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Interview: Peter Abrahams, Author of The Dog Who Knew Too Much and Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street

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What I love most about Spencer Quinn a.k.a. Peter Abrahams (more on that “a.k.a.” in a minute) is his wordplay. It’s clear he loves playing with the English language and, as we talk about in the interview below, it shows and makes the reading of his books more fun.

I interviewed Spencer Quinn for his first two books in the Chet and Bernie series, Dog On It  and Thereby Hangs A Tail.

Since then it was reported — and Quinn, er, Abrahams, confirms it — that Spencer Quinn is a pseudonym of Peter Abrahams. We talk about this too in the interview. And just to make things more confusing there are two authors named Peter Abrahams but the one we’re talking about is the American born in 1947.The other is a South African novelist born in 1919. I’ve linked to Wikipedia profiles of both to try to avoid confusion.

So I was unaware until recently of who Peter Abrahams was/is so I can’t speak to those books — except for a forthcoming young adult novel — but I can say that one reason I’m addicted to his Chet and Bernie series is how he plays with words.

Allow me to explain the Chet story concept to illustrate: The concept for this series is that it’s a private detective and his dog, but this time it’s the dog who is doing the narrating. Now when I mention this to fellow book lovers I get one of two reactions: “how cute!” and indeed they are cute and charming and hilarious, or “oh, god,” and a clear lack of interest. Instead of judging a book by its cover these people are judging a series based on its concept. Quite unfair. Some of these people are perhaps tired of books with animal helpers — I blame Lillian Jackson Braun series for this with all of her “The Cat Who… ” books. However, I am convinced even those in this camp of prejudging the Chet books will enjoy them if they try actually reading the books

Chet never misses the chance to explain what odd things humans say, so when, for example, he hears a reference to “the elephant in the room,” he gets confused, understandable since he sees no such elephant in the room. Likewise he gets confused, and explains this to the reader, when someone mentions “the cat’s out of the bag” or any other expression mentioning other animals or phrases or idioms. Basically, Chet gives the author the chance to be playful in the middle of a mystery. This can result in fun writing that reminds me of Gregory McDonald’s great Fletch series (yes, the ones made into good, albeit inferior, movies starring Chevy Chase) as well as Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series and that of Lisa Lutz.

I’ve read the latest Chet and Bernie book, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, the fourth in the series, and it’s as good and fun as the others in the series and I’ve passed on my advance copy to a dog lover who I know will treasure it. I also enjoyed Abrahams’ latest book, Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street, which comes out mid-January: Yes, this one under his own name. It is the first in a series of young adult novels. The concept is that a group of teenage kids get special powers which they use to fight evil and injustice. But it’s not a superhero story — that would be too easy and possibly cliche. Rather, it’s more like, as he says in the interview, a Robin Hood in New York story.

Let’s move on to the interview so the author can explain some of this himself. We’ll start by talking about the new book, in which the protagonist is a female, and work from there.

But first an excerpt from the new Chet book to give examples of the wordplay I was talking about. Let me remind you the narrator here is Chet the dog:

That one zipped right by me, but the point was: five hundred bucks. Our finances were a mess. We hadn’t worked an actual case — not even divorce, which we hated — in I didn’t know how long, plus there was the hit we’d taken from the tin futures thing, and don’t get me started on the stacks and stacks of Hawaiian pants, locked away at our self-storage in Pedroia; we hadn’t sold a single pair. Why they hadn’t caught on was a mystery to me: didn’t everybody love Hawaiian shirts? Bernie had lots of them, was wearing one of my favorites right now up on that stage, the blue number with the gold trumpets.

He picked up the pages, or most of them, and tried to get them back into some kind of order. Meanwhile, I heard feet shuffling out of the room behind me, and across the aisle I was sitting in both Mirabelli brothers seemed to be asleep, their mouths hanging open. On my other side sat Georgie Malhouf, a real skinny guy with sunken cheeks and a thick black mustache. There’s something about mustaches that makes it hard for me to look away, so I didn’t. After some time, I noticed that Georgie was looking at me, too.

“On the ball, aren’t you?” he said. “Just like they say.”

Ball? I’m just about always in the mood to play ball. A very faint thought arose in my mind, something about this maybe not being a good time for playing ball; but it sank quickly away, and I kept my eyes on Georgie Malhouf, waiting for him to produce a ball from somewhere. No ball appeared. Georgie Malhouf was keeping his eyes, small and dark, on me.

“Ten grand sound about right?” he said.

Numbers aren’t my best thing — I stop at two, a perfect number in my opinion — but when it came to money anything with grand in it got us excited, me and Bernie. He was bumping us up to ten grand? Bernie’s speech was going even better than I’d thought.

BAM BAM BAM. Bernie was tapping the microphone again. “Hear me all right?” He glanced up at the audience, from which came no response, and then quickly down to the papers in his hand. For some reason, he was holding them kind of close to his face, and they weren’t quite steady.

“This, uh, joke — maybe more like a …” He lapsed into silence, a silence that seemed rather long—although the room was getting noisier, with more movement toward the doors behind me — then cleared his throat again, so forcefully it had to hurt, and said very loudly, almost a shout: “Riddle!” He toned it down a bit. “Riddle. That’s it. Here comes the riddle: What did the duck say to the horse?” He glanced up in an abrupt sort of way and scanned the audience, what was left of it.

What did the duck say to the horse? Was that what Bernie had just said?

“Anybody?” Bernie said. “Duck? Horse?”

No response. I knew horses, of course, prima donnas each and every one. I’d also had an encounter with a duck, in the middle of a lake in the border country on our way back from a case we’d been working down Mexico way. Nipped me right on the nose, which came as a big surprise. But horses and ducks together? I had nothing to offer.

Up on stage, Bernie opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “‘Why the long face?’” he said.

How did this new novel, Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood St., come about? Put another way how did the concept and storyline develop?

My wife said, “How about Robin Hood in Brooklyn?” A lovely way for a story idea to arrive! The setting and milieu really appealed to me and almost right from the start I knew there’d be some paranormal in it. The story’s so much about a group of kids encountering and trying to understand powerful adult forces like greed and ambition — they needed a powerful force of their own. When I began the book I had no idea that one of its main themes — wealth inequality — would soon be in the headlines every day.

You seem to enjoy wordplay, am I right? It’s more common in the Chet and Bernie series, obviously, especially with Chet wrestling with strange wording and phrases but I noticed that also happens in the Robbie book as well.

I’m a lover of the English language, no doubt about it, and it’s a playful language in many ways. I just take advantage of that.

Do you have ideas coming at you all the time about phrases — sayings like cat naps — that you then incorporate into the stories as phrases Chet can wrestle with it or do you just wait until you’re writing and see what develops?

The voice of Chet — knock on wood — just seems to flow out of me when required. I do no advance planning, but the cat-nap type opportunity often arises. I have to force myself to let some of them go by for the sake of advancing the story.

How did you come up with the idea of Bernie having bad past investments? I particularly like the investment in Hawaiian pants being a fan of Hawaiian shirts myself. Where did that particular idea — the Hawaiian pants one — originate? Wait, you’re not wearing Hawaiian pants right now are you?

Isn’t Bernie a very American-type guy? And very American-type guys dream big. Unfortunately the system doesn’t seem to be set up for them to make a killing. But the whole Hawaiian pants concept tells us a lot about Bernie, the good, the bad, the endearing. It’s a lot of fun to think up his bad investments, the tin futures play, for example. So close, and then that earthquake in Bolivia! (At the moment I’m wearing khakis.)

Which was more difficult — writing from the perspective of a teenage girl or of a dog and why? What are/were the best parts of writing under each perspective?

I love writing from different perspectives. It’s important in this business to challenge yourself, to cast the net as wide as you can. I don’t really think about the difficulty. It’s a question of feeling the voice. I have a lot of faith in the imagination — otherwise I’d be doing something else. But what? Let’s not go there.

Why did you decide to write the Chet and Bernie books under the Spencer Quinn pseudonym?

My agent felt that the books were so different from my other work — lighter, with a warmer, broader kind of humor, plus first-person POV (all my previous novels being third person), and that person being a dog (although not a talking or anthropomorphic dog, important to point that out) – that a different sort of brand would help find the audience that was out there. She was right.

What was it like to be “outted” or publicly identified as the author of the Spencer Quinn books?

Expected. I like being two people. It was a soft sort of anonymity, Scott. A number of people knew, and I told anyone who asked, so I never felt anonymous.

Do you find it enjoyable to try out writing under different voices?

Very. I’m congenitally incapable of being one of those writers who basically write the same book over and over.

Is this Robbie book the start of a series?

Yes.

What are you working on next? Do you plan to go back at some point to writing the type of adult books you were writing before putting on the Spencer Quinn pseudonym?

Robbie, of course, is a Peter Abrahams book. As for Chet and Bernie, I love writing the series and have no plans to stop. At the same time, I have an idea for a whole new series somewhat in the vein of my novels like End of Story, Oblivion, and Their Wildest Dreams, but headed in a different direction. It’s just a question of finding the time. At the moment, I’m just finishing Chet and Bernie five. Chet and Bernie are hired to keep an eye on a talented but troubled movie actor. The actor has a very self-satisfied cat named Brando.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.