While Heroes and Heartbreakers have covered tropes in many forms, there's one that hasn't yet been covered—and also one I find irresistible—which is incorporating animals into the storyline. Put a dog on the cover of a book, or in back blurb, and I can’t part with my money fast enough. The irresistible pull of reading about the bond between humans and their canine friends (and sometimes feline friends) knows no boundaries. I will read any type of fiction if the relationship between animal and human is a part of the story.
I bought my first Kristan Higgins book and my first Jill Shalvis book because the dogs on the cover attracted my attention. The title of Alison Pace’s first book, If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend, was intriguing, but the inclusion of dogs in the story line was one of the deciding factors in me buying the book. I picked up my first David Rosenfelt mystery book because of the blurb about the hero, Andy Carpenter, and his love for his golden retriever, Tara.
From writing screenplays to books it pretty much is a given that having a hero or heroine love animals is shorthand for saying, “here is a worthy human being—a good kind, commendable, admirable person,” even if the animal is a dust-bunny like in Jayne Castle’s Ghost Hunter series, or a fam companion from Robin D. Owen’s Celta series. Nothing says good guy better than a hero that loves an animal. It's like a neon sign flashing caring, loving, nurturing. And the opposite is true too—have an individual dislike animals or mistreat animals and you have your antagonist, like Bill Hilliard from Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie.
Be practical, Quinn.” Bill sounded sympathetic but firm. “Animal Control is a clean, warm place.”
While characterization is the most obvious reason for including a pet into the story, authors are just like you and me, in that they consider animals a part of their family, so it is only natural to put one in the story. Not only am I attracted to stories with animals, but on a sub-conscious there is level a sense of affinity and trust for the author because we have a commonality of being animal lovers.
My favorite type of stories, however, are ones where the dog plays a part in the growth of the character, like in Lucy Dillon’s Walking Back to Happiness:
Minton’s probably saved my sanity,” she said. “There was time about six months back when my mum was virtually faking fire alarms just to make sure I could still leave the house in daylight hours. Now I’m walking about six miles a day . . .” She pulled an amazed face. “ I don’t like to tell her she was right, but yes, dogs do sometimes give you a reason to get up when you don’t want to.”
Some authors, much to my delight, take it up a notch by making the animal in the story an actual character. I know it is anthropomorphism, but I love believing that my dogs have thoughts and feelings, and reading about an animal character taps into those beliefs. These type of stories run from being just plain cute to extremely touching.
Last year, Dog Days by Elsa Watson was one of Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2012, and I found it delightful. The story starts out with the reader being inside the head of Zoe.
I’m following my nose, sniffing every curb and corner, but nothing smells like home. Which is upsetting. Home has so many smells that I should be able to detect something, somewhere, but I don’t find anything familiar on this street. Or the next one. I stop and pant and wonder where I am.
Where it is, it’s not home.
For one blissful moment, I’m distracted by a robin that I chase down the sidewalk. I run feet flying, overjoyed to feel the wind in my face. Happiness fills every part of me, out to the tips of my hair.
The reader can’t help but want to protect and care for innocent Zoe. Not the case for Chet from Dog On It, the first book in the series, written by Spencer Quinn, a pseudonym for Peter Abrahams. Chet is part dog, part world weary noir detective, able to take care of himself and Bernie Little, founder and part owner of the Little Detective Agency.
We went inside.
Bird crap. I smelled it right off the bat, sour and disagreeable, just like birds themselves. If I could glide around in the wide blue sky, would I be disagreeable? No way.
We followed Cynthia through a big room with a tile floor that felt nice and cool, then down a hall to a closed door. On the way I spotted a potato chip, lying there in plain sight near the wall, and scarfed it up on the fly; ruffles-style, my favorite.
A sign with a lightning bolt hung on the door. Bernie read it. “High voltage. Keep out.”
“That’s just Madison’s sense of humor,” Cynthia said. She opened the door, we went in and there was the bird, perched in a cage that dangled from the ceiling. . .
The bird—green with scaly yellow legs and feet and a weird spiky comb on top of its head—made a horrible croaking noise.
“Hear that?” said Cynthia.
“He said, “Madison rocks.” She taught him. He can say other things, too.”
“His name's Cap’n Crunch."
Cap’n Crunch bobbed his head back and forth, an ugly lizard-like motion, and made the horrible croaking noise again. It ended in a high-pitched squeak that hurt my ears. One glance at Bernie and I knew he wasn’t hearing that squeak. Bernie misses some things, true, but you had to admire him: He never let his handicaps get him down.
The reader in me wanted to take care of Maggie too, from Suspect by Robert Crais, even though as a former military dog, she has the ability to take care of herself. But like many posted overseas that have fought in wars, she has suffered loss and harm.
Maggie lived to chase the green ball. It was their favorite toy and her favorite game. Pete would throw it hard and far, and Maggie would power after it, chasing it down with feeling of purpose and bliss: catch it, clamp it tight in her jaws and proudly bring it back, where Pete was always waiting to shower her with love and approval. Chasing the green ball was her absolute favorite game, but now Pete showed her the ball only as a promise of the bliss to come. Maggie knew the routine, and was cool with it. If she found the smells Pete had taught her to find, she would be rewarded with the ball. That was their game. She must find the right smells.
Pete tucked the ball back under his flak, and his voice changed from squeaky to firm. He was alpha, and now he spoke in his alpha voice.
“Show me what you got. Maggie Marine. Find the bad things. Seek, seek, seek.”
Are animals in a story an irresistible hook for you too? If so, what books and or authors are your favorite.
Leigh Davis, Blogger