Are You There, Dog? It’s Me, Margaret.

by Alafair Burke

It’s eighty degrees and I’m writing this from the newly remodeled Washington Square Park, where the fountain – now symmetrically aligned, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg — enthusiastically welcomes in summer by spraying bare-chested SPF’d children and apparently un-SPF’d ripple-abbed men (not that I noticed).

Perhaps because I’m typing this as a crazy-ass homeless dude in a multi-colored wig and butterfly-patterned skirt harangues me about the carry-out lunch that awaits my attention on the bench next to me,* I’ve decided that dog watching is a safer park habit than people watching.** But it’s nearly as interesting.

No day in Washington Square would be complete without the dogs. The big ones. Little ones. Happy ones. Neurotic ones.

And my afternoon of dog watching got me thinking about my relationships with pets. As some of you know, I have a special relationship with my French Bulldog, The Duffer. My tremendous respect for him is reflected even in his name. I wanted to call him Stacy Keach. My reasons should be self-evident.

Stacy Keach and the Duffer (which is which?)



My  husband, however, was perplexed by the choice. “People will think a dog called Stacy is a girl.”

Um… so?  And, more importantly, we would not call him Stacy.  We would call him Stacy Keach. Every single time. Because that would be his name.  My husband put his foot down, but that didn’t mean I was going to cave for some stupid dog name. No Fidos or Fluffies here. But Duffer? Yeah, that might work. But only he had to be THE Duffer. All regal and stuff.

The Duffer’s my first dog, and I have to admit I’m still surprised by the love, affection, and empathy I have for my little friend — and which, yes, I believe he has for me. I truly believe he has moods and feelings and expressions that leap from that one-of-a-kind mug of his. I talk to him constantly and imagine what he would say back to me if only he could.

Does this make me insane? Maybe. Or more optimistically, maybe my internal (and sometimes external) running dialogue with the Duff is just a sign of my overactive imagination. Or it could be a recognition that animals, although lacking our ability for language, opposable thumbs, and fire making, have attributes that we chalk up to feelings and emotions in humans, but to our own imaginations in our pets.

I mean, is it not obvious that the dog in this photograph

was in a different mood, and yet the very same silly beast at his core, as in this video? (Warning: NSFW)

Dogs are not alone in their unique personalities. My agent and his wife recently welcomed two new kittens into their home. One is named Ellie Hatcher, and her brother is called Mickey Haller. In light of her namesake (my series protagonist NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher), I was rooting for Ellie to be one playful yet take-charge, bad-ass mo-fo of a cat. But guess what? It’s her twin brother Mickey (named for Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller) who’s the rapscallion. If he were a human being, he’d wear overalls, carrying a peanut butter sandwich in one pocket, a slingshot in the other. Mickey’s the feline equivalent of Dennis the Menace.

Ellie? She’s earnest. Tentative. Watchful. The kind of girl who’d tell on herself if she ever broke the rules. Sigh.

I’m not the only writer with pets on her mind these days. The wonderful Laura Lippman recently blogged about once helping out Reba, “a hang-dog dog, shy and mopy.”  (She’s following it up with a contest. Just post a memory about your favorite pet or pet name, and be entered for an advanced copy of her eagerly anticipated novel, I’d Know You Anywhere.)

Perhaps because we recognize that our pets have personalities, it’s no surprise that writers have looked to pets for fictional characters.  It’s fashionable these days to diss cozy mysteries where cats solve crimes, but some pretty damn good books occasionally make room for the non-human animals.  (Have you read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain?  The entire novel is narrated by a dog, and it’s actually good.  I kid you not.)

Sometimes the addition of a pet tells the reader something about its person.  Leave it to Stephanie Plum to find a best friend in Rex the hamster.  Readers also become attached to literary pets in their own right.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked whether James Lee Burke‘s daughter actually owned a three-legged racoon named Tripod.  (The answer, for the record, is no.)

I like to think I’ve created a true character in Vinnie, French bulldog pal to Samantha Kincaid.  I conjured Vinnie well before I was a dog owner myself. He’s a little lazy, likes his people, and makes loud, fast snorting noises like an old fat man when he eats. He’d sound like Buddy Hackett if he could talk.  And he finds endearing but frustrating ways of expressing his displeasure when Portland cop Chuck Forbes moves in.  (I’m not alone in my frenchie obsession.  The Kellerman family has a beautiful dog named Hugo, and Jonathon Kellerman‘s Alex Deleware has a frenchie as well.)

So, here’s my question for the day: Who are your favorite literary non-human animals?  What do they add to their books, either vis-a-vis the human characters or in their own right?  Which pets do you wish could talk, and what would they sound like and say?

*A further aside about the aforementioned homeless guy.  He wanted to know what I was going to use to eat my lunch.  “A fork,” I said.  His response?  “Well go fork yourself!”  Jesus, I love this city.

** In addition to dog-watching, I also got in some simultaneous people-walking. Random things that have happened at the park while I’ve been typing: A three-year-old banged his drumsticks on the bench next to me; two hand-to-hand drug deals (that I noticed, at least, though I haven’t been going out of my way to look for them); an orange-haired Asian kid nearly knocked a mohawk dude over with his hoola-hoop; and the little girl on the Razor scooter proudly declared, “I’m super really stinky.”  I swear, I’m not making this stuff up.  Today’s officially a great day.

Watching: Modern Family

Listening To: Sade

Reading: Lee Child’s 61 Hours

Surfing: LOST re-enacted by cats (you’re welcome)

If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my mailing list.

32 thoughts on “Are You There, Dog? It’s Me, Margaret.

  1. Vicky

    One of my favorite dogs was a foul smelling farting dog in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire. I don’t remember what his name was but I do remember laughing out loud at his antics. And then in the same novel there was the bear, that wasn’t really a bear.

  2. Sean Chercover

    Sorrow! That was the family dog in The Hotel New Hampshire. Great call.

    I absolutely LOVE the name Stacy Keach for The Duffer (although, The Duffer ain’t a bad 2nd choice).

  3. Shizuka

    I wanted Baby, the toothless Rottweiler from Robert Eversz’s Nina Zero books, to be real.
    Although Nina would kill me before she let me have Baby.

  4. Louise Ure

    I wish James Crumley’s Fireball Roberts could talk. ("When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.")

    You know that my Golden, Cisco, died three weeks ago. I hadn’t realized until he was gone how much I talked to him during the day. My voice is rusty now.

  5. Karen Olson

    Just finished the first four of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, and he has got a talking Scottie in it. His name is Total, and he is one of the coolest literary dogs I’ve ever met. And by the fourth book, Total is starting to grow wings, like the winged kids in the story, and he falls for a beautiful Malamut who can’t talk.

    The Duffer is one of the coolest real dogs I’ve ever met.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Ah, Louise — I haven’t re-read Crumley in too long of a while–thanks for that reminder. I will fix that today. And I’m the same way with my rescue mutt, DeeOhGee. (I did not name her.) I’ve had her for 17 years, here at my feet, always there for a conversation. She’s heard more about my characters than anyone in the world, and has been an excellent listener. I’m not sure how much longer she’ll last–she’s getting pretty frail, now. Hard to think about, so my heart to you for your conversations with Cisco. People ask me if I’d get another puppy after this, but I don’t think my heart could stand it.

  7. Fran

    Ah, a tough post to read after learning that an author buddy’s best friend of 12 years has been diagnosed with a tumor and things aren’t looking good. This following a dream where my own beloved Dante was still alive and trying to get my attention, makes for a day when I’m completely sympathetic to you, Louise.

    There’s a fun little book by Cornelius Kane called "The Unscratchables" that’s told by a bull terrier detective forced to work with a Siamese agent. It’s a hoot!

    On the pet name front, our family is seriously lacking, although I loved the name my son gave his first dog. Ty was 9 and he named the dog "Goose". When I asked him why, he said, "Because it’s her name!". How could I argue?

  8. Ev

    Enzo in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing the Rain is fabulous; Barnabus from Jan Karon’s Mitford series is hilarious and very real; Wilbur the pig–aw, it’s been awhile since I thought of him! It’s hard to narrow down my picks. I love novels where the MC has a much-loved pet who’s a character almost (or entirely!) on its own.

  9. Alafair

    Sorrow and Wilbur. Yes! I have to admit, Louise, that it was your loss of Cisco that had me thinking of my attachment to the Duff. His five year old face is already flecking white. I think I’m starting to understand those freaky rich people who want to clone their pets!

  10. Anonymous

    I like Chet, the narrater dog in Spencer Quinn’s DOG ON IT (A Chet and Bernie Mystery) A great character like Enzo in RACING.

  11. Judy Wirzberger

    All the animals of Alfred Terhune. I read every one of his books; Lassie and Lad became my friends and hooked me on reading.

    I have to agree with you, Rae. Any cat that likes Joe Pike is a friend of mine. Crais uses the feline friend to point out the best in his guys.

    Thanks for sharing The Duffer’s private emotional moments.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    These are a few of the pet names we’ve had in our household:

    Two skinks named Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
    One iguana named Rasputin.
    A big, regal rabbit named Winchester.
    A large, wild and sometimes angry mixed breed dog named Kerouac.
    A fish named fly.

  13. kathy bremner

    The Black – Walter Farley
    Bob (ack!) – Janet Evanovich
    Galahad – JD Robb

    I live with Skye -lab cross, Wolfe the cat who thinks he’s a dog and Bear who knows he’s not only a cat but a damned good one!

  14. Allison Davis

    Tom Shreck’s the Duffy series with his basset hounds is really laugh out loud hilarious… At one point in my life, had five cats, three dogs and two horses….lots of hair in the house.

    I now have four noisy cats who live in the garage or outside and last night discovered that the possum who’s been eating their food is actually their friend. When I tried to chase away the big, ugly rat looking thing, he hid beyind one of my cats and they all yelled at me.

    Now I want a dog but I work too much — the last of the three dogs I had, Maggie, now lives next door with my brother and his fiance Miwa, both of whom are amazing cooks, Miwa comes from a restaurant family. Maggie is 13 years old, has her own facebook page and loves us all, but my brother the most. She’s so spoiled other dogs walk up to her in the doggie park, sniff her butt and think "wow, sushi."

  15. Lil Gluckstern

    I must admit I’m a sucker for dogs and cats in mysteries, and those owned by authors…
    I have a cat, Molly, who thinks she’s a dog. I take her for walks and she follows me when I do chores, and is pretty much onto all of my antics. Also very territorial-when I have a visitor, she likes to be scratched, and makes it pretty clear she doesn’t like to share. I love the verbal snapshot of NYC as well as the other pix. Welcome home, for a while.

  16. Jen Forbus

    Ah yes, I see a lot of my favorite pets mentioned here: Elvis Cole’s "Cat", Duffy Dombroski’s "Al", Bernie’s "Chet." All great characters I look forward to. I’d add Walt Longmire’s "Dog." And Louise Penny had the ducks in a couple of her Three Pines books. Can’t remember their names, though. I didn’t think Ruth could be any funnier until those ducks came on the scene. But they also made her a little softer around the edges as well.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Got to admit I’m not a big fan of animal characters, even though I’m obsessively an animal person in real life. Yours are adorable, Alafair!!

    But I loved Church the evil cat in Pet Sematery.

  18. Charlotte Creeley

    Stephanie Plum’s hamster Rex is my personal favorite fictional pet. I mean, the woman is either on the verge of getting pulverized, or making love to Joe, or fantasizing about Ranger, or dealing with her crazy friends and relations, but she never, EVER neglects her hamster. NEVER. And he never pays any attention to her whatsoever. I am so impressed.

    The fictional pets I like the least are Warshawski’s stupid golden retrievers/labrador retrievers whatever the heck they are. I hate those mutts. Characterless, panting fools. And she is ALWAYS taking them off leash. If it weren’t fiction, they’d be squashed by now. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE V.I.

    I love Vinny of course. But that goes without saying.

  19. Alafair Burke

    Thanks for mentioning Vinnie, Charlotte. So funny that he pre-existed the Duffer. Of course, Chuck Forbes pre-existed my husband and they are eerily similar, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

  20. Rae

    Had completely forgotten about Galahad. He cracks me right up.

    And Pari, finally figured out "Wilbur" (it’s Monday, fercryinoutloud). *Snort*.

  21. KDJames / BCB

    I had to stop and wipe away a tear or two after reading that post title — a good friend named Margaret lost her battle with cancer a couple years ago and that quote just brings it all back — so I’m glad this was a fun and funny post. 🙂

    I am SO bad with names and the only animal name I remember is Asta, the dog in the Nick and Nora Charles movies. Yeah, I know, not a book (although based on one). And the only reason I remember that is it’s sometimes a crossword clue.

    I once (briefly) considered putting Quincy The Wonder Dog into a book, but no one would ever believe the truth about him. He’s sort of the black sheep (lab) cousin of Marley. Only worse. He’s earned his nickname by making us wonder on an almost daily basis why he’s still alive. Love him dearly. But you’ve got to wonder about a dog who eats rocks. And poisonous plants. And paper products. And– well, really, there isn’t anything he won’t eat. I have an impressive array of carpet cleaning products.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *