From Scooby Doo to Sherlock Hound, Kommissar Rex to The Littlest Hobo, canines are no strangers to the fictional crime-solving business. It’s no surprise really, given dogs’ uncanny ability to sniff their way into trouble at every turn, and it’s equally unsurprising that a number of the delightful floof balls are now taking the cosy crime genre by storm. An excellent case in point is Antony Johnson’s The Dog Sitter Detective, which introduces the redoubtable amateur sleuth Gwinny Tuffel and her canine companions.
Having given up her acting career to care for her elderly father, Gwinny is distressed to learn upon his death that the family finances are nowhere near as sound as she has been led to believe. In fact, she’s stony broke. The only assets she has left are the crumbling family home in Chelsea, which is definitely more of a money pit than a money spinner, a buy-to-let flat in Islington that is rented out for well under market rate, and a clapped-out Volvo. There might be nothing for it but to get a job.
Unfortunately, as Gwinny wryly reflects, “roles for sixty-year-old women who haven’t stepped in front of either an audience or camera for ten years are rather thin on the ground”. Her best friend Tina Chapel, a rich and still successful actress, might be able to help, although she’s currently rather preoccupied with her forthcoming wedding to Italian olive oil magnate Remington De Lucia. Still, at least that means Gwinny has a wedding to look forward to.
As the uncertainty surrounding her father’s illness meant she couldn’t commit to being in the bridal party, Gwinny only travels up to Hayburn Stead, Tina’s stately pile in the Hertfordshire countryside, on the day of wedding. Despite almost being unfashionably late and then sticking out like a sore thumb among the great and the good of the showbiz world, Gwinny arrives in plenty of time for the day’s unexpected main event: the murder of Remington De Lucia.
When the bungling police arrest Tina for the crime, the stalwart Gwinny steps in to point out their mistakes and attempt to clear her friend’s name. In so doing, she’s aided to varying degrees by an ageing Danish pop lothario, twin veterans of soap and comedy, a recently retired policeman and two very perceptive Salukis. It all makes for a fun and very funny investigation.
Indeed, The Dog Sitter Detective offers a welcome escape from the unpleasantness of current dreary reality into a light-hearted and near-bloodless murder mystery with a fiendish puzzle at its heart. It’s a proper whodunnit with a focus on the who, how and why of the crime rather than on any dark or sensational aspects. Antony Johnson includes a sufficient number of clues for the major questions to be answered as Gwinny’s investigation progresses, which does mean that it’s not the most perplexing or complex of mysteries. Saying that, Gwinny enjoys cracking her first case so much that it’s almost a shame to figure things out before the final dénouement.
As an actress, Gwinny has a certain flair for the dramatic, which means it comes as no surprise that, when she discovers the identity of the murderer, she opts to bring all the suspects, sidekicks and police officers together for the big reveal. It’s a quintessential way of ending a murder mystery, but more importantly, it allows Johnson to give Gwinny her moment in the spotlight after highlighting how she is regularly overlooked due to her age. Saying that, at the age of 60, she only just sneaks in among the other sleuths of more mature years who have hit it big in recent years, although her deductive skills are certainly equal to the best of them.
What’s more, aside from being in possession of some particularly sharp little grey cells, Gwinny has a degree of shamelessness that allows her to bluff suspects and professional investigators alike while muscling her way through the case. She’s certainly no armchair detective, being fully prepared to get down and dirty when the situation requires, and she has an absolutely crystal clear self-image that allows her to persevere and overcome the slights and limitations that others attempt to force on her. She might seem somewhat beaten down by life at the start, but she quickly reveals herself to be a force to be reckoned with.
In addition to being a great example of modern cosy crime, The Dog Sitter Detective is also a warm-hearted tribute to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, particularly the works of Agatha Christie. The story centres on an female amateur sleuth of a certain age, largely takes place in an isolated country house, and even features a body in a library. It’s clear that Johnson has a real appreciation for classic crime, and he cleverly weaves several signature aspects of mysteries from that era into the conundrum facing Gwinny.
With criminals, clues, and canines aplenty, The Dog Sitter Detective is pure escapism in the company of a delightful amateur detective. It’s teed up to be the first in a cosy mystery series featuring Gwinny Tuffel and various faithful furry friends, and expectations are high for the next book.
Also see Leigh Russell’s Barking Up the Right Tree.
Allison & Busby
CFL Rating: 4 Stars