Not long ago, I was privileged to have the chance to read Cat Connor’s new Ellie Iverson novel, Qubyte. By the way, it’s coming out on 31 December. In the novel, FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) Ellie Iverson and her team link a series of tragic events, and find themselves up against a very real (and, if I may say so, frighteningly possible) threat.
I won’t say more about the plot right now, but I found one aspect of it very interesting as a reader. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Ellie works with an FBI-trained German Shepherd, Argo. As I read, I found myself hoping that nothing would happen to Argo (and something easily could). The deaths of human characters were one thing for me, but I did not want to see Argo hurt or worse. And that got me to thinking about animals in novels.
When people read crime fiction, they generally do so with the understanding that there’s going to be ugliness. People will most likely be killed. For those who like dark, very gritty crime fiction, those deaths can sometimes be truly brutal. But even those who prefer lighter crime fiction with less violence know that there’s going to be at least one murder.
We know that, and we accept it. For most of us, if the murder isn’t described in horrific detail, we take that as part of the plot. But there seems to be a catch, so to speak. For lots of readers (I am one of them), it’s one thing if a murder victim is an adult (of either sex). It’s not even a ‘deal killer’ if the victim is younger. In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, for instance, the victim is fifteen years old. And in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, there’s a fourteen-year-old victim. But many people draw the line at the death (particularly a brutal death) of an animal, especially if that animal is a pet.
There are plenty of novels (don’t worry; I won’t list them all!) in which a character’s pet is killed. I won’t describe a set of examples; you don’t need them. Fictional deaths of pets and other animals often gets people very upset. In fact, there are people who stop reading a novel, and/or stop reading a particular author’s work, if an animal such as a pet is killed. Even people who don’t go as far as that often still dislike that plot point. I know I do. And it makes me wonder why.
Why do crime fiction lovers accept the death of a person, or even several persons, but not the death of an animal? I don’t have ‘official’ data on this, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps it’s because we know that pets are, in their way, much more vulnerable than people are. They can’t stand up for themselves in the same way that people can. So, the death of a pet may seem crueler.
It’s also worth noting that lots of people have pets, and that includes fictional sleuths. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Peter James’ Roy Grace, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant, Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, and Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are just a few examples. People who have pets are often very devoted to them, especially if they don’t also have children (and often even if they do!). And they relate to fictional characters who have them. So, the death of a fictional pet hits hard.
There are also people who are animal lovers in general. They don’t want to see any animal, whether it’s a pet or a wild animal, be hurt or killed. There are other reasons, too, for which crime fiction lovers put pets and other animals in a separate category. Whatever one’s individual reasons, it seems to be a common reaction. Plenty of readers don’t worry so much about who dies in a crime novel, so long as the dog or cat (or…) makes it.
What do you think about all this? As a crime fiction fan, do you see animal deaths as different to the deaths of human victims? Does that sort of plot point put a book in the DNF pile for you? Why? If you’re a writer, where do you stand in terms of animal deaths? Is that a line that you don’t cross? I’d really like to know your thoughts about this.
The ‘photo is a gratuitous pet picture. You’re welcome.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song which Paul McCartney wrote about his dog.