...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When Animals Speak

By Waverly Fitzgerald (aka Waverly Curtis)

I was delighted to be invited to be on a panel of animal-themed mysteries at Left Coast Crime. Our moderator, Mary Lee Woods of Sparkle Abbey, sent the panelists a list of proposed questions, including one asking each of the panelists to name our favorite books featuring animal characters. I was surprised when I made my list of favorites and realized that all the books on it were told from the animal’s point of view.

It should have been obvious to me, I suppose, since I write, with my co-author, Curt Colbert, a series of humorous mystery novels about a Chihuahua, who is adopted by Geri Sullivan at the start of our first novel, Dial C for Chihuahua, and starts talking as soon as she gets him home, introducing himself as Pepe.

My absolute favorite is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The narrator, the dog, Enzo, like most dogs, is a keen observer of human behavior and a devoted companion who is wiling to do almost anything to make the lives of his humans better.

I also love Spencer Quinn’s novels about Chet and Bernie. Chet is the narrator, a Bloodhound, owned by private eye named Ernie. Chet quickly forgets important clues, blaming it on his short-term memory problems. Frustrating for the reader who remembers the clue but probably an accurate depiction of a dog’s perception and a great way to deal with the problem that we have encountered in our Barking Detective novels: once Pepe, smells a murder victim he could probably identify the murderer in a crowd, especially if he can talk, like our dog detective can.

While I was doing research on books told from an animal's point of view, I was thrilled to learn that Virginia Woolf had written a book (Flush) from a dog's point of view so I got a copy from my local library. The book is told from the point of view of Flush, the Cocker Spaniel owned by Elizabeth Browning. For many years, he sits at her feet, while she lies on a couch and writes poems. He's witness to the courtship of Robert Browning and when the newlyweds elope and run off to Italy, Flush goes with them. The language, which is lyrical throughout, really reaches a climax here as Flush describes all the sensory joys of living in Italy:

He threaded his way through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell: the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden. He went in and out, up and down, where they beat brass, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice—he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. He slept in this patch of sun—how the sun made the stone reek! He sought that tunnel of shade—how acid shade made the stone smell!

I didn’t know Judi McCoy’s Dog Walker mysteries when we first began writing but Curt may have been unconsciously influenced by them because at first Pepe sounded a lot like Rudy, the dog who talks to Ellie Engleman, the New York City dogwalker who is McCoy’s protagonist. Rudy is a terrier-poodle whose voice reminds me of an old vaudeville comedian: irascible, opinionated and gruff.

Our Pepe’s voice has softened over time as I sway Curt to my opinion that a Chihuahua, while inclined to be self-aggrandizing when comparing himself with other dogs (or people), would not complain as much or be as greedy for food as Rudy. The Chihuahua who lives with me prefers squeaky toys to treats.

McCoy explains the communication between Ellie and Rudy by saying that Ellie hears his voice (which is always rendered in italics) in her head.

Laura Levine utilizes another clever way of handling animal-human communication in her Jaine Austen series. For instance, in Last Writes, Jaine comes home to find her cat, Prozac, glaring at her. The dialogue reads:

“Where the hell have you been?” she said, glaring at me balefully. (Okay, so she didn’t actually say that, but I knew that’s what she was thinking.)”

Those of us who have cats know this is probably exactly what the cat was thinking but the parenthetical negation playfully eliminates the paranormal concept of a talking cat. Levine also uses this technique effectively with other characters (OK, so he didn’t really say that!) so it the cat’s dialogue seems like just part of the delightful first-person narration.

I know many readers don’t like novels that contain what seems like a fantasy element. One of our Amazon reviewers wrote that she “was not prepared for this type of fantasy,” adding “ I could not get passed [sic] a dog who spoke for no apparent magical/mystical/insane reason.”

I have to admit she is not the only one who does not understand how this happens. My co-author and I actually disagree about this aspect of our joint novels. I suspect that Geri is telepathic and can read Pepe’s mind while Curt believes the dog is actually barking and Geri can translate his barks into English. One of our fans, a young woman who posted a video review of Dial C for Chihuahua, mentions the explanation Pepe gives in the book, which is the most appealing explanation of all: he has always talked but Geri is the only one who has ever listened to him.

It might seem like a fantasy to imagine a dog talking but those of us with pet companions know that they are very expressive. We know they have feelings and we know, for the most part, what those feelings are. I was cheered when I read psychologist Stanley Coren’s book, How to Speak Dog. The average dog understands the meaning of about 200 words, which is about the same vocabulary as a two-year-old. They don’t have the vocal apparatus to form words but they can let us know what they want anyway with those big brown eyes, a tip of the head, a quirk of the ears.


Waverly Fitzgerald writes with Curt Colbert under the name of Waverly Curtis. Together they’ve completed three novels about a talking Chihuahua named Pepe and his detective partner, Geri Sullivan: Dial C for Chihuahua, Chihuahua Confidential and The Big Chihuahua. A Christmas story, “A Chihuahua in Every Stocking,” will be released as an e-book in October 2014, and their fourth novel, The Chihuahua Always Sniffs Twice, has a publication date of December 2014. For more information about their books and events, go to their website.

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  1. Interesting blog. I was not familiar with all pets mentioned, but I love Pepe. I have a Beagle named Stella who has a rich life as well (she has been an austronaut, a ICE agent, an MMA fighter, an HVAC specialist, a rez dog, the list goes on and on) and I'm pretty sure she talks just like Pepe. Can't wait for the novella and book 4.

  2. Good post! I'm a huge fan, too, of The Art of Racing in the Rain (and also Stein's Raven Stole the Moon, which does not have a dog narrator) as well as Susan Wilson's One Good Dog, and, of course Quinn's wonderful Chet and Bernie series.

    I LOVE the cover of Dial C for Chihuahua! Dog narrators seem to be a whole new subgenre, something I didn't realize until I'd written my first Doodlebugged mystery (Bed-Bugged), which happens to be narrated by an obedience-impaired labradoodle. But I haven't read any books where the dog actually speaks--will definitely look yours up.

  3. So many good books involving animals, and so little time! I do try to keep up with the market, so I am familiar with most of these titles. The Art of Racing in the Rain is also one of my all-time favorites. I had never heard of Flush by Virginia Woolf, however. I will look for it immediately. Thanks for mentioning it, Waverly!