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American/Cozy Mysteries

Essay: Clea Simon

The Actress by Elizabeth Sims

While I often am approached by writers wanting to send me ARCs and have me read, possibly review them, and certainly try to sell them, it’s not often that I say “yes,” send the ARC, and less often when I actually read and enjoy them.  However, such was the charm and erudition of author Clea Simon (who I hadn’t heard of, despite the fact that she had nine books to her credit) that I agreed to an ARC.  When she contacted me a few months later - I’d set it aside, because it was so far ahead of when the book came out - that I thought, OK, I’ll give it a try.  I even thought my daughter had squirreled it away with her when she went back to college, because it has the magical word “dog” in the title.  After frantically contacting Poisoned Pen for another copy, lo and behold, it turned up on one of my dining room chairs, and now I felt well and truly obligated to read it.

The title of the book is Dogs Don’t Lie, and it will be published by Poisoned Pen Press in April.  I wasn’t too hopeful when I discovered that the premise was that the main character, Pru Marlowe (yes, a nod to the great one) can “hear” what animals are saying and thinking.  But somehow, the premise works.  I asked Clea if she herself was psychic, as her character is, and she answered “I wish I were psychic....I do end up getting the strong feeling that my cat is trying to tell me something, if only I weren’t too stupid to hear it.”  The rest came about from necessity.  “I really wanted to write a bad girl heroine for a change.  How did she become a bad-girl animal psychic? I don’t know, except that I also knew I wanted her to have a snarky cat as a sidekick and I guess I needed a way for them to communicate.”

The detail Simon brings to her premise is what sells it.  For one thing, many of the animals she communicates with have a name they’ve given themselves, not the same one their human owners have given them.  Pru walks a Bichon named Bitsy whose private name is actually “Growler.”  The premise that kicks off the book is that a rescued pit bull Pru’s been helping to train is found in a room with it’s dead owner, his throat ripped out.  The cops are pretty sure it’s an open and shut case, and impound the dog, though naturally, this being a mystery, things are more complex than they appear on the surface.  So while the storyline is somewhat dark in itself, it’s leavened by the interactions Pru has with various animals throughout the book, parts of the story I began to look forward to, especially when it came to a Ferret named Frank (Bandit to it’s human). 

This is the kind of cozy that’s kind of a half breed.  While Pru communicates with her cat, it’s not a story that easily vacates your brain after you close the book; it’s pretty vivid and memorable.  The pain of the pit bull who is incarcerated in the pound is very moving, and Pru herself is undergoing a type of midlife crisis, something I asked the author about as she’d apparently left her job as a journalist to become a writer. She says her first few books were autobiographical, and “It takes a while to think you can just make up stories that anyone would want to read.”  While this book isn’t really autobiographical, Simon deftly captures the unsettled quality of Pru’s life and the fact that she’s on a personal journey, one that looks like it will take more than one book to complete.

When I asked Clea about her own personal reading tastes, they were much darker than what she writes - Megan Abbott, Henning Mankell, Tana French.  She says “I guess I go for character as much as anything, although a good plot...can keep me going too.”  Simon’s book has the sharp kind of character detail I think she herself appreciates.  Her crisp writing and polished plot are a pleasure from start to finish. 

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