HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I got an email the other day from an animal psychologist, and paraphrasing here, she asked me if I had a cat. Or two. Because, she said, the character of Coda in the Jane Ryland series displayed perfect cat behavior.
Well, you Reds know about my Lola and Leon (missing them) and of course, Coda is a mixture of them both.
We’ve been talking about whether we’re cat or dog people this week, so it a perfect time for Edgar winner Bruce DeSilva to make the choice. And as it turns out, he’s got both species in his new book!
In very different ways.
How My Two Big Dogs Became Characters in “The Dread Line”
When I began writing The Dread Line, the fifth book in my Edgar-Award-winning series of hard-boiled crime novels, the first line seemed to come out of nowhere:
“He was a serial killer, but I didn’t hold that against him. It was just his nature. The way he killed irked me some. His victims were all missing their heads. But what I couldn’t abide was his habit of using my porch as a dump site.”
I had no idea who the killer was. Worse, I didn’t want to write another serial killer book. I’d already published one (Providence Rag) based on a real case I once covered as a journalist, and reliving those terrible days had been painful for me. I had vowed never to write about a serial killer again. But I loved the feel of that paragraph—the way it set the noir mood of the novel I wanted to write.
When I write, I rarely plan anything. I never outline. I don’t think about my plot in advance. I just set my characters in motion and discover the story as I go. But where in the heck was this going?
As I pondered what to do, I reached down and petted my two 130-pound behemoths, who love to sit by my feet as I work. To my left was Brady, a gentle Bernese Mountain dog. To my right was Rondo, a goofy mutt who patrols our yard every evening, driving off every intruder from foraging deer to our neighbor’s predatory cat.
And then I knew. The serial killer in that first paragraph—which I kept as the opening of the novel—was a feral tomcat who deposited its daily kills on my main character’s back porch.
The character, Liam Mulligan, promptly dubbed the predator “Cat the Ripper.” To deter it, he would need a dog. A big one. So he rescued a young Bernese Mountain dog named Brady at a local animal shelter and set him loose in the yard.
Mulligan and I figured that would do the trick, but the dog and the cat didn’t see it that way. When the two first encountered each other early one morning, Brady tried to make friends, got scratched on the face for his trouble, and immediately became terrified of the intruder.
Meanwhile, Mulligan had bigger problems as the novel’s plot and sub-plots began to emerge. He became obsessed with a baffling jewelry robbery. He was enraged that someone in town was kidnapping and torturing family pets. And all of this—including his vendetta with Cat the Ripper—kept distracting him from a big case that needed all of his attention.
The New England Patriots, still reeling from a double murder charge against one of their star players (true story) hired Mulligan (not a true story) to conduct a background check on a college star they were thinking of drafting. To all appearances, the player was a choirboy, so at first the case seemed routine. But as soon as he started asking questions, he got push-back. The player had a secret, and somebody was willing to kill to prevent it from being revealed.
The detective work kept Mulligan away from home for long hours, and one day he returned to find that Brady had shredded his couch, tossing stuffing all over the place. (The real Brady had never done anything like that, but the real Rondo had.) Mulligan did a little research about destructive dogs and learned that it was usually the result of separation anxiety. The solution—another dog to keep Brady company. Enter Rondo, another rescue from the local kennel.
As I sat at my keyboard day after day, Mulligan’s two dogs grew inseparable, just as my big boys did. And soon, their personalities emerged on the page—personalities that corresponded nearly exactly to my real dogs.
Rondo was protective, displaying his suspicion of strangers by barking incessantly at them. Brady was gregarious and affectionate with every one he met. Rondo was eager to please, constantly studying Mulligan for clues about what he should do next. Brady was stubborn and independent, obeying commands to come or stay only when it suited him. Rondo loved to fetch, gleefully chasing tennis balls across the yard and carrying them back to Mulligan. Brady watched the balls sail over his head and tossed Mulligan a look that said, “You expect me to get that?
But the two dogs—both named after New England sports heroes (Tom Brady of the Patriots and Rajon Rondo, formerly of the Boston Celtics)—surprised me by becoming integral to the main plot. Both—but especially Rondo—were always on alert for intruders. More than once, their barking alerted Mulligan to the nighttime arrival of thugs who intended to do him harm.
Before the story ended, Cat the Ripper shocked me by playing a larger role too. One day, instead of depositing the corpse of a mouse or a wren on Mulligan’s porch, he showed up clutching a severed human ear in his jaws.
Although The Dread Line marks the first time in the series that Mulligan has lived with a dog, I’ve always included dogs in my novels. Why? Because they are invaluable for developing characters. You can learn a lot about people by the way they treat animals.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So, Reds and lovely readers, we all love animals in our stories, right? Who’s your fave? Asta? Lassie? Pyewacket?
And writers, have you put your own pets in your books? And do you agree you learn about people by the way they treat animals?
(I'm in Ann Arbor today at Aunt Agatha's Kerrytown Book fest! But I'll be checking in!)
The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva is the fifth hardboiled crime novel featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter and part-time private eye in Rhode Island. To order it from a choice of independent or chain online bookstores, please click here.
Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review and Publishers Weekly, and his reviews for the Associated Press appear in hundreds of other publications. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer. He and his wife, the poet Patricia Smith, live in New Jersey with two enormous dogs named Brady and Rondo.
Since he got fired from his newspaper job last year, former investigative reporter Liam Mulligan has been piecing together a new life for himself—one that straddles both sides of the law. He’s getting some part-time work with his friend McCracken’s detective agency. He’s picking up beer money by freelancing for a local news website.
And he’s looking after his semi-retired mobster-friend’s bookmaking business. But Mulligan still manages to find trouble—when it’s not finding him. He’s feuding with a serial-killer cat that leaves its kills on his porch. He’s so obsessed with a baffling jewelry robbery that he can’t let it go. And he’s enraged that someone in town is torturing animals.
All of this distracts him from a big case that needs his full attention. The New England Patriots, shaken by murder charges against one of their star players, have hired Mulligan and McCracken to investigate the background of a college star they’re thinking of drafting. At first the job seems routine, but when they begin asking questions, they get push-back. The player has something to hide—and someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.