|Brute Strength by Susan Conant|
In the first three pages of Susan Conant's new mystery, Brute Strength, we are introduced to five dogs (three of them Malamutes) and one cat. If that seems to be lot, get used to it -- it's going to be that kind of book. Not long after, at a dinner party, there are no less than ten (human) characters present, most of whom we've never met, or only briefly, before. And as we learn about them Conant is also setting up the book's various plots and subplots, foreshadowing trouble to come, and slipping us clues. It's a lot to take in and it's a tribute to Conant's skill that she handles it so smoothly. It works, like everything else in this book, because the narrator, Holly Winter, is likable and funny and interesting. We sense right away that it's not the plot that we're here for, it's Holly.
For instance, after witnessing an argument between her upstairs neighbor, Rita, and Rita's boyfriend -- both psychologists -- Holly reflects on the difference between their view of the world and hers:
Rita, for whom psychotherapy is a religious vocation ... believes in the power of her chosen form of prayer. For once, I refrained from saying anything about dog worship, the Sacred Animal, God's woofing, furry proof of celestial design and thus of boundless, bounding, leaping, panting love in this otherwise bleak universe ....
And just like that, if you're anything like me, we know we are in the hands of a kindred spirit. For Holly Winter, nothing comes before her dogs. Which is as it should be.
A little later, Holly meets a new neighbor who is wearing the well known "Dog is my co-pilot" sweatshirt.
I owned the t-shirt version, which I'd ordered from Bark, a publication accurately self-described as "the modern dog culture magazine". Because I was afraid that the co-pilot slogan would give offense, I was selective about where I wore the t-shirt. The precaution was ridiculous in that anyone offended by the sentiment would be even more offended by me, unless, of course, I took the time to explain the genuineness of my reverence for all creatures great, hairy and woofy , but the time required would have been days or possibly even weeks, and besides, the average person who hates your t-shirt isn't going to be interested in listening anyway. There's a lot of religious intolerance in the world, isn't there?
I've been a casual fan of Susan Conant's Dog Lover Mysteries for many years. I haven't read them all, and I haven't read them in strictly chronological order, but I've enjoyed every one that I've read. And I also don't remember much about the murder mystery plot in any of them. There are certain mysteries that we read for plot -- for the cleverness of the killing and the brilliance of the deduction -- and there are some that we read for action and suspense. Then there are mysteries that we read because the mystery is really an excuse to hang out with someone we like. These are my favorite kind. I also don't remember much about the plots of Robert B. Parker, Virginia Lanier, or even John D. MacDonald. What I remember are the characters and their world.
When it comes to the mystery, Brute Strength may be the most casual who-done-it I've ever read. Holly is so concerned with her daily life, her dogs, her family and various sub-plots that she doesn't even realize there's a mystery going on until very late in the book. I found it amusing that we, as readers, understand that victims are piling up long before the characters do.
But none of that matters. What is delightful here is Holly's steady stream of observations about life, literature, her friends and neighbors, Cambridge, and of course dogs, dogs, dogs. Holly is a columnist for Dog's World magazine, and the book often has more the feel of a first rate columnist than of a mystery. I may be a little prejudice since we have so much in common -- she's a dog writer who trains malamutes for obedience competition (a task sure to bring snickers from anyone familiar with the breed) and she's currently researching an article on recent studies in canine cognition.
I wonder if she reads my blog?
Susan Conant has been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and she's good at it. Brute Strength has the comfortable feel of a well loved, often played with dog toy. The low key suspense is generated by what we know that the main characters do not -- there's a killer nearby who's already struck twice and who has increasing reason to be worried about Holly. The final confrontation packs an unexpected emotional punch and Holly is able (as a writer should) to tie several of the story's themes together.
But I'll leave the final verdict to Holly's beloved Malamutes, who (if they could read) would be sure to throw back their heads and give an enthusiastic "Woo-woo-woo! This one is fun."
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