I started thinking about this post by asking myself, what kinds of stories would benefit by including animals? All stories can benefit from having animals in them! Some books just wouldn’t be the same without the featured pet, usually a dog or cat. Some revolve around wild animals, too. Many sleuths make their livings via animals.
My new series certainly features an animal. Quincy, the butterscotch tabby, is featured on the covers of the Fat Cat books, and you can bet he’s a central character. He’s an unintentional sleuth. Some cats are supernatural (Sophie Kelly’s cats, Owen and Hercules), some think on the page, some even talk (consider the humorous Midnight Louie by Carole Nelson Douglas), and some are ghosts (like Boots, the cat in Leanne Sweeney’s “The Cat, the Mill and the Murder”). Quincy is the other kind. He’s a real cat. He’s also a pet. But he does manage to dig up clues and dead bodies. (Watch for a parrot in the second book.)
What kinds of animals are in mysteries? As we’ve just seen, realistic and unrealistic. Some include wild animals. Beasts that live in our national parks figure in the Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr. Anna is a park ranger and the series moves around to many American national parks. C. J. Box writes a series featuring Joe Pickett, who is directly involved with protecting wild animals. Pickett is a game warden in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. I enjoy reading both these series and seeing the outdoors through the eyes of these writers.
Then there are farm animals. A good example of this is the Stella Crown series by Judy Clemens. Stella is a great character, a motor-cycle riding dairy farmer. Hannah Reed’s Story Fischer series is about a beekeeper. Ned Parker, written by Reavis Z. Wortham, is a farmer, in additional to being the part-time constable of Center Springs, Texas, back in the 1960’s.
Race horses! There are many exciting mysteries involving horses and horse people. The late Dick Francis, of course, was an actual jockey before he started writing his stand alone novels. Each one works the world of steeple chasing and jockeys into the plot. Sasscer Hill, a worthy successor to Francis, used to breed thoroughbred race horses before putting out her Nikki Latrelle series. Thea Campbell, written by Susan Schreyer, runs a stable and owns an intuitive horse, Blackie, who helps her out.
Krista Davis has both dogs and cats in her new Paws and Claws series that takes place in the town of Wagtail, Virginia, a pet-friendly vacation destination spot.
Another way sleuths make livings with animals are when they are veterinarians. The first series that comes to mind is based in McLean, Virginia, featuring Rachel Goddard, written by Sandy Parshall. Doug Allyn’s vet lives in Michigan. Betty Webb’s Teddy Bentley is even a zookeeper.
Another job is a pet sitter. Blaize Clement’s Dixie Hemingway is a professional, so encounters many kinds of pets and owners. Sparkle Abbey’s sleuth, Caro Lamont, is a pet therapist, and yes, there really ARE pet therapists. Judi McCoy writes about a professional dog walker, Ellie Engleman, who is also psychic with dogs. It seems that, many times, psychic connections and supernatural abilities go along with featured animals. Laurie Cass’s librarian, Minnie Hamilton, runs a bookmobile with a cat in the Bookmobile Cat series.
What kinds of mysteries are these? Pet cats and sometimes dogs are natural fits for cozy mysteries. In case you’re not familiar with the term, these are rather light mysteries that never include graphic sex or violence. There is a murder, so there IS violence, but the gory details are never dwelt on. There is also sex (after all, it makes the world go round), but it is off-stage or behind closed doors.
As you can see from the above examples, animals can be featured in all mysteries, cozy to dark, paranormal to normal, serious to humor laden. It’s hard for me to imagine a story that wouldn’t benefit from an animal, tame or wild, dog or cat, even birds and fish can add something. We could even consider vampire mysteries as animal stories.
Animals are central in these books, but they can be peripheral, too, and still contribute in the same ways. If you’re writing anything similar to any of the authors and series mentioned, it would be a good idea to read their books to see how they do it.
The mystery writer who includes an animal or two (or three) does need to keep in mind that it’s likely an animal lover was attracted to the critter on the cover and bought the book because of that. For that reason, we must be very careful how we treat the animals. We can have them go through hardship, but must be careful about inflicting any permanent damage. Very rarely should we kill off an animal. People are always fair game. After all, someone must be murdered or it isn’t a murder mystery. But the animal, like the main character, should survive and, ideally, thrive. (There are successful stories where animals are maimed or killed, but it must be done delicately.)
The way the animals are treated differs according to the genre, naturally. In a cozy, never ever kill off an animal. That’s a hard and fast guideline, if not a rule. If there is damage done, it should be minimal and the animal should recover without too much trauma. Animals can be treated less kindly in darker genres. In a very dark book, a poignant point could even be made with the death of a pet. This would usually serve as a catalyst for acts of higher purpose.
True crime, which many consider a mystery genre, can feature truly awful treatment of animals (and people), for the simple fact that these things do occur in real life. That’s why fiction makes good escapism. As the writers, we control what happens to the people AND to the animals.
Animals can add so much. The way the characters treat the animals in the stories reveals the nature of that character. Sometimes the way the animal acts toward a person can even control how the reader feels about him. If the animal is a pet, the owner can have many different attitudes to care and feeding. The owner can be obsessive and worry every minute she’s away from her beloved Fluffy. Or the owner can take a more laid-back approach to ownership, letting the animal get away with shenanigans. Spot can be terribly spoiled, or well-trained and obedient.
What else do animals add? Relief from the world of people and their problems. Comic interludes. A real connection to the animal loving reader.
All stories benefit from having animals in them!
Janet Cantrell is a pen name for Kaye George, Agatha nominated novelist and short story writer. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, Guppies, and Austin Mystery Writers. Her cozy Fat Cat mystery series, which debuted in 2014 with the national bestselling FAT CAT AT LARGE, features Quincy, a pudgy, adorable cat who is an accomplished escape artist. Especially when he’s on a diet and hungry. Leave it to Quincy to lead his human, Chase, co-owner of a Minneapolis dessert bar shop, into trouble. The second in the series is FAT CAT SPREADS OUT, June 2015. Janet lives in Knoxville TN with her husband. Her recently departed feline, Agamemnon, is a source for some of Quincy’s antics.
Visit http://janetcantrell.com/ for more details.
A booth at the Bunyan County Harvest Fair seems like the perfect opportunity for Charity “Chase” Oliver and Anna Larson to promote their Bar None bakery business. Unfortunately, plus-sized pussycat Quincy has plans for their delicious dessert bars other than selling them to customers. After tearing through their inventory, Quincy goes roaming the fairgrounds in search of more delights.
But what he finds is murder. One of the top contenders in a butter-sculpting contest has been killed, and Chase is churning on the inside when she sees Quincy’s handsome veterinarian, Dr. Mike Ramos, being led away by the police. With a little help from a kitty with butter on his whiskers, Chase needs to find the real killer and clear the doctor’s good name…
Includes recipes for people and cats!