Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Book Review: To Fetch a Thief, A Chet and Bernie Mystery (dog)

To Fetch a Thief: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, by Spencer Quinn, 307 pages, 2011, Simon and Schuster (Atria), $25. Third book in the series.
The Chet and Bernie series is tri-layered: for kids, the dog talks; for adults and everyone, true cliff-hangers; and teens will be challenged by the double entendres that make them think twice before they ‘get it’ and laugh. Very cleverly written, indeed.

Ah! Finally we have a cover canine who is also the main character - and what a delightful dog he is (of unknown breed, though he is about 100 pounds – if you read the books starting with book one, Dog on It, and don’t look at the covers, you can gradually guess at the breed with more precision as the books go along).

The subtitle says it all – A Chet and Bernie Mystery – not, A Bernie and Chet Mystery (Chet being the dog of unknown breed). Thank goodness the author got the characters in the right order of importance! Bernie and his sidekick, Chet the dog. Or is it Chet and his trusty sidekick, Bernie the private eye? Chet the dog thinks, “Bernie is a very nice name, my second favorite.”

Told mostly from Chet’s point of view with Chet-The-Dog narrating and doing most of the talking but also with human conversations often interrupted by Chet’s meandering thoughts, this third title in the series (after Dog On It and Thereby Hangs a Tail) is genuinely entertaining, slightly educational, and highly reminiscent of serial adventure stories of yesteryear with one twist after another.

Of course, Chet The Dog sees and smells and understands much more than Bernie but he can’t communicate it. Instead, he trusts Bernie to do the right thing and all turns out well in the end. After all, Bernie is the smartest human in the room, according to Chet-The-Dog.

The plot of To Fetch a Thief is thick and weblike. A circus elephant named Peanut and his trainer disappear. Bernie’s son believes his father will find the elephant and informs his fellow first-graders. Bernie’s ex-wife’s fiance is having an affair with a client’s wife.  Although not always believable, with one cliff-hanger after another, To Fetch a Thief is a typical Shakespearean tragicomedy in that ‘all’s well that ends well.’

The reader learns that the entire world of a dog consists of water, food, naps, and petting (not necessarily in that order) along with dog’s best friend, long-distance smells, and doggy details like wearing the brown collar for everyday use while the black collar is essentially for dress-up and court appearances. Court appearances?

Chet is one comical canine as he mixes up human idioms, similes and metaphors, just doesn’t ‘get’ others, and easily becomes distracted even in the middle of a sentence (“The truth is, I’ve never had much interest in basketball, on account of the ball being impossible for me, but the point is. . . gone right now, but maybe it will come back. [p. 99]). Makes you smile to yourself at how human-like he is.

Bernie, on the other hand, is a typical male, sometimes at a loss for words, especially around the woman in his life and when having to face an assembly of grade-schoolers in the auditorium.

Obviously, Chet and Bernie have had scores of adventures, with all the side references to characters now in orange jumpsuits currently upstate breaking big rocks into little rocks under the blazing sun.

Chet and Bernie run the Little Detective Agency, not because Chet is little but because Little is Bernie’s last name. Each calls the other, Big Guy, but the reader fortunately never gets man and dog mixed up.

They carry out a lot of divorce work out of necessity – spying on philandering spouses between solving major mysteries, their specialty being missing persons.

Chet rides shotgun in the Porsche - he sits up straight: quiet, alert, professional (in his own words), always on the lookout for perps (perpetrators, not peeps – people).

Fortunately, positive training has its place in this adventure. As the elephant trainer says, “The most important thing I’ve learned in my life is that you should never be cruel to animals. And to treat an animal badly just to get it to do a trick is not worth it” (page 198).

Reward-based dog trainers will love this third book, even though it is an elephant being trained:
            Bernie is talking to the clown about an ankus, a bull hook, an elephant goad:
“How does Uri control Peanut [elephant]?’
“He talks to her.”
“Saying what?”
“Little things,” Popo said. “Like—foot up higher, there’s a good girl. Or give your good buddy a ride—that’s for when she uses her trunk to help Uri get up on her back. Plus there are hand signals for all the commands, and lots of treats.” (p.64)

All I can say about that exchange is, “Yippy, Skippy!”

As for Chet, the dog of unknown breed, all we learn about his physicality is that he weighs about 100 pounds. We see him from the back with his stand-up ears (riding shotgun on the cover of book one), about the size of a man when both are sitting. The first book, Dog on It, also shows Chet sitting with his white-tipped tail.

Book two gives us the back cover photo information that Chet has a black and white muzzle and book three, To Fetch a Thief, shows a white-tipped paw. I wonder what appearance clues book four, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, out in September 2011, will give us!

Addendum: After having read books four and five, I am still totally enchanted by Chet-The-Dog. One can learn a lot from a best friend like him. I look forward to the next book in the ‘series’ and the one after that and the one after the one after that and . . . keep ‘em coming Spence! We love ya!

Although Chet belittles the hugeness of human ears compared to how poorly they function, and decries our lack of an accomplished sense of smell compared to a canine’s nose feast, Chet was actually a K9 school washout himself – he failed the final, thanks to a cat or a squirrel (depends on who he is telling the story to). He is, however, one brilliant dog: he can count (to two)! But that is all he needs to count to, since he is part of a team that thrives on mutual love and respect. He even makes you appreciate your own dog’s sense of smell and his ‘unbrain.’

And then there is the Hawaiian shirt fiasco. . . . you gotta read the books to find out about that! I can only give so much away, after all. But man and dog are both human: not gods, but full of lovable foibles. They make mistakes, they recover to err again and you smile through it all. Can you see my grin just talking about Chet and Bernie?

The Chet and Bernie Mysteries, a series of sorts that you can read in any order, illuminates the humor, love and respect man’s best friend has for man (bordering on idolization) and how to train the canine kind – primarily with positive reinforcement and treats, especially in book two (“Practice was great – it almost always ended with a treat.”):

1. Dog on It (Jan 09) – introduces Chet in the shotgun seat. Yup, read it, loved it.
2. Thereby Hangs a Tail (Jan 2010) – desert bikers somewhere. Yup, read it, loved it.
3. To Fetch a Thief (Sep 2010)  - circus and training themes. Yup, read it, loved it.
4. The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Jun 2012) yup, I guessed the breed correctly. Yup, read it, loved it.
5. A Fistful of Collars (Sep 2012) – set in thinly veiled Phoenix, Arizona (as are they all), introduces the ‘other nation,’ first book totally told by Chet, about a modern cowboy movie in the making. Yup, read it, loved it.
6. A Cat Was Involved (Jan 2013) audio and e-short story only, not hardcopy
7. The Sound and the Furry (due out 10 Sep 2013). Can’t wait. Hope the publisher sends me this one – I’m running out of funds after the first five!

Also available:  boxed sets and a sampler of the books (2012), The Spencer Quinn Reader’s Companion on e-book

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