Not very long ago, I had a terrific e-exchange with fellow crime writer Cat Connor about her Ellie Conway Iverson series. Iverson is a Supervising Agent in Charge (SAC) with the FBI, and she and her teams have seen all sorts of danger, death, and sadness, too. And sometimes the stories get gritty. As a reader, I accept that. Characters do die, and although we might get upset about it, we know that it’s part of the story. But one thing I have a lot of trouble accepting (and this is what Cat and I were talking about) is the death of a pet. Iverson’s trained police dog, Argo, is very much a part of her family. He goes on errands and to work with her, and he’s proven to be very helpful. I’ve gotten very attached to Argo, and I suggested firmly – ahem – that nothing had better happen to him. I don’t think it’s spoiling any of the novels to say that nothing does, but it got me to thinking about how readers feel about pets in books.
Most readers I know don’t have a problem with people dying in crime novels. In fact, that’s an essential part of most crime plots. But when it comes to pets, it’s a different story altogether. Readers do not like it if the dog/cat/horse, etc., dies. Somehow, pets are in a different category. Readers get attached to them in a different way.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Emily Arundell. At first, it looks like a case of liver failure. But soon enough, it’s established that she was poisoned. She had a large fortune to leave, and several financially desperate family members, so there’s no lack of suspects. One of the clues that lead Poirot to the truth comes from the family dog, Bob. He’s a friendly terrier, and Hastings takes quite a liking to him. It’s not spoiling the story to say that nothing happens to Bob, and for most people, that’s a very good thing.
Craig John’s Walt Longmire is the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. He relies on his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, his office manager/dispatcher Ruby, and his good friend Henry Standing Bear, among others. He also depends on his companion, Dog. Longmire hasn’t given Dog a ‘proper’ name, but he has gotten attached to him in his own way. Dog serves as the ‘office pet,’ and the staff likes having him around. Dog’s been in more than one dangerous situation, and I can’t say that he’s never been hurt. But he’s a good companion, and I think fans of this series might be very upset if something happened to him.
Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side is a standalone featuring US Army Sergeant LeAnn Hogan. She’s been recovering from multiple wounds she received during a bombing incident in Afghanistan. Physically, she is making good progress, but mentally and emotionally, she has a long way to go. While she’s at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland, she forms a friendship with her hospital roommate, Marci Cummings. When Marci dies unexpectedly, LeAnn decides to leave Walter Reed, and begins a cross-country trip. She’s not sure exactly what she’s going to do with herself, but she does begin to confront some of her ghosts. The trip ends in Belleville, Washington, which was Marci’s hometown. When she arrives, LeAnn discovers to her shock that Marci’s eight-year-old daughter Mia is missing. Determined to support her friend, Marci decides to try to find the girl, and soon learns that not everyone is interested in her help. That only makes LeAnn more determined, and she keeps digging until she finds out answers. Along the way, she is adopted by a stray dog she calls Goody. At first, she has no interest in the animal, but the dog won’t leave her alone, so LeAnn informally adopts her. A lot has happened to LeAnn, and more happens as she digs for a truth that some people don’t want her to find. But Goody is spared, and that helps keep the story from being too dark.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne-based baker. She’s owned by three cats: Horatio, Heckle, and Jekyll. Horatio is the house cat, and Heckle and Jekyll are Rodent Control Officers; their job is to keep the bakery free of rodents and other vermin. Chapman gets involved in more than one very sad mystery, and sometimes the novels have some grit in them. There’s real danger more than once in the series. But Horatio and the Mouse Police remain safe. Everyone’s different, but my view is, the series would become very much darker if it were otherwise. And readers like the cats.
They like the cat that lives with Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, too. This isn’t a typical house pet, but rather, a feral cat. Cole leaves food and water, and has formed an acquaintance with his feline housemate, but it’s really Cole’s partner, Joe Pike, who has a bond with the cat. They seem to understand each other, and Cole is the only person the cat will approach willingly. Fans of Crais’ series will know that it sometimes gets dark. Some ugly murders happen, and Cole and Pike see their share of terrible things. But the cat stays out of all that, and avoids serious harm. Hurting the cat (or worse) would, at least for me, cross the line between a gritty story and something unnecessarily violent.
It’s interesting how differently readers see the deaths of human characters in crime fiction, and the deaths of animal characters. For some reason, readers just don’t want the author to kill the cat or the dog. How do you feel about this? Do you react differently when an animal is killed? If you’re a writer, what’s your take on this?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norah Jones’ Man of the Hour.
10 thoughts on “And You Don’t Have Any Baggage Tied to Your Four Feet*”
Do you know, Margot, I was thinking about this very thing recently. I was reading a novel in which the victim is poisoned – and then the dog gets poisoned too, but, I think wisely, the author does not allow the dog to die. I was thinking about why I would have minded so much. I hate it when a pet dies, even though I accept that people have to die in a murder mystery. There is another side to this – if a writer wants to make someone seem truly evil, they might have them injure a cat or dog, though I don’t think I could do that myself. No animals – not even fictional ones – are harmed in the writing of my novels!
Great minds, Christine! And it is really interesting that we do mind it so much when a pet dies, even though we accept it when a human dies (or even multiple humans). There really is a difference. And you add a fascinating dimension to this whole thing: if you do want to make a character really terrible, then having them hurt a pet is a way to go about it. I haven’t done that, and like you, I’m not sure I could. No pets are harmed in my writing, either!
“The cat or the dog.” Or the crow. 😉
I once killed a cat, and cried for weeks afterward. But the plot demanded it. Oddly enough, I didn’t have one reader slam me for it. Would I ever do it again? Not in a million years. It’s too traumatic.
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I can only imagine how traumatic that must have been for you to write, Sue. I’m glad your readers didn’t ream you for it. Writing something like that is hard enough in itself. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to take that risk.
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Margot, I read a book once where there was a description of a farmer deliberately drowning his dog as it had become old and had outlived its usefulness. The description of the dog wagging its tail and licking it’s master’s face even as the latter put a stone round its neck was extremely difficult to read.
Oh, that must have been terribly hard, Neeru! I certainly wouldn’t want to read that description, that’s for sure. And yet, we know that sort of thing happens. Still, it’s very, very difficult to read about it.
Margot: I have just finished a thriller where bad guys were killed in 8 different countries. I do not expect the authors will receive any letters from distressed readers. Were it animals being killed in 8 different countries I expect there would be an uproar. I expect part of the reason is that we consider animals innocent. How that squares with serial killer books where the human victims are equally innocent is beyond me. I believe writers are better off to simply accept the illogic and avoid slaying animals.
I think you’re probably right, Bill, that that is the sort of illogic that’s best accepted, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense. It’s true, too, that we think of animals as innocent, therefore deserving protection if I can put it that way. I hadn’t quite thought about it that way, but it makes sense. And about that thriller? I know I wouldn’t want to read a book where animals were killed in 8 different countries…
It’s interesting. I nominated a book for a monthly read in one of my Goodreads groups read and the blurb indicated a dog getting killed which set off the chain of events that followed. There were a few comments saying people wouldn’t want to read it. Strange, how we feel about animals.
It is strange, Col, but your group’s reaction doesn’t surprise me. Most people really do not like to read about animals, especially pets, getting killed.