Thursday, August 31, 2006

Won't Someone Please Think Of The Dogs?

I've decided I'm one cold-hearted bitch. But a little background first...

I cut my reading teeth on mysteries. There was a rough patch (around 6th grade) that found me working through some reading comprehension difficulties (amazing I know), but by 7th grade I was a reading machine. I loved me Nancy Drew (I actually read the "updated" Nancy Drew Files series that came out in the mid-late 1980s). Now I know a lot of you liked Sweet Valley High, but those books always made me want to puke. I wasn't pretty. I wasn't popular. The last thing I wanted to do was read about pretty, popular girls. Now Nancy was pretty. She was also popular. She also was dating that hunky Ned Nickerson. But she solved mysteries. She was really smart. Frankly she wasn't worried about whether or not Ned was going to ask her to the big dance.

I figured I had outgrown Nancy by the time I could read one of the books in a day - so I took to browsing the adult fiction collection at the library and read Marcia Muller, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, and by high school I was reading my first Patricia Cornwell novel.

I'll read across the board in mystery. Cozies with little to no violence to gory serial killer books with blood practically dripping off the page. But I've discovered I'm more of the "freak" here than the "norm." Why? I don't get nightmares from books (movies, yes - books, no) and I'm apparently fine with a lot of violence.

I'm also fine when the author has the audacity to kill The Dog.

I love mystery readers. Truly. They're fine with numerous dead bodies, torture, maimings, and dismemberment - but the minute the author kills the dog/cat/canary/goldfish hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.

A friend of mine explained it to me like this. She reads for the "escape" and a dead dog isn't "escape." Um, but the dead human body is? I don't get it. Just don't. And if I wanted to read too much into it (which y'all know I do) I would say this is another example of the devaluation of human life. The human life is expendable. The dog's life is not.

Now honestly, I cannot be the only one here who smells something rotten in Denmark. And if you're a reader who likes the dead human but hates the dead dog - please explain it to me. I really would like to understand. Then again, I have known dogs that are loads nicer than most people, so maybe that's all there is to it.


Becky said...

For me, it has to do with the basic idea that when you go into a murder mystery, you know that you'll encounter a dead body but a dead animal, not so much. It's sort of like opening a Harlequin, middle-of-the-road and coming across major kink. You were expecting sex, but not quite that.

Quite often, the author helps you out by somehow making the murderee unappealing in some way. No matter what, you know that the killer will be caught. However, animals are almost always sympathetic and seem to be outside the realm of human based conflict. I'm ok with animals dying if they are properly villanized and somehow appropriately come into the human conflict. For instance, the nasty, nasty guard dog going after the heroine getting killed is ok for me but the sweet dog who was simply trying to defend it's owner from the killer, devestating.

Wendy said...

You're the first person who has explained it to me in such a way that it actually makes some sense - so thanks! But unlike you, a lot of readers don't seem to catagorize the dead animals. I read one cozy mystery where a guard dog dies protecting a "nice" character. The author told me she felt is was an "honorable death" kinda like a cop dying in the line of duty. But some readers? Whoa doggie - she said she got some angry letters :-)

RandomRanter said...

I agree with Becky. Just as in "Fatal Attraction" the whoa moment for many people seems to be the rabbit on the stove, involving pets seems like crossing an extra line for me. I don't think it has yet made me mad, but extra sad about the book certainly.

Rosie said...

Don't we associate killing animals with bad ass serial killers? It's suppposedly one of the clues that your kid might be a socio-path if he likes to torture or kill the family pet.

I don't like either much (dead humans or animals) I'm just rather fascinated by the construct of the author thinking up all the ways to kill/maim/torture a person or animal.

While I've daydreamed about alot of things...murder and mayhem aren't on the list so the people who do it for a living? Fascinating.

rampant bicycle said...

I think I am with Becky. It's something like the reason that werewolves in movies are usually shown mutating into "wolfmen" rather than real wolves - a wolf looks rather appealing, really, and not quite as scary as most filmmakers want their monsters to be.

Our sympathies are often aroused by animals; like children, they lack many of the means that adult humans have to defend themselves. I think that sense, of the killing of something innocent and much weaker than you, is what enrages people most. Dogs in particular strike a chord because we know them as (mostly) very trusting and friendly beasts as well.

An adult human victim in a mystery book is generally set up to be at least a little bit unappealing, as Becky says. They have been cruel to someone, or they are about to do something that will leave many people out of work, or in some other way do something that alerts us that here is a potential victim. Animals...not so much.

Caro said...

A thread on the DorothyL Mystery Listserv several years ago dealt with the issue of taboos in mystery novels. Many authors wrote that because of the ire generated, the only taboo was not to kill an animal, particularly a pet.

Becky said...

I don't think you can ever get away with killing any sort of pet in a cozy. That's when the distinctions between sub-genres would get really hard core. In a cozy, there will be one, nice, fairly neat and tidy dead body. You can read it on a dark and stormy night, all alone, and still sleep like a baby.

In addition, there's just no good way to deal with a pet. The reader is either left wondering what happened to that poor dog or totally appaled that the dog died. Really, in a cozy, stick with a nice pet sidekick for the main character and leave it at that. As I said before, the sweet pet simply defending it's owner... devestating.

She probably could have gotten away with it in more hard-core settings. If you're starting a serial killer book where you know that there might be chilren killed or something like that (Kay Scarpetta comes to mind), a pet death isn't that far beyond. And, even then, you'll have a way easier time if it's the nasty, nasty, guard dog than the sweet pet getting killed. But, there is certainally an element of knowing that there might be hardcore nastiness going in to the book.

I am reminded of two things with this issue that make it transcend the mystery genre. First, when I firts read "Charlie All Night," I wound up having to flip to the end to make sure the puppy lived before I could properly focus on anything else in the plot. Second, I heard an interview with Gore in which he said that they had to show the frog (?) surviving in his documentary or else the big thing people came away from the presentation with was that the frog died- totally sidestepping the larger issues.

Sorry to hijack the comments. I love books and I love thinking about how people think hence, this is quite the pleasant discussion for me.