Say Hello to Brady. He’s a pure-bred Bernese Mountain Dog, and he turns one year old this week. When we got him, he was eight weeks old and about the size of a loaf of pumpernickel. Now he’s a hundred and ten pounds and still growing.
From the moment I laid eyes on him, he had my heart. And now he’s sneaked into the crime novel I’m writing.
It happened when my protagonist, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, was trying to figure out how to introduce himself to Peggy, a perky young secretary who works for a guy Mulligan thinks is up to no good. As a former investigative reporter myself, I knew that when you can’t get the goods on someone the easy way–from the cops or from documents–the best sources of information are ex-wives and disgruntled employees. Mulligan didn’t know if Peggy was disgruntled, but he was determined to find out.
So he was hanging around outside her apartment building in Providence, R.I. one afternoon, trying to decide what to say when he knocked on her door. Suddenly the door swung open and out stepped Peggy with a dog on a leash. At first, it was a small dog, so Mulligan bent down to pet it. Then I looked at Brady, who was sitting on my feet as I wrote, and had a better idea. I deleted the paragraph and started again.
This time the apartment door flew open and an enormous Bernese Mountain Dog burst out, dragging the perky young blonde down the steps. The dog was just a pup, maybe nine months old, but he was already closing in on a hundred pounds. He took one look at Mulligan and bolted straight for him. Peggy shouted “Brady, no!” but Brady wasn’t listening. He kept coming, ears and big pink tongue flopping. She outweighed him, but not by much, and he was a lot stronger. He dragged her right to Mulligan. Good doggie. Mulligan squatted on his heels to meet him. The dog draped his front paws over the reporter’s shoulders and worked that tongue in his ear. “Brady!” Peggy said again, and tugged on the leash with no discernible effect. “He can’t help himself,” Mulligan said. “Dogs and women love me.” The perfect introduction.
Since the real Brady came to live with me, he’s helped me with a lot of things. He’s great company when my wife is on the road. He’s brought joy to our 15-year-old girl. He sniffed out a box turtle that became a welcome guest in our house for a week before we released him into the wild. Brady gets me up from the computer to take him on walks, exercise we both badly need. I’d tell you that he is a great chick magnet if I weren’t worried that my wife might read this. And now he’s helping me write the sequel to “Rogue Island” (Forge, Oct. 12).
I’ve lived with dogs most of my life. On my fourth birthday, my father surprised me with a little black mutt that I ingeniously named Blackie. He was a terror. Snarled at visitors. Killed and ate our neighbor’s chickens. Chased cars, getting sideswiped by tires. And died in his sleep at the age of 17.
Later, I raised Border Collies. Our Sadie, progeny of Scottish champions, had great litters. Some of her pups went on to become obedience champions, and one ended up making commercials in Hollywood. I kept two of Sadie’s pups, Poco and Panda. Mama and the pups were all smart (everything you have heard about the breed is true), but Poco was a genius among dogs. When I trimmed the hedge, she’d try to help by jumping up and tearing at the branches. When I picked strawberries in our garden, she’d pluck them with her mouth and drop them in my basket. When I husked corn, she’d grab an ear, brace it with her front paws, and tear the husks away with her teeth. Anything to lend a hand.
Back then, I was working out of my house in Massachusetts, covering eastern and northern New England for a newspaper in another state. I was one of those writers who needed to read his stories out loud to someone so I could hear how the words sounded when they came out of my mouth. But often I was alone at home with the dogs.
So I’d call Poco and say, “sit.” Poco would sit. I’d say, “stay,” and Poco would stay. Then I’d read my story to her, and Poco would listen to my voice, cocking her head as if she were fascinated by every line. For a while there, I was worried I might have to save for her college tuition.
Twelve years ago, I moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets and stayed there for ten years. Boy did I miss having a dog. So last summer, after we bought a house in a nice suburban town in New Jersey, the very next thing we got for ourselves was Brady.
You can learn a lot about people by how they treat dogs. The same goes for fictional characters.
So when I started writing my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” dogs inevitably worked their way into the story. In that book, Mulligan pines for Rewrite, the Portuguese Water Dog his harpy of an ex-wife doesn’t care for but keeps out of spite. And a mutt named Sassy, looking like a cross between a German Shepard and a Humvee, figures significantly into one of the sub-plots. Rewrite reappears in the last lines of the book–lines that Ken Bruen, Irish master of noir, calls “as callous as I ever read, and perfectly fitting.”
In the sequel I’m writing now, tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” an aging bookie named Zerilli adopts a big mutt from the pound.
“Got a name for him yet?” Mulligan asks.
“Calling him Shortstop.”
“‘Cause Centerfielder’s a stupid fuckin’ name.”
Zerilli got the dog to guard his place at night, but it’s not working. The dog loves everybody. Mulligan almost asks if Zerilli is going to keep the dog, but from the way the bookmaker’s fingers are working behind the dog’s ears, he already has his answer.
And the reader has learned something important about Zerilli.
I could tell you more about all this, but Brady is tugging at my pants leg. It’s time to go for a walk.