Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Dog about Town by J. F. Englert

This book was the epitome of an impulse buy for me. I went to the bookstore to buy the new translation of War and Peace, but opted for a Tolstoy short story when I realized that the new War and Peace was not yet in paperback. As I was walking to the front to checkout, the cover of this book caught my eye. It was such a vivid and realistic painting of a dog in a smoking jacket, that it made me smile. These words appeared underneath the title, "Meet Randolph. A dog like any other dog -- but with a nose for murder..." I picked it up at once.

A Dog about Town is narrated by Randolph, a black lab who lives with his owner, Harry, on the Upper West Side. Randolph realizes that he is much more sentient than other animals that he meets. He doesn't know why this is, and while he may have found it intriguing at some point, he has long since stopped worrying about the origins of his advanced mental faculties. He does not talk, walk on his hind legs, or wear clothes (despite what the cover art may suggest). He does, however, read. The Times, The Post, and various magazines left out on the coffee table are all part of his diet. However, he has a particular affinity for Dante Alighieri. He alludes to, and quotes from Dante's Divine Comedy quite often. The title of one chapter is "A Diversion into Dante". While this is inherently funny, it does not lack insight. Afterall, in dog years, Randolph is somewhere in his mid-fifties.

The book opens with Harry returning from a seance at which someone died. Actually, not just someone, but the well-known writer, Lyell Overton Minskoff-Hardy. The circumstances of Overton's demise hint ever so slightly at foul play. As Harry is absentmindedly relaying details from the evening, Randolph starts to see some connections between Overton's death and the disappearance of Imogen, his first master, and girlfriend of Harry. Using his keen sense of smell, which he describes as being 100,000 times more acute than that of a man, Randolph sets about trying to solve not only the mystery of Overton's death, but of the disappearance of Imogen. Since he is "just a dog," solving this mystery entails leading Harry toward clues and steering his thinking in the right direction. This is where Englert gets especially creative.

For a murder mystery about a dog, the writing was surprisingly good. Englert has meaningful insights about life. Here is a passage where one of Harry's friends is talking about unrequited love:
I was in love. I'm still in love. Where Iris is concerned I can't see too clearly. A note of hers about a radiator leak could end with affectionately yours and I would spin for weeks, imagining a romantic breakthrough. If she forgot to punctuate, I would see something in that. It was hope that got me here. Hope that she would cross the street one day and say that she was mine. Hope that she was keeping an eye on me for all those years. But as time went on, I began to accept that she was indifferent.

Much of the book is predicated on the notion that Randolph's nose is better than Vincent Donofrio's Law & Order character. For example, "My olfactories were overwhelmed by the sharp odor of anxiety, confusion and the subtle, creeping scent of imagined guilt." I have no idea if dogs can smell "imagined guilt". To be honest, I don't really care. It worked for the purposes of the book. Another reason that A Dog about Town worked for me is that despite his detecting skills, Randolph never lost his innate canine qualities -- sleeping twelve hours a day, peeing on the sidewalk, rolling around in filth, etc.

I started reading this book on a plane to New York, and as coincidence would have it, the hotel that I stayed at was right in the midst of the area in which this book was set. I would come home from eating somewhere on Amsterdam Avenue and read about Randolph and Harry walking right past the place I just was. So that was kind of weird.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Funny coincidence: I bought my dog a smoking jacket and taught him how to smoke a pipe.