This crime thriller takes a couple of unusual approaches, firstly telling the story through two alternating viewpoints: those of a precocious and strong-willed, roller-blading, 14-year-old girl searching for her lost dog, and a hard-drinking, middle-aged shamus with hypertension and a dislike for precocious teens. Secondly – you might have guessed – it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Dick Lochte offers a Preface to set up these rudiments – that two involved parties have penned separate first-person accounts of the events around a series of brutal murders in California in summer 1982. Ordinarily these manuscripts would have resulted in two competing volumes, he says, but then adds that publishing can be as surprising and deadly as the business of murder.
The two texts, “Dog Days” by the girl, Serendipity Renn Dahlquist, and “Die Like a Dog” by the gumshoe, Leo G. Bloodworth, were with separate publishing houses but suddenly became owned by the same company thanks to an unexpected merger. The result, Lochte continues, was that they were combined into one volume, with needless repetition deleted.
The authors were displeased, Dahlquist calling the result “excessive and repressive editorial meddling”, and Bloodworth blasting a “first-class hatchet job”. And here’s the rub, Lochte sums up: “Regardless, both were eager to see their maiden efforts in print, and finally they came to understand that first novelists should never expect to find things going entirely their way.”
“Sleeping Dog” was Lochte’s first book, in 1985, so plainly, reading between the lines, his fictitious Preface was doubtless a crafty way of having a bit of a dig at the expense of publishers in general, presumably drawing upon some disheartening experience of his own – such as rejection slips? – when still an unpublished author.
Ultimately, it seems to be a case of him having the proverbial last laugh, though, because if accolades mean anything, it’s of note that “Sleeping Dog” went on to become highly acclaimed. It was nominated for the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards and took home the Nero Wolfe Award, all presented for mystery writing. The New York Times named it a “Notable Book of the Year”, and it was selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association of America in 2000 as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century.
And Lochte later wrote “Laughing Dog” (1988), Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Mystery” (2000), “Rappin’ Dog” (2014), “Diamond Dog” (2014), “Mad Dog” (2017) and “Devil Dog” (2017). A case of every dog having its day, in the end?
The comedy-noir thriller “Sleeping Dog”, then, introduced the reading public to the quirky Los Angeles writing/sleuthing team of Bloodworth and Dahlquist, the hard-drinking veteran private investigator becoming a reluctant semi-mentor to the bright girl searching for her kidnapped dog Groucho, not to mention seeking her absentee and footloose mother, Faith.
The two odd-couple narrators are drawn into a tale of multiple murder, and their hunt for the pooch and the Mum leads them across much of California with its exotic-sounding locales, towns with names such as Zamora, Copa de Oro and Colusa. Serendipity is wise well beyond her fourteen and three-quarters years, and as neither of her parents is in the picture, she lives in L.A. with her grandmother, a famous day-time television soap opera star. Groucho, a bull terrier, is her treasured companion, a gift from her late father thirteen years earlier. The dog is the dearest thing she possesses and the last link to Dad before he went off to meet his fate in the seemingly senseless Vietnam War.
Serendipity is devastated when she returns home one afternoon to find the front door standing open and Groucho gone. She seeks police help but to no avail. “Well, honey, we got eighty-seven murders on the books, sixty-eight muggings and rapes, upwards of one hundred and thirty b-and-e’s,” she is told. “So I wanna be straight with you. Unless your dog happens to bite some traffic cop on the butt, he’s gonna stay missing.”
Rather, a detective refers her to private investigator Leo “the Bloodhound” Bloodworth, who has a bit of a reputation for finding anything – men, women, kids on dope who don’t want to be found. So Serendipity straps on her skates and heads over to his office in Downtown L.A.
But he has zero tolerance for kids and even less interest in finding Groucho. “Well, Miss Dahlquist. I sort of specialize in missing humans. Bail jumpers. Skip artists. The odd runaway. I can put myself into their skins, try to figure out where they’re headed. Dogs, I just don’t know.”
When the girl refuses to take no for an answer, Bloodworth’s office mate, another P.I., Roy Kaspar, offers to help. He takes a retainer, drives the girl home and looks over the scene. He promises to report back in three days but doesn’t, and when Serendipity tracks down Bloodworth in a sleazy bar, they go in search of Kaspar, only to find him snuffed, garroted.
It turns out that the murder and the disappearance of Groucho are almost certainly related. Serendipity and Bloodworth wind up joined at the hip, on the road and up to their necks in trouble with a particularly vicious bunch, one of the biggest, and most brutal, organised crime families in the Mexican Mafia. Welcome to the dark underworld of sunny California, with Mum mixed up with some lowlife in the nasty undercover “sport” of dog fighting.
“Sleeping Dog” is a long book, just shy of 350 pages. The plot gets tougher to follow as the stiffs and subterfuges mount up. There are beatings, kidnapping and extortion but the aforementioned quotes indicate the light touch. There are neat turns of phrase – as Serendipity tells Bloodworth: “I guess you’ve spent a good deal of your life on the hunt, accompanied only by your metal steed, traveling vast landscapes on a seemingly everlasting crusade.” He replies: “I don’t know as I’d put it exactly it that way, kid. But I do spend a lot of time on the road.”
And humour. While they’re on the road, she tells him he’s forgotten his seat belt. “I don’t use a seat belt, kid. Danger is my business.”
Lochte, is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and now lives in Southern California. This is a book with an American slant: the evening smog of the Valley and the traffic-clogged L.A. freeways. Chevys and Lincolns and Pontiacs. Silver Lake and Gramercy Place and Beverly Hills.
Plus the cultural references are fun: “… locked tighter than Gene Autrey’s pants.” Humphrey Bogart and “In a Lonely Place”, the Marx Brothers, Cab Calloway and “Minnie the Moocher”, bandleader Xavier Cugat, “Two pale-skinned guys with dark sunglasses and loud sport shirts were trying to pass for Robert de Niro… ” “He [a writer-director-producer] makes me mourn for Harry Cohen.” “[Take a pill] And wind up like Bela Lugosi?”
Serendipity and Bloodworth may not be Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson or Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin but they’re intriguing and amusing characters. The dialogue between them is smart and Lochte’s dual-narrative is a clever conceit, all adding up to an entertainingly bloody romp.