Richard Derus's Reviews > A Shot in the Bark: A Dog Park Mystery

A Shot in the Bark by C.A. Newsome
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Mar 04, 2012

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Read in March, 2012

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Book Report: Artist and Cincinnati urban dog-owner Lia spends her mornings with an oddball crew of fellow urban dog folks, giving their pooches a chance to romp, run, socialize, and generally get their doggy-day off to a good start. Likewise the people, all having convenience-store coffee and the occasional donut among the similarly inclined. As with any group of people who meet and become acquainted around a common interest, there are passionate rivalries, there are lasting friendships, there is a murder.

Wait...what was that last one again? A murder?! Luthor's beat-up old Corolla is in the parking lot one early morning when Lia arrives, to her irritation, and she stomps over to the car to yell at Luthor for stalking her, she yanks open the door, and finds Luthor's brains splattered all over the car. Apparently a suicide by gunshot, even though he was a coward, appearance-conscious, and afraid of guns. Lia has broken up for the third (and everyone around the dog park hopes the last) time with Luthor, writer manque and well-dressed layabout drama queen, who has been taking it hard. Well, he is a drama queen, so what else can be expected? Lia, poor deluded lamb, was hoping for a clean getaway, and says as much to Anna, an older and more...composed...person. Anna gently, and sometimes not so gently, punctures illusions, pretensions, and wrong-headedness among all the park's regulars, Lia no exception. It's Anna, after all, who started the fashion among the women of the park to roll their eyes practically in the face of helpless little femme fatale Catherine, a married society lady whose hair is dyed to match her Pomeranians, Caesar and Cleo (shudder all the way around on this one). Catherine has joined the group, the women suspect, just to get away from her long-term marriage's ennui and get some male attention, as it happens from Jim, a courtly older bachelor and, pre-Catherine, Anna's particular friend. Terry, a right-wing NRA supporter, Marie Woo, a lesbian Asian-American with multi-colored hair and a snarky wit, Bailey, a quietly competent New Age-y landscape architect, and Jose, a working-class Italian guy with a backhoe and a story he won't tell, are the other regulars who figure into the story.

Luthor's louche past, well actually present, as a womanizing gigolo comes out in the police investigation of the apparent suicide, and ties Luthor directly to Catherine. It looks like the investigation is going nowhere because Catherine can't be tied to the gun that killed him, and can't be proved to be in contact with Luthor at the time of his death; the reason that it is being investigated at all is that Luthor was shot in the right temple. He was left-handed. A scaredy cat gunphobe shooting himself with the non-dominant hand, while stone cold sober? No way Jose (the source of out Italian buddy's nickname, BTW). So homicide cop Peter begins to flail about, spending time in the dog park with Luthor's orphaned dog Viola whom he is now caring for, and making goo-goo eyes at Lia, who is completely freaked about Luthor's death, about the idea that Peter shares with her that one of her friends murdered him, and about the strength of her attraction to Peter.

In the end, the threads are tied off and the plot resolved. There is a twist at the end, one that makes the mystery a mystery, and of which I must say I approve.

My Review: But there are things that I don't approve of in a good deal of this first book. I enjoyed myself as I read it, there is no doubt, and I liked the characters quite a bit. If the author writes more of them, I'll probably read at least one or two more.

One is the use of the killer's PoV for italicized segments of the tale that are there simply to tell us why the killer did it. Better that we don't know, honestly. And the killer's gender is given away in the first sentence of the Prologue, which means half the dog park's regulars are out as suspects. That really dulls the knife-edge of suspense when the suicide is deemed a murder. And while we know the gender, the groundlings don't, and yet Lia trusts one of them enough to spill her fears and frustrations to, when that one could easily be the murderer.

The author juggles a large cast in the book, and I think could profitably have trimmed a few out entirely. She could stand to beef up the backstory and supply motives for the main players here, ie Jim, Anna, Marie, Jose, and Terry. As it was, the twist at the end supplies some suspense and sets up a potential sequel, but the book's warm and enfolding tone would be well-served by expanding the cast's reasons for being at the dog park and for forming the interesting little society that they do, Granted that this wouldn't necessarily be through conversation, but the hurdle isn't insurmountable for a writer of Newsome's evident ability.

Peter the cop and Bailey his metrosexual sidekick are nicely drawn, although some explanation of why Bailey isn't then is Peter's sidekick wouldn't have come amiss. The guys have a good relationship, and it's enough to give Peter an offstage presence that works. Alma, Peter's elderly gardening nut neighbor, comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, and she's a missed opportunity for Peter to have an interesting added dimension: Why does he know her? What do they talk about? Where does Peter live that he's in an apartment and Alma has a greenhouse in her back yard?

But these are quibbles. And the fact that I have quibbles with A Shot in the Bark is a very good sign. I was so engaged and so interested that I noticed things, and missed having things, and generally was right there in the story to the extent that I was participating in it. That's not so easy to accomplish, since I've been reading mysteries for thirty-four years. Most of them get fifteen or twenty pages and are out. Not this one...and that is saying a lot. Well done indeed, Ms. Newsome, and thank you.
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