Don’t let the cover fool you—this isn’t one of those super cutesy animal stories that has been populating the New York Times Best Seller lists and leaving readers groping for tissues. People who buy it for the altogether adorable cover with its chipper little dog holding a portion of a missing person’s flyer in its mouth may be disappointed. It’s a super cute cover for a book that isn’t cute at all.
Cynthia Robinson’s The Dog Park Club simply isn’t a typical mystery or animal book. Fans of Marley and Me, Dewey the Library Cat, or Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who series may be a little (or a lot) disappointed. In truth, The Dog Park Club isn’t really about dogs (or four legged animals of any kind): it’s about people.
The main character is Max Bravo—his name just conjures up images of a swashbuckling hero from a ‘50s pulp magazine. He isn’t. But it’s a great name for the main character of The Dog Park Club.
Max Bravo, a slightly snobby opera singer with an offbeat sense of humor and an extremely cynical outlook, is the book’s narrator. We meet him when he shares: “I had finished the Sunday matinee, tucked away a trencherman’s portion of boiled meats and spatzel, washed it down with several tankards of Riesling, and was contentedly buried myself under a bunker of eiderdown.”
Like many of the characters, he’s simply over-the-top darkly quirky fun. Throw in an impressive vocabulary, a good literary background, and a brutally honest demeanor, and you’ve got Max Bravo. Consider how he describes Claudia, his best friend: “I had expected Claudia to look like hell. But I didn’t expect her to look like the madwoman from a gothic novel, the one that the husband keeps locked up in the attic so she can claw at the floorboards wearing nothing but a chemise.”
But despite his flamboyance and, at times, his arrogance, something about him is so relatable. Perhaps it’s the humbleness that sneaks in at odd moments, such as when Max talks about the dog park club members and says “Other people showed up [at the dog park], and then scurried away as quickly as they could, leaving us to our insular, hermetic weirdness. We were the idiot dauphins ruling a shabby kingdom that nobody else wanted.” Despite his grandeur, Max Bravo is, at times, completely human.
Most of the characters—all of whom meet each day at the local dog park—are equally quirky, both in appearance and personality. Or as Max describes:
They were also what are referred to in movie trailers as ‘a ragtag bunch’. On-screen, they’d be an ensemble cast of hard cases who are released from a military brig to carry out some complicated, certainly suicidal mission behind enemy lines. Or, I could see them as the crew aboard a rusting old bucket of a space freighter—kooky but capable individuals who each had his own signature eccentricity like singing Little Richard tunes or reading comic books or reciting snatches of James Joyce.
In the beginning, none meet with Max’s approval save Amy: “Amy Carter was different from the rest of us. She was poised and pretty, so pretty you almost forgot she was pregnant. And for a moment I had flattered myself into thinking that she found me handsome. She didn’t say so. It was just the way she’d look at me—with those brown eyes that made me feel like I was drowning in sable.”
And Amy is where the mystery comes in. In a plot that might seem too Law and Order ripped from the headlines, pregnant Amy disappears, and her husband Steve, who is definitely not a member of the dog park club, is (at least in Max’s mind) the prime suspect. At first it all fits—Steve is a “big cretin” with a fishing boat (for easy disposal of the body). He is seen looking a little too cozy with the very attractive real estate agent Stephanie Saint Claire (Robinson comes up with great character names) and burying something in his backyard.
All highly suspicious and enough to turn the Dog Park Club into the Scooby Doo gang—but the plot serpentines and ends up in places somewhat surprising.
At times the book seems a little busy, has a touch too much going on, but strong writing, interesting characters, and humor keeps the pages turning. Even though the story is much darker than the book cover suggests (the reference to Double Indemnity late in the story seems particularly appropriate), the humor is always present. And like so many aspects of this story, it, too, comes in surprising places—such as two characters using cans of fava beans to break out of a burning building.
Throw in a ghost—Max’s grandmother Baba appears and reappears (despite the fact she died in 1978) to offer cryptic advice—“You cannot see because you are blind as that gadjo mother of yours”—and the smorgasbord of surprises is complete.