Soon after my partner and I moved in together, some fourteen years ago, one of the two dogs he brought to the relationship passed away. Almost immediately, we went looking for a new dog to join our pack.
We ended up falling in love with a four-month-old golden retriever puppy we named Sam. As a Tolkien geek, I claimed the privilege of giving him his full name, Samwise Gamgee. The hobbit Sam had been Frodo’s faithful companion in The Lord of the Rings, and I had a feeling this Sam would be mine.
That prediction came true. Sam and I went for long walks together morning and evening. I rubbed his belly and scratched behind his ears. He slept at the foot of my bed during the night, and when I was writing, he curled protectively behind my chair.
Within a couple of years after Sam’s arrival, I was completely puppy-whipped, so much so that I edited an anthology of essays about the relationship between men and their dogs, Paws and Reflect.
Once that book was done, though, I kept thinking about Sam and all he had brought to my life. I figured I could either bore people with tales of how cute my dog was, or I could put them into a book and make them interesting.
It would be a mystery, I thought. I loved the Cat Who books of Lilian Jackson Braun, in which Jim Qwilleran’s two cats, Koko and Yum-Yum, provide important clues to solve the mystery. I wanted to do the same thing for dogs that she’d done for cats.
During those long walks with Sam, I brainstormed ideas. We often walked out of our community toward the main street, past a small gravel road that dead-ended at a big water tower. A good place for a murder, I thought. And if the dog was a witness to the crime, he might be able to provide some useful clues.
I began taking notes of Sam’s behaviors. He liked to chew paper towels and tissues. He brought things to me in his mouth. He barked to alert me to intruders. All things that most dogs do. But how could I turn them into clues?
Rochester, the golden retriever at the heart of the books, started to come into focus. He sniffed out clues, alerting Steve, his human dad, to them. He barked and scratched out alerts, but he also began to endear himself to Steve, who was a reluctant dog owner.
The most fun came in descriptions. I got to wax rhapsodically about Sam’s soft fur, his plumey tail, the way the light reflected off his golden coat. And by giving those details to Rochester, I could get away with that bragging!
The result was In Dog We Trust, the first of my golden retriever mysteries. I was fortunate that Rochester developed a fan base, which allowed me to keep writing about him, in The Kingdom of Dog and Dog Helps Those, as Rochester and Steve investigate murders around their hometown of Stewart’s Crossing, Pennsylvania.
Sam crossed the rainbow bridge to heaven two years ago, and I still keep photos of him on my desk to inspire me. His position as Golden-in-Charge was taken over by Brody, who is smaller, whose fur is almost completely white, and who has a host of new behaviors I can use in my fiction. He’s also managed to sneak his way in, as a minor character in my latest book, Dog Bless You.
But Sam will always remain special in my heart, and the joy of writing Rochester reminds me of my faithful companion.
Title: IN DOG WE TRUST
Date Published: 3/10/2010
Genre: Cozy mystery
Word Count: 102,000
Steve Levitan has returned to his hometown of Stewart's Crossing, in picturesque Bucks County, Pennsylvania, after a bad divorce and a brief prison term for computer hacking. While he’s getting his life back together, trying to start a new career in technical writing and reporting regularly to his parole officer, he becomes friendly with his next-door neighbor, Caroline Kelly, and her golden retriever, Rochester.
When Caroline is killed, Steve’s high-school pal, the local police detective, asks him to become the dog’s temporary guardian. With canine charm and doggy love, Rochester begins to win Steve over, and these two unlikely sleuths work to uncover the mystery behind Caroline’s death.
I heard three short bangs that sounded like firecrackers, but without the whistle and the whine. A fast-moving black SUV roared past me a moment later, skidding gravel. My next-door-neighbor’s golden retriever came galloping up toward me as soon as it had gone, the handle of his extension leash bouncing behind him the way a convict in a cartoon might drag his ball and chain.
I knew it was Rochester because of the madras bandana that Caroline kept slung around his neck. “Hey, boy, hey,” I said, reaching out to grab him. “Where’s your mom? How’d you get away from her?”As soon as I had hold of his leash, Rochester executed a sharp 180-degree turn and started running back the way he’d come, this time dragging me along with him. “Rochester! Stop!” I called. “Sit, boy, sit!”I’d never cared for Rochester. I guess it was clear to him that I didn’t like dogs, and he made it his personal mission to reinforce that opinion. He did a good job of it, too. He was too big, too enthusiastic, too shaggy. Whenever I stopped to talk to Caroline, Rochester tried to jump on me, and Caroline couldn’t keep him in line. She took him for obedience lessons every Saturday, but his exuberance still overwhelmed his manners.He had huge paws and a big head. His fur was fine and attached itself to me if I even passed within five feet of him, giving my lint brush lots of use. He had big jowls, too, and there was usually a line of drool hanging from them he was happy to wipe off on me. His paws were often muddy, and somehow the tip of his tail was always wet, and when he whipped it against my leg it stung like the touch of a wasp.
Neil Plakcy is the proud papa of an eleven-year-old golden retriever who is just as sweet as Rochester in his Golden Retriever mysteries, though not quite as smart. And fortunately he doesn’t have Rochester’s talent for finding dead bodies.
A native of Bucks County, PA, where the books are set, Neil is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Florida International University, where he received his MFA in creative writing. He has written and edited many other books; details can be found at his website, http://www.mahubooks.com.