunion and all the human characters begin devolving into teenagers. The animals were remarkably intelligent in comparison. One of the readers who has read most of the series says Brown seems to write each story around an issue, which unfortunately sometimes becomes more important than the story. So, out of 5 thumbs, that was 3 thumbs up, and 3 thumbs down (that’s known as “fuzzy math” – you see a lot of that in an election year).

Dogs now get their time in the spotlight. Our next member enjoyed Play dead by Leslie O’Kane. This features a dog behaviorist/therapist and the “ugly collie” on the front cover. This poor dog’s first owner is killed, so he is adopted by another person, who is also killed, leaving the dog with “quite a complex.” Obviously this is where a dog therapist comes in. The story is set in Boulder, Colorado where the author lives, and contains lots of good local information. It was recommended as a good read, a suspenseful mystery with plenty of twists. And for those who asked, the animals talk only with the body language an animal behaviorist understands, no midnight phone calls.

In the midst of this, quite a few children’s books came up, some mysteries, some not. For some reason, no one read Freddy the Detective by Walter Brooks featuring a pig detective, though one member remembered loving it as a child. Another person recommended Whittington by Alan Armstrong, an award winning animal fantasy, and another just loved Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson for the rabbit view of the human world, and read it to her students every year. Never to be left out, Hank the Cow Dog, was recommended as a great listen. In the story our member heard, the inept “Head of Security” for the ranch, Hank, sets out to find out who is stealing the corn by setting out clever traps, only to be consistently trapped himself. A clever coyote stars in A Coyote’s in the House, the first children’s novel by Elmore Leonard. Antwan is a hip-talking coyote living in the Hollywood Hills, who takes after a wasabi-whiskered mouse and ends up in the back yard of retired movie star German Shepard, Buddy. It was delightful, a good “tail.” Unquote.

There was one thumb up, and one down for the Midnight Louie series. The stories rotate between the views of the big black cat Midnight Louie and his person, Temple Barr. One reader did enjoy the Louie tales, though admitted Temple’s obsession with shoes was a bit much. The other reader was more forthcoming with her opinion – she had never read a book so full of alliteration, Temple Barr was too unbelievable, and it was “the longest book I ever read.”

The “Cat Who” series by Lilian Jackson Braun came up for discussion – are they, or are they not animal detectives. Are the two cats really looking for clues to drop in the lap of Qwilleran, or is it just coincidence or fate? The jury was deadlocked.

One person preferred “real” animals, and highly recommended the books of Bernd Heinrich on ravens, by far the smartest of birds. Another person really liked the books that draw the reader into the animal’s minds and frame of reference, to try to see their view of humans, as a way for us to better understand ourselves.

One said to heck with real, how about dragons? She highly recommended the fantasy Mistress of Dragons by Margaret Weis.

And finally, two people had cat mystery collections. One thought it was a great way to read some of her favorite writers, as well as be introduced to some she doesn’t know, without having to read a whole book. The other picked one called Cat mysteries for the holidays that she picked up for the picture on the cover of a cat paw on a skull – it was “adorable.” Um, okay….