Heart of Barkness by Spencer Quinn: Chet & Bernie are Back in Action as they Work to Clear a Country Music Legend

Heart of BarknessHeart of Barkness

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie, #8
Hardcover, 299 pg.
Forge Books, 2019

Read: July 9 – 10, 2019

It’s been 4 years—4 long years (28 dog years!) since the publication of Scents and Sensibility, so it’s understandable (but personally troubling) that I’d forgotten it ended on something of a cliffhanger. It came back to me rather quickly as Quinn resolved it in the opening pages, but I’d still encourage those whose memory might be equally sketchy to re-read at least the last chapter of Scents before starting this.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series, Chet’s a very large mixed-breed dog, who flunked out of Police Dog Training at the very end of the course. Since then, he was adopted by Bernie Little, a Private Investigator. The two make a fantastic team, and Chet narrates the novels recounting some of their adventures. Chet’s a fantastic character and a very good dog. He’s got a short attention span and will frequently lose track of what he was talking about, he is utterly devoted to Bernie and is convinced that everything his partner does is the greatest. Bernie seems to be a pretty good PI, thankfully (but you have to read between the hagiographic lines from Chet).

The core of this novel revolves around an elderly legendary country singer, Lotty Pilgrim (I see her as latter-day Loretta Lynn-type). She’s fallen on hard times (a tried and true mix of being too trusting and bad business management) and is playing in a dive bar in Phoenix when she meets Bernie and Chet. Bernie foils an attempt to steal her tip jar, and then when he attempts to follow up on that attempt, he learns somethings that disturb him. Soon after this, Lotty’s current business manager is killed and Lotty is the chief/only suspect — and is even on the verge of confessing to it.

Bernie doesn’t believe it for a second—neither does Chet, I should add—and can’t stomach the idea of her confessing like that. So he launches an investigation of his own—despite very insistent suggestions from local Law Enforcement to mind his own business. Bernie’s investigation involves a lot of digging into the past as well as the expected digging into the present. The more he digs, the more questions it seems to raise Chet would interject here to say that’s Bernie’s plan.

Throughout the series, Chet will compare what they’re doing with to something they did in a past case—usually not one that’s recorded in a novel. We learn a lot about Bernie through these quick flashbacks. Chet seems to reveal a lot more this time then he has in the past, and I’m glad we don’t get the full story about at least one of those cases—it sounds pretty grim.

The one thing I want to mention that separates this from the rest of the series is pretty tricky without giving anything away. But there’s something that happens in every book—a well that Quinn returns to too often for my taste. And it’s absent in this book. I loved that. Variety is good for the fans.

I don’t want to take the time to talk about all the new characters—but as the plot centers around Lotty Pilgrim, I want to talk about her for a moment. She’s not technically Bernie’s client, but his efforts are focused on keeping her out of trouble—especially if she doesn’t deserve it. She’s an intriguing character—an object of admiration and pity at the same time; she’s still actively writing and performing, while relegated to a trivia quiz answer in the culture; she’s fiercely independent and feisty, but she’s also clearly the victim of her past, several people in the music industry, and (as I said before) a trusting nature. She’s ridden with guilt, and a lot of her problems may be self-inflicted in a twisted form of penance. All said, I liked her as a person. I wouldn’t think that there’s more for Quinn to do or explore with her, I’d be happy to be proven wrong

Of course, the book’s not all business for the Little Detective Agency. Bernie’s been divorced for a while and sees his son (Chet’s second-favorite human) regularly, and started seeing Suzie in the first novel. There are big developments on the Suzie front here—but that seems kind of par for the course over the last two or three novels, and while I’m not crazy about them, I don’t know that I’m opposed to it. I think the next book (thankfully, I’ve seen Quinn state it’s finished) will tell me a lot about that

Is this a decent jumping-on point? Yeah, it’d work—almost the entire series works as one (I’m not sure Paw and Order or The Sound and the Furry would be). But obviously, you’d pick up on nuances, background, and so on if you start at the beginning. It was so good to spend time with these two again, and the book itself is one of the best in the series—both in terms of plot and character moments for the protagonists. It’s funny, heartfelt, clever, suspenseful, and satisfying. And it features a dog. Really can’t ask for more.

At one point, Lotty writes a song about Chet, cleverly entitled “Song for Chet.” It was recorded and a video made with clips provided by Quinn’s fans. I just can’t leave this post without sharing it:


4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

✔ A book with your favorite animal on the cover or in the title

My Favorite 2018 (Fictional) Dogs

In one of the lightest moments of Robert B. Parker’s Valediction (just before one of the darker), Spenser describes his reservation about the first two Star Wars movies: “No horses . . . I don’t like a movie without horses.” After watching Return of the Jedi, he comments that it was a silly movie, but “Horses would have saved it.” Which makes me wonder what he’d have thought about The Last Jedi. Horses aren’t my thing, it’s dogs. I’m not quite as bad as Spenser is about them — I like books without dogs. But occasionally a good dog would save a book for me — or make a good book even better. I got to thinking about this a few weeks back when I realized just how many books I’d read last year that featured great dogs — and then I counted those books and couldn’t believe it. I tried to stick to 10 (because that’s de rigueur), but I failed. I also tried to leave it with books that I read for the first time in 2018 — but I couldn’t cut two of my re-reads.

So, here are my favorite dogs from 2018 — they added something to their novels that made me like them more, usually they played big roles in the books (but not always).

(in alphabetical order by author)

  • Edgar from The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven (my post about the book) — Edgar has a pretty small role in the book, really. But there’s something about him that made me like Washington Poe a little more — and he made Tilly Bradshaw pretty happy, and that makes Edgar a winner in my book.
  • Kenji from Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby (my post about the book) — The moment that Grigsby introduced Kenji to the novel, it locked in my appreciation for it. I’m not sure I can explain it, but the added detail of robot dogs — at once a trivial notion, and yet it says so much about the culture Cole Brannigan lives in. Also, he was a pretty fun dog.
  • Rutherford from The TV Detective by Simon Hall (my post about the book) — Dan Groves’ German Shepherd is a great character. He provides Dan with companionship, a sounding board, a reason to leave the house — a way to bond with the ladies. Dan just felt more like a real person with Rutherford in his life. Yeah, he’s never integral to the plot (at least in the first two books of the series), but the books wouldn’t work quite as well without him.
  • Oberon from Scourged by Kevin Hearne (my post about the book) — Everyone’s favorite Irish Wolfhound doesn’t get to do much in this book, because Atticus is so focused on keeping him safe (as he should be). But when he’s “on screen,” he makes it count. He brings almost all of the laughs and has one of the best ideas in the novel.
  • Mouse from Brief Cases by Jim Butcher (my post about the book) — From the moment we read, “My name is Mouse and I am a Good Dog. Everyone says so,” a good novella becomes a great one. As the series has progressed, Mouse consistently (and increasingly) steals scenes from his friend, Harry Dresden, and anyone else who might be around. But here where we get a story (in part) from his perspective, Mouse takes the scene stealing to a whole new level. He’s brave, he’s wise, he’s scary, he’s loyal — he’s a very good dog.
  • Ruffin from Wrecked by Joe Ide (my post about the book) — Without Isaiah Quintabe’s dog opening up conversation between IQ and Grace, most of this book wouldn’t have happened — so it’s good for Grace’s sake that Ruffin was around. And that case is made even more from the way that Ruffin is a support for Grace. He also is a fantastic guard dog and saves lives. His presence is a great addition to this book.
  • Dog from An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (my post about the book) — I might have been able to talk myself into ignoring re-reads if I hadn’t listened to this audiobook (or any of the series, come to think of it) last year — or if Dog had been around in last year’s novel. Dog’s a looming presence, sometimes comic relief (or at least a mood-lightener), sometimes a force of nature. Dog probably gets to do more for Walt in this book — he helps Walt capture some, he attacks others, just being around acts as a deterrent for many who’d want to make things rough on Walt. Walt couldn’t ask for a better partner.
  • Trogdor from The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin (my post about the book) — Honestly, Trogdor probably has the least impact on the book than any of the dogs on this list. But, come on, a Corgi names Trodgor? The idea is cute enough to justify inclusion here. He’s a good pet, a fitting companion for MG — not unlike Dan’s Rutherford. He just adds a little something to the mix that helps ground and flesh-out his human companion.
  • Mingus from The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (my post about the book) — Like Trogdor, a great name. Like Mouse and Dog, a great weapon. He’s really a combination of the two of them (just lacking Mouse’s magical nature). He’s vital in many different ways to the plot and the safety of those we readers care about. Petrie made a good move when he added this beast of a dog to the novel.
  • Chet from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn (my posts about Chet) — If I couldn’t cut Dog, I couldn’t cut Chet. Listening to this audiobook (my 4th or 5th time through the novel, I believe) reminded me how much I love and miss Chet — and how eager I am for his return this year. This Police Academy reject is almost as good a detective as his partner, Bernie, is. Chet will make you laugh, he’ll warm your heart, he’ll make you want a dog of your own (actually, all of these dogs will)
  • Zoey from Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt (my post about the book) — how do I not invoke Tara when discussing an Andy Carpenter book? Good question. It’s Zoey that brings Andy into the story, it’s Zoey that helps Don to cope with his own issues, it’s Zoey that defends Don and saves him (in many ways). Sure, Tara’s the best dog in New Jersey, but Zoey comes close to challenging her status in this book.
  • Lopside from Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout (my post about the book) — It almost feels like cheating to bring in a dog from a novel about dogs — conversely, it’s hard to limit it to just one dog from this book. But Lopside the Barkonaut would demand a place here if he was the only dog among a bunch of humans — or if he was surrounded by more dogs. He’s brave, he’s self-sacrificing, he’s a hero. He’ll charm you and get you to rooting for these abandoned canines in record time.

Santa 365 by Spencer Quinn

Santa 365Santa 365

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie
Kindle Edition, 47 pg.
Atria Books, 2015

Read: December 15, 2015

There’s not a whole lot to say about this short story, but I’ll give it a whirl. Taking place sometime before The Dog Who Knew Too Much (the duo’s adventures involving a wilderness camp), this is the story of Bernie trying to throw a Christmas party for his friends and, more importantly, his son, Charlie. Naturally, because it’s a Chet and Bernie story, crime ensues, and Bernie’s able to set things right (and take care of another problem at the same time). Sure, given that most of Bernie’s social circle are either cops or perps that he and Chet have busted, there should be a lot more crime in Bernie’s life.

Suzie, and we, get to meet Bernie’s mother, Minerva. Something Bernie’s not too excited about (well, I don’t think he cares about us meeting her, Suzie, on the other hand . . . ). She was amusing, but I think Minerva could become too much very quickly. If she returns in a novel, I hope her appearance has about the same number of words.

I trust it’s because of the size of this story, but wow, this was a shallow and rushed thing. Still, it’s a pleasant read, fun to see Chet’s reaction to a Christmas tree and what not. There are a couple of lines from this story that belong in Quinn’s Top 20 All Time lines (a contested field, I realize), so I’m glad I read it, but I was left wanting a bit more.


3 Stars

Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn

Scents and SensibilityScents and Sensibility

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie, #8

Hardcover, 305 pg.

Atria Books, 2015

Read: July 16 – 17, 2015Bernie Little is back from his cross-country adventures, not much worse for wear, probably with a little coin in his pocket (knowing Bernie. He gets home to find one of his elderly neighbors in the hospital and her husband being investigated by some overreaching environmental authority. Which gets Bernie’s protective instincts engaged. Oh, yeah, and there’s a hole in Bernie’s wall where a safe used to be. That’s in the mix, too — but it takes a back seat to the Parsons’ plight.

It seems that the Parsons’ son was recently released from prison, making the timing of Mr. Parson’s troubles (and the missing safe), a little suspicious. Bernie starts investigating the son — which leads into looking at the crime that put him away in the first place. Which leads Bernie to cross paths with an old rival. An old rival who may have had something to do with the fact that Bernie is no longer employed by the Phoenix Police Department.

The past and present mingle with the personal and professional for Bernie as the case gets more complicated and dangerous. Which makes this a pretty decent detective novel — then throw in our loyal narrator, Chet with his uniquely irrepressible voice and perspective. That’s a thick layer of icing on a pretty good cake.

Which I guess makes the presence of a young dog who looks and smells like Chet (he’s the source of the latter observation) a nice fondant?

I think the illustration is getting away from me, so I’d better move on.

There are a few certainties in crime fiction, in every novel: a vehicle operated by Stephanie Plum will explode; Nero Wolfe will have beer; Harry Bosch will listen to jazz; and Chet will be separated from Bernie. Sometimes, this annoys me because it seems so forced, but this time it snuck up on me so naturally that I was three or four paragraphs into it before I realized it had happened. There’s some other Ce and Bernie mainstays here: Bernie says something he regrets to Suzie; Bernie’s ex seems to go out of her way to misunderstand Bernie, Chet is spoiled and eats like a goat. Really, it has all the elements of this series, Quinn just uses them better than usual here.

A compelling story, the characters back in their stride, and we learn a little bit more about Bernie — if that’s all this had, I’d jumping with excitement. But when you add those last few paragraphs? Forget it — this is the best thing Quinn’s done since introducing us to this pair.


4 1/2 Stars

Paw and Order by Spencer Quinn

Paw and OrderPaw and Order

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie, #7

Hardcover, 304 pg.
Atria Books, and 2014
Read: June 7, 2015
On their way home from their adventures in Louisiana, Bernie decides to take a detour through Washington, D. C. to see if he can repair some of the damage done to his relationship with Suzie Sanchez.

I’m not spoiling much to say that Bernie’s romantic gestures and intentions are still only slightly better than his financial moves — making this both the most interesting (and frustrating) part of the book.

Shortly after their arrival, Suzie brings Chet along to help with a story, and they end up finding the body of a friend/source of Suzie’s. Making things more complicated, Bernie’s implicated in the shooting. Despite not being on familiar turf, the trio dives into the investigation and the murky international political waters surrounding the capitol.

If you ask me, the solution to the mystery is a bit too easily found. And, thanks to Chet’s comprehension of human beings (and lack of exposure to all the evidence), I felt like I had to fill in more blanks than I’m used to with the series. You may differ, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. But even if I didn’t like the destination, taking the trip with Chet’s narration was as pleasant as usual.

We get a bit more detail about Bernie’s military past than we did before — building nicely on The Sound and the Furry, and obviously, there’s movement on the relationship front. Which, for this series, is plenty of character development. Chet remains Chet — not sure what character growth would look like with him, nor that I’d want to see it, anyway. Oh, wait — there’s a new trick that Bernie does with him.

Honestly, this was probably the least of the series — I’m not sure if Quinn was over-reaching, or just didn’t have enough to flesh this out. He seems enough of a pro that I have trouble believing either. I’m not going to take the time to make the case (either way), because I don’t think it’s worth it. There was enough to enjoy here, and while there were plenty of negatives, I don’t think they outweighed what was enjoyable. Just hoping for a good rebound with the upcoming Scents and Sensibility.


3 Stars

The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn

The Sound and the Furry (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #6)The Sound and the Furry

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie, #6

Hardcover, 320 pg.
Atria Books, 2013
Read: July 23, 2014

I cannot think of another narrator in contemporary fiction as charming, as relateable, as endearing Chet — unreliable as all get out, but utterly trustworthy. I’m sure there are readers out there who are not susceptible to Chet’s canine charms, but I’m not one of them. I chuckle, I laugh, I am drawn in instantly — and as long as the stories are passable, that combination is a winner.

Thankfully, usually the stories are more than passable, which is just frosting on the cake. This time out, the Little Detective Agency finds itself on the road to New Orleans, of all places — a far cry from their normal stomping grounds. It’s good to see Quinn shake things up a little, he can’t be as dependent on things like Bernie chasing down a former C.I. or a familiar source of information. They also don’t know the lay of the land at all, and Bernie has to acclimate himself quickly.

Sure, some of Quinn’s tropes are here — Bernie not making sound financial choices, Chet causing a little trouble (tho mostly charming people), Chet getting separated for a time from Bernie (although this time it felt more organic than in any other of these books — I was a little bit into the separation before it dawned on me that, “yup, it’s about time for this”). But that doesn’t detract from the change in setting — or make it seem like less of a change. Instead, the presence of Quinn’s usual moves just underlines their universality.

It’s not uncommon for the sidekick of a detective to notice something missed by their associate — and it’s not uncommon for the sidekick to be unable to get the detective to see what they want them to/understand what they’re excited about, etc. And in almost any other detective novel where the detective is so clueless about so much of what the sidekick notices would be full of griping and complaining from the sidekick (justified griping, but griping, nonetheless). Not these books , however – except for his questionable financial decisions, Chet can’t even think of Bernie negatively, and he forgets anything that approaches negative almost instantly. This leaves the reader to chew on all the clues that Bernie’s missing while Chet’s focused on other things. I Love that. Typically, it’s the detective that has access to clues before the reader/independent of the reader (and that’s true here to an extent) but these books turn the tables on that, giving us readers the advantage.

Don’t know of its because Chet’s a dog, or if Quinn’s just that good at what he does (or some other thing), but when Chet’s in danger I get tenser than I do reading just about anything else — even if the danger’s not that great ultimately. But when Chet tussles with a certain critter in this book, I know my adrenaline levels jumped up and I read a lot faster just so I could get to the resolution of the fight.

My main (only?) problem with the book is its treatment of Suzie Sanchez. She seemed more like a refugee from Three’s Company than the reporter we’ve come to know and like. Quinn’s bounced between from treating her as a strong, capable character and this disappointment — she deserves better (as do Bernie & Chet, and the readers). If I’m drawing the right inferences from the cover image on the seventh Chet & Bernie book, it looks like he’ll give it a shot. If I’m wrong, Quinn should just write the character out of the series and start over with a new love interest.

We’ll never see it — I don’t imagine — but Chet kept hinting at this deeper, darker story, this side of Bernie we haven’t really seen (I think we’ve gotten glimpses before, but nothing like in this book). The kind of thing that belongs in a far more hard-boiled novel than this one. And unless we get someone else’s point of view, we’ll never see this side of Bernie in full because Chet can’t really admit it to be true. But we got a few hints this time — I sure wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of Bernie.

Until then, we get these light, joy-filled mysteries equal parts puzzle and entertainment. Who’d ask for more?


4 Stars

Dusted Off: A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

A Fistful of Collars (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #5)A Fistful of Collars

by Spencer Quinn
Series: Chet and Bernie, #5

Hardcover, 320 pg.
Atria Books, 2012

Little makes me as happy as a good Chet & Bernie story — and this one fits the bill. Quinn avoids some of the pitfalls of his other books — certain scenes/plot points that are becoming more than threadbare are absent here.

The main storyline was pretty predictable, but it was well — and entertainingly — executed. The subplots are the key to this one, and most of those were handled deftly.

Good, solid entry in this series with one of the best narrative voices around — give this one a read!


4 Stars