Readers who have fond remembrances of their childhood joy in the work of Hugh Lofting may well be willing to make the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to buy into Clea Simon’s Pet Noir series. Others may be less willing.
Panthers Play For Keeps is the latest in the series, and it is a case in point. It is not so much that the events described are so difficult to believe; it is not that the plot is outlandish. It is not that the characters, in the aggregate, are unrealistic. It is the heroine of the series that is the problem. Not that she is an uninteresting independent woman, she is all of that. Pru Marlowe — get it P. Marlowe, pet noir — has herself one extraordinary talent; Pru Marlowe can talk to the animals. Be it her curmudgeonly pet cat Wallis, the bichon Growler/Bitsy she walks, the service dog Spot she is training, or even the pet ferret of the local animal control officer, she manages conversation with them and nearly every other animal she comes across in the course of her day.
If you’re willing to subscribe to that, you’ll find Panthers Play For Keeps an enjoyable read for the most part. Pru is out in the woods walking Spot when they come across the body of a woman. It appears that she has been mauled by some sort of wild animal, presumably a mountain lion of sorts, but there have been no such wild cats reported in the area. Besides, police investigation soon demonstrates that the woman was killed elsewhere, and the body moved to the woods. And later, things get more complicated when another body turns up. Certainly a story line with possibilities.
Add to that budding relationship problems between Pru and her erstwhile detective boyfriend, Jim Creighton, a rival for his attention, a wealthy local family behaving strangely and a “godfather-like” power broker and you have the makings for a thriller that should keep you turning pages.
Until, that is, Pru starts talking to her four legged friends. And when it turns out that these animals are often more engaging and wiser than the two legged characters, then for this reader at least, it was hard to take the book seriously. Especially when arguably the most interesting character in the book is Wallis.
At first I tried to read the cross species conversation as a metaphor for Pru’s internal monologue, but while that may work for a while, there is no question that she is gifted with the power of animal communication. It may be, as she points out, a gift with some drawbacks attached, but it is a gift, no less. So, unless, we see it as self-delusion, which raises other problems, it seems we’re stuck with taking it at face value.
In the end, Panthers Play For Keeps will probably do best with horse whisperers, dog owners and lovers of cat videos. Oh, and anyone, of course, who happens to have a plush Pushmepullyou in their attic.
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