It’s Not Just That I’m Sick Of Cats…

…but I’ve been reading and rereading a few mystery stories about dogs recently — specifically the kind that don’t bark.

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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.

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An illustration by Sidney Paget for "Silver Blaze," The Strand, 1892

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.]

3911fAnother 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?

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0 thoughts on “It’s Not Just That I’m Sick Of Cats…

  1. kyle

    I definitely have to chime in on this. First off, I did wonder how in hell you knew so much about these dog stories. Even after you explained how it’s part of your novel-eternally-in-progress I’m still impressed at how much you know about dog stories.

    That said, I don’t think the meltdown of the industry should kill your mood to finish your novel. Perhaps, in a way, it’s a good thing. Really, why ARE hardback novels so expensive? (Does it really cost that much to produce? I doubt it.) What’s happening in the big presses might not be so surprising, really; what they’re after is the bottom line, and the bottom line is best served by blockbuster hits like the Da Vinci Code. A modest selling title is ho-hum. Say they take a first-time author and give her a big advance and still her book tanks. What happens? They may just dump her for lack of sales. How does it benefit the industry, and reading and writing, to view an author as BIG SALES as opposed to a work in progress, as authors previously were viewed? The first book was never expected to sell THAT many copies, was it?

    So why not return to a fair-priced model that limits the number of the print run on first-time novelist, and heck, don’t spend so much money on them. (And young authors should know that the bigger advance they get the less chance they’ll see any more money on the book. If a book doesn’t sell, you’ve made all the money you’ll ever make. It’s only AFTER you’ve passed the sales on the advance that you begin to make bread.

    Anyway, I feel oddly less dire about the publishing meltdown. Perhaps it’s the Heineken I just drank, but I feel that there’s still a way out there. The way might just be to support your local small press. They’re the truly innovative ones.