The Dog Park Club is the first of Cynthia Robinson’s Max Bravo books. It is a comedic mystery.
Successful opera singer Max Bravo’s social life is as barren as his professional life is rich. Lovers, male and female, are all brief flings. The only two people he sees consistently are his aged grandmother, Baba, and Claudia Fiore, his long-time friend. When marital calamity upends Claudia’s life, Max steps in to care for her neglected dog, Asta. If nothing else, excursions with Asta will provide him with yet another means to avoid his Baba’s incessant efforts to find him a bride.
Max would be the first to proclaim that he is an utterly self-centered, judgmental snob, the last person who should take an interest in solving a murder. However, clipping the leash onto Asta is the first step towards amateur sleuthing.
Warning: spoilers abound.
Max doesn’t expect to meet anyone he might like at the dog park and for the most part his gloomy prognostication is fulfilled. It’s too bad that he’s taking Claudia’s place and that Claudia has made friends with all the regulars. They expect him, as the friend of a friend, to be sociable. He resists, wishing that Claudia were less damn friendly.
It turns out that Max is not immune to the sociability that frequent contact can engender. He begins to tolerate most of the regulars and finds that he actually likes pregnant Amy. This is a big step for asocial Max.
It’s an even bigger step when, after Amy suddenly vanishes, he bonds with the other regulars. All are concerned for Amy’s well-being. In fact, the dog park regulars convince themselves, on very little evidence, that Amy has been murdered. They are sure that the ongoing police investigation will fail and that Amy’s only hope for justice will be if her dog park friends investigate her disappearance themselves. Max proves as vulnerable as the rest of the regulars to this curious mass mania.
They decide that there are only two plausible suspects: crackhead Candy Bates and Amy’s Scott Petersonesquehusband Steve. Candy is ruled out when they find that she was in jail when Amy vanished. The killer’s identity is now perfectly obvious. All that remains is gathering enough evidence to convict Steve.
The dog park regulars are motivated and determined, but they have no applicable skills and experience. Comedic blunders ensue.
Max reflexively assesses the ethnicity of the characters he meets. I half-expected him to produce forceps to measure other people’s skulls. It is only one of the reasons that it is not surprising he has no long-term relationships, Baba and Claudia aside.
I reread this purely because I just read Lem’s His Master’s Voice. I am pretty sure I am the only person to have read The Dog Park Club for that reason. The two books are very, very different but they do share one element. Both reject some commonly accepted genre conventions.
This is a mystery … but for much of the book I wondered if it weren’t also a ghost story or perhaps a psychological thriller about an opera singer whose isolation had driven him mad. Despite the important role Baba plays in Max’s life, the evidence that she is alive rather than a persistent ghost or perhaps a hallucination is surprisingly slender. Until very late in the novel, Max is the only person to interact with Baba. However, towards the end of the book Baba does something that only someone corporeal could do, so it’s finally clear that she’s alive and real.
Goodreads reviews are … mixed. This seems to be partly due to the cast of characters, who are generally an unlikable lot. Antisocial Max fits right in. Perhaps the reason the regulars befriend each other is because people this off-putting cannot possibly have many other friends.
A more important reason this mystery may have failed to please mystery fans is because The Dog Park Club rejects rather firmly the idea that just because an assortment of people wish to solve a mystery, they will have or will quickly acquire the skills necessary to accomplish the task. There are no budding Sherlocks at the club, no Continental Ops to be, not even a Wikipedia Brown. The club regulars have confused detective work with harassing scapegoats. In fact, they manage the rather difficult trick of ending the book knowing less about Amy’s disappearance than they did when she vanished.
I thought this abject, entirely logical failure was hilarious. Judging by the facts that the book only had a single sequel and that the author managed just those two books, other readers seem to have disagreed. Mystery fans, it seems, want answers or at least closure. Ah, well. As the Scotsman said, “if we all liked the same thing, think what an oatmeal shortage there would be.”