Dark Passages: The Crime Solving Menagerie

For my newest “Dark Passages” column, I wanted to try something different: was there a way to write about the proliferation of crime fiction featuring animals with some degree of gravitas? It helped that there was a lot to say about two new debut novels with very different approaches to the animal-as-protagonist: Spencer Quinn’s DOG ON IT and AMBERVILLE by Tim Davys, but the larger point to make is that too many of these books play it safe or don’t have something to say beyond filling a market niche. In any case, here’s how it opens:

It may be a stretch to dub 2008 as the literary Year of the Animal, but
the stratospheric success of David Wroblewski's novel "The Story of
Edgar Sawtelle" and Iowa librarian Vicki Myron's true account of her
beloved cat Dewey — not to mention the crowds lining up to see the
movie version of John Grogan's doggy memoir, "Marley and Me" —
certainly bolster the notion that animals are a big draw for readers.
In a review for the now-defunct genre book review website Crescent
Blues, Susannah Frisbee identified four categories of "animal book
flavors": books featuring animals living with the protagonist, books
where the animals aid the protagonist and move the plot along, books
where animals boast a supporting point of view and books where animals
are the protagonist.

The first two groupings, at least in mystery fiction, owe their
continued popularity (and commensurate critical derision) to the
editors of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, whose decision to publish Lilian Jackson Braun's "The
Sin of Madam Phloi" paved the way for the first of her series of "The
Cat Who . . . " novels in 1966 — as well as countless sequels and the
birth of the animal-centric American cozy. The last two categories are more difficult to pull off in convincing
fashion, so it's hardly shocking that few writers have tried. Those
that do, however, find it worthwhile….

  Read on for the rest.