…but I’ve been reading and rereading a few mystery stories about dogs recently — specifically the kind that don’t bark.
After interviewing Margaret Maron recently, I tracked down her Agatha Award-winning short story “The Dog That Didn’t Bark,” first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in December 2002 and then reprinted in Suitable for Hanging, Crippen & Landru’s second collection of Maron’s short fiction (the collection’s cover image depicts the story, in fact). The story is about a missing woman, a distraught husband, concerned neighbors, and a number of dogs, one of which helps reveal the secret to the mystery despite (of course) that lack of a bark.
Perhaps the first time that a non-barking dog played a major role in crime fiction was in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” published in The Strand in December 1892 (exactly 110 years to the month before Maron’s story) and then collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In this outing, Holmes and Watson travel into the moors to find the missing racehorse Silver Blaze and solve the murder of the horse’s trainer. Here too, a dog provides a pivotal clue.
“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” [asked Inspector Gregory, a local officer.]
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
[This exchange, of course, provided the title to Mark Haddon’s bestselling 2003 novel.]
Another of the stories I’ve been perusing comes from Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series. “The Case of the Growling Dog” centers around the theft of an electric drill and the incomprehensible behavior of a guard dog who had been specifically “trained to bark at strangers and to seize their sleeves and trousers in his teeth” but who did nothing to prevent the theft. Since the crime, the dog had been left whimpering and unable to eat. (Advance warning to anyone interested in looking it up: The solution to the mystery is among the most absurd in all the Encyclopedia Brown stories.)
Why so much attention to these non-barking dogs? Well, a couple of dogs — one that can’t bark and one that doesn’t — play small roles in my own novel-eternally-in-progress, and I’ve suddenly had the sense that it’s all be done, redone and overdone too much before.
To what extent are we, as authors, undone by all the plots already out there? all the ones that came before us? all the ones that are being written even while we toil away in front of our own computers? Forewarned is forearmed, I guess — at least that’s what I’m aiming for here by my reading and rereading.
As a postscript, here’s another, more dire thought: Is it futile to talk about “craft” at all in the midst of the publishing industry meltdown?