Caroline: Every detective needs a companion. A solo sleuth is at a disadvantage in lots of ways: they have no backup in awkward situations, they have only their own skills to rely on, and — crucially — they have no one with whom to share their thoughts in such a way that they are also laid out helpfully for the reader. Nobody should be lonely while they’re on a case.
The classic way of solving this problem, of course, is for the detective to have a Watson: a loyal, slightly less intelligent friend with some helpful supplementary talents. We’re so accustomed to this central pairing in whodunnits now that its omission is more striking than its presence. Imagine Poirot without Hastings, Alleyn without Fox, Wimsey without Bunter or Vane. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But what if this companion doesn’t have to be human? Perhaps the detective’s best friend can be something else entirely — with four legs, rather than two.
Join me, for a long awaited guided tour of the role that dogs play in detective fictoin.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton
My personal interest in this topic will be apparent to anyone who knows me in real life or follows me on Instagram, where my dog Morris makes regular appearances. He has an adorable propensity to behave like a hapless detective when something he wants is eluding him, be it a squirrel or a snack: he rapidly returns to the scene of the crime and runs around madly with his nose to the ground as if he actually knows what he’s doing. The instinct to reconstruct the incident, gather evidence, and follow where the trail leads is there, even if he does usually require some human assistance to retrieve the lost piece of biscuit from under the furniture.
The powerful sense of smell is the most obviously mystery-orientated canine trait, and you’re going to hear plenty about that in this episode. But the dogs who assist detectives in both real life and fiction aren’t just prized for their olfactory powers. Dogs act as both protectors and companions to their colleagues of all species, and their intuition and presence can provide vital information that is undetectable by human senses. In more extreme and unpleasant cases, a dog can even be trained and honed into a murder weapon of sorts, or act as a stand in when a villain is experimenting with a means of committing a crime. In all parts of a mystery, then, it is reasonable to find a dog.
The honour of the first properly canine detective story in English goes to Wilkie Collins. His novel My Lady’s Money was first published in the Illustrated London News in 1877 and then released as part of a two volume novel set in 1879. In it, a beloved Scotch terrier named Tommie finds a pocketbook in which the number of a stolen banknote is recorded, the discovery of which both clears the heroine of the crime and points the finger at the real culprit. And to make matters even better, Tommie has a counterpart in the seedier side of the case — the private investigator Old Sharon is also assisted by a dog: a pug who doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Puggy”.
But as is often the case with the themes I cover on this podcast, we look to Sherlock Holmes to see how mystery fiction’s canine tropes were established in the popular imagination and thus included in twentieth century crime fiction. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most overt example of a canine Holmes mystery, but there is far more to it than that.
Throughout the stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth is a professed dog lover and greatly admires their deductive prowess. In 1927’s “The Adventure of Old Shoscombe Place”, it is the behaviour of a prize spaniel that confirms Holmes’s hunch about the case — “Dogs don’t make mistakes,” he tells an incredulous Dr Watson. That story, incidentally, was originally titled “The Adventure of the Black Spaniel” but was renamed before publication.
Four years earlier, in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”, Holmes says that “I have serious thoughts of writing a small monograph upon the uses of dogs in the work of the detective,” and he doesn’t just mean as blood or scent hounds. Rather, dogs intrigue him because they can offer an insight into the true character of the humans with whom they cohabit. “Snarling people have snarling dogs, dangerous people have dangerous ones,” he explains. When a previously loyal canine companion suddenly begins to shun his master or even attack him, the dog is demonstrating that there is good reason to be suspicious.
Again and again, across the full canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, we are told to pay heed to a dog’s ability to judge a man’s character. In 1926’s “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”, too, Conan Doyle uses a dog to demonstrate the temperaments and foibles of different characters. The dog’s propensity for repeating its master’s actions also gives Holmes a valuable clue to the mystery’s solution.
Indeed, one Holmesian critic has suggested that Sherlock Holmes’s popularity was in part due to his respect for and deference to his canine colleagues. British interest in animal welfare in general and dogs in particular had risen greatly during the nineteenth century, and thus a fictional hero who was kind to his four legged friends was more likely to find favour than one who was not. I think there might have been other more compelling reasons why Conan Doyle’s stories found such a loyal readership, but his detective’s respect for dogs probably didn’t do his sales any harm. Sherlock Holmes’s clear affection for them helps to soften his image as a cold man of logic; perhaps he is a little human, after all.
Conan Doyle does often describe his detective in canine terms, too. Holmes’s famous “ear-flapped travelling cap” recalls the long ears of a hound, an impression that is backed up across the Holmes canon. In A Study in Scarlet he is a “pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound”, and in “The Red-Headed League” he is a “sleuth-hound”. Best of all, in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” he is “a foxhound with hanging ears and drooping tail as it lolls about the kennels” and a hound “with gleaming eyes and straining muscles”. His method of detection, of using all of his senses to look for small traces and minutely examining footprints, ash and so on, is all characteristically dog-like too. He looks first at physical traces and then reasons from them towards motive and action, not the other way around.
It is in 1892’s “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” that arguably the most influential of Sherlock Holmes’s pronouncements about dogs appears. Called in to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a race horse, after examining the crime scene Holmes has the following exchange with his local police contact, an Inspector Gregory.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
the Inspector asks.
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
This idea that the absence of a dog’s reaction can be as indicative as its presence has continued to resonate with crime fiction authors ever since. The most obvious incorporation of it is in Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but the dogs that don’t bark can be found throughout the genre. Conan Doyle wasn’t the first to make this observation, of course – listeners of The Murder at Road Hill House episode of this show will know that back in 1860 a certain Detective Inspector Jack Whicher used the lack of reaction from a family dog loose in the grounds to prove that the murderer of a small child must have been someone from within the child’s household.
Of course, Holmes is not above making more conventional use of a dog’s talents. In the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, Holmes makes good use of a “queer mongrel with a most amazing power of scent” named Toby. “I would rather have Toby’s help than that of the whole detective force of London,” he tells a sceptical Watson, and Toby valiantly proves that this trust is not misplaced. Conan Doyle, who was described as a “terrier man” himself, goes out of his way to describe Toby in detail. He is an “ugly long haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy waddling gait” and yet an absolute genius at tracking scents to their source.
The practise of using dogs to follow a trail is extremely old, as is the term that describes such animals. There are references to “bloodhounds” in 14th and 15th century Middle English romances. Lesley, Bishop of Ross in Scotland, writes approvingly of such creatures in the 1500s and emphasises the co-operation between people and their dogs, writing that “nor has he imbibed this art of following man from nature alone, but has learned it of man, who, with much labour, forms them skilfully to this”. Dog and human co-operation while on the scent, in other words, goes way back.
In the 17th century, references to “slough dogs” appear too. These are a particular kind of bloodhound that has been taught to follow men on the run rather than big game during a hunt. They were called “slough dogs” because they pursue fugitives “through sloughs, mosses and bogs”. I have seen some accounts since that suggest “slough dog” is a forerunner of “sleuth dog”, but I’m not sure that I trust such a convenient root for a term that could very easily have come from elsewhere in the crime stopping vocabulary.
What is clear, though, is that by the 1600s these slough dogs were being used regularly by landowners and those otherwise empowered to enforce laws. A warrant of 1616 issued by Sir Wilfride Lawson and Sir William Hutton, King’s Commissioners in the north of England, requires that a certain John Musgrave of Carlisle to provide “slough dogs” because of “the increase of stealths daily growing both in deed and report among you on the borders”. Dogs were a regular part of the English effort to police the border against Scottish raiders.
By the nineteenth century, the bloodhound was sufficiently accepted as an invaluable aid in tracking down criminals that the word began to be applied to the nascent profession of detective. Inspector Bucket, the police detective in Charles Dickens’s 1852 novel Bleak House is referred to by critics as “the bloodhound of the law”. Doggedness is a characteristic to be prized in a detective even when that role is barely a decade old.
The degree to which the public placed their trust in dogs as detectives is demonstrated by the public outcry in the 1880s that no bloodhounds had been used in the hunt for Jack the Ripper. The London and national newspapers from the last few months of 1888, when the killer was on the rampage in Whitechapel, were full of articles lamenting the decline in the use of bloodhounds and insisting that if only the Metropolitan Police would bring in some expert dogs, the murderer would soon be caught.
Sir Charles Warren, the Chief Commissioner, seems to have been deeply affected by the constant criticism of his “deplorable carelessness” in not deploying dogs in the investigation. A case in Blackburn a few years prior, in which the murderer of a little girl was supposedly identified by dogs, was enthusiastically and regularly cited by the press. Warren, desperate to show some progress in the hunt for the Ripper, decided to have a go himself.
On 9th October 1888, he held a trial in Regent’s Park with two borrowed bloodhounds, Burnaby and Burgho. A young man was employed to act as their quarry and he was given fifteen minute start before the dogs were released to track him. They tried this experiment a dozen or so times, with the Chief Commissioner himself taking the role of the hunted man a couple of times, and the dogs acquitted themselves well — they weren’t very fast, but they seemed to get results if left to their own devices long enough. The next time the Ripper struck, it was decided, the dogs would be deployed.
The papers breathlessly reported on this semi-public police dog trial, declaring afterwards that “All London was on the look out for the bloodhounds”. Burnaby and Burgho became minor canine celebrities: their pictures were drawn by many a Fleet Street artist and their every movement was eagerly reported on. At one point, Burnaby had to abandon the capital and go to Brighton to participate in a dog show he’d previously been entered into, and hands were wrung over what might occur during his absence.
However, it all unravelled a bit once the Ripper struck again. After the discovery of Mary Jane Kelly’s body on 9th November, officers attempted to use the dogs to track where the killer had gone when leaving Miller’s Court in Spitalfields but had no success — perhaps because the trail was already hours old and much trampled and crossed by other people going about their innocent business in the morning. To make matters worse, the Met had not been at all clear about who was paying for the dogs’ lodging and upkeep while they were on the case, or made any undertakings about how they would be kept safe on the job, so the concerned owner of Burnaby and Burgho finally stepped in, forcibly retired them from police service and took them home to Scarborough in Yorkshire.
The dogs had not succeeded in bringing the Ripper to justice, but the public were quick to excuse their failure and pin the blame on their human handlers instead. One popular theory held that Jack the Ripper had refrained from doing more murders while he knew the bloodhounds were in town because he feared that they would succeed where the human detectives had failed. Whether that was true or not, it is the case that Charles Warren resigned from leading the Met in late November 1888, and the newspapers seemed to feel that it was his failure with the bloodhounds that had been the final straw.
Those nineteenth century Londoners really believed in the power of bloodhounds, and to an extent people are still inclined to trust dogs over human detectives. Today, dogs are used by police all over the world to track suspects, detect illegal substances and find bodies, but there is now some doubt over whether a dog’s evidence is reliable enough to be used alone to make a conviction — some studies have suggested that the unconscious behaviour and biases of their handlers can influence dogs’ responses. As one source of information among several, though, a dog’s evidence is still universally regarded as a very valuable tool in the detective’s arsenal.
After the break: golden age dogs.
With the advent of the golden age of detective fiction at the end of the First World War, the genre entered a more puzzle-orientated, even fanciful phase. The moody characters and gloomy landscapes of the Victorians gave way to fashionable country houses and theatres inhabited by people keen to throw off the sombre atmosphere of the war years.
The inclusion of dogs in the plots of such stories fits the playful, more whimsical tone that some of the most popular golden age authors employed. Gone are the grand Gothic passions of Wilkie Collins; instead we have the neat domestic problems tackled by the likes of Hercule Poirot.
But dogs continue to fill the roles laid down for them in the Sherlock Holmes stories. They are protectors, companions, accomplices and even motives. This latter role is most interestingly seen in the Ellery Queen junior story The Mystery of the Black Dog, in which it is the unfortunate death of a dog that provides the sleuths with the initial impetus to investigate.
Dogs provide valuable intelligence to the detective, and thus the reader, about who can be trusted and who cannot. In the Father Brown story “The Oracle of the Dog”, first published in Nash’s Magazine in December 1923, the dog is a most important witness. “The dog could almost have told you the story, if he could talk,” Chesterton’s sleuth says. The idea that it is worth a detective paying heed to a dog’s opinions on suspects’ moral fibre has become an entrenched part of the mystery genre almost to the point of parody. In the 2019 film Knives Out, which is a kind of love letter to all the tropes and conventions of detective fiction, the behaviour of a dog can offer the viewer an early clue to the mystery’s solution.
It helps, of course, that the golden age’s most famous author was a committed dog lover. Agatha Christie made the acquaintance of her first dog of her very own on her fifth birthday, which she later described in her autobiography to be “the most shattering thing that ever happened to me” and a moment of “such unbelievable joy” that she was made entirely speechless.
Her passion for dogs continued through her childhood into her adult years, and wherever she was in the world she was rarely without a canine companion. She hinted at the emotional support she had received from her dogs in a letter to her second husband shortly after they first met; he didn’t understand what her animals meant to her, she gently explained, because he had never been through “a really bad time with nothing in the world but a dog to hold on to”.
While travelling and living with Max in the Middle East in the 1930s, Agatha was always on the look out for new dog friends. Her personal photographs from their archaeological expeditions include a constant stream of dog pictures, and according to the memoirs of those who worked with her in Iraq and Syria, every expedition house contained several local dogs that Agatha had “adopted”. At Max’s excavation at Nineveh, she befriended a stray sheepdog who she named Toto. Toto was passionately attached to Agatha, but less keen on the rest of the expedition, and was known to “guard” her tent from everyone else. Long after the Mallowans had left Nineveh, Toto’s descendants were still on the site, and meeting the offspring of “Agatha Christie’s English dog” was apparently as great an attraction for local visitors as the excavations themselves.
Max was obviously a fast learner when it came to the virtues of including a dog in the family, because he and Agatha together shared several canine companions during their marriage. Towards the end of their lives, they had a beloved dog named Bingo, who features in the “birthday ode” that Max wrote for her 80th birthday and seems to share his mistress’s distaste for publicity:
“Our Bingo has bitten the Mail and the Express / For those two reporters there is no redress”
As a lifelong dog lover, then, it’s no surprise that the most overtly dog-based mystery of the golden age is by Agatha Christie. Dumb Witness was first published in 1937 and many editions feature a representation of Bob, the fox terrier at the heart of the story, on the cover. The novel is dedicated to “Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand”. Peter was a beloved wirehaired terrier bought by Christie in 1924 — 1928’s The Mystery of The Blue Train is also in part dedicated to him. Dumb Witness is based on a short story titled “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball”, probably written in 1933, and never published during Christie’s lifetime.
In this story, Christie builds a whole plot around the habits of Bob the fox terrier. He is the dumb witness of the title; even though his mistress is already dead by the time Hercule Poirot is called in, the detective pays grave attention to what Bob is able to communicate about the circumstances of her death. Prior to passing away from the complications of a longstanding liver condition, she had a bad fall from the top of the stairs supposedly after tripping on Bob’s ball. Sherlock Holmes’s “curious incident” principle is much in evidence in this plot, too. Although the critics were divided at the time on whether this book was one of Agatha’s best, it has become one of her most enduring stories mostly because of the large role that Bob the dog plays — if you ever meet a wirehaired fox terrier out and about, it’s a decent guess that their name will be Bob.
Another of Christie’s detectives, the duo Tommy and Tuppence, are also terrier fans. In their final outing, Postern of Fate, their Manchester terrier Hannibal helps them to a crucial clue when he insists on running into a churchyard against Tommy’s instructions. As a way of introducing a serendipitous clue, a dog can be very helpful.
Again, like Conan Doyle, Christie liked to use canine characteristics to describe her detectives. In Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot describes himself as “a good dog” who is always nosing around and seeking a scent. His dandy-esque personal habits might not have been very compatible with your average dog, but Hercule and Bob had plenty in common nonetheless.
I’ve referred throughout this episode to the way that dog-like language, as well as dogs themselves, have ended up woven through the classic mystery format. Whether it is the image of the dogged sleuth or the detective visualised as a hound on the scent, it’s a powerful and easily recognisable metaphor. One slightly more obscure phrase piqued my interest as I was coming to the end of my research, though — it crops up twice in use by E.C.R. Lorac. In 1937’s Bats in the Belfry, she has a character describe an incident as “another instance of the dog it was that died”, and then she actually used it again as the title for a novel in 1952, The Dog It Was That Died. Intrigued, I looked into it further. There’s a 1982 Tom Stoppard radio play with the same title, and the phrase also plays a major part in William Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel The Painted Veil.
It’s all a reference to a line from a poem by the 18th century poet Oliver Goldsmith, “An Elegy On The Death Of A Mad Dog”. In it, a man befriends a dog, which later goes mad and bites him. Rather than the expected outcome — the man succumbs to his wound and dies unrewarded for his kindness to the dog — it is the dog that dies at the end. I can see why E.C.R. Lorac was so drawn to this idea as a template for a mystery with a twist at the end.
Plenty of authors beyond Christie have made innovative use of dogs in their detective fiction. The Kennel Murder Case by SS Van Dine from 1933 is a notable example from the US, in which sleuth Philo Vance is able to solve a locked room murder thanks to his in depth knowledge of dog breeding. 1934 was a banner year for dogs in detective fiction on both sides of the pond. In the UK, Mavis Doriel Hay’s Murder Underground opens with a Miss Euphemia Pongleton found dead on the steps of a tube station in London having been strangled with the lead of her dog, Tuppy. In the US, Dashiell Hammett published The Thin Man, a whodunnit set in the last days of prohibition in New York with a plot that prominently features a Schnauzer named Asta. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, made a police dog the titular star of his novel for this same year, with The Case of the Howling Dog. In each story, the dog provides a different but equally vital impetus to the plot. A decade and more later, Edmund Crispin was making sly reference to the importance of dogs in detective fiction with 1948’s Love Lies Bleeding, which features a bloodhound named Mr Merrythought who is prone to occasional fits of homicidal mania. He is very taken with Crispin’s academic sleuth Gervase Fen, though, which I think is meant to be a signal to the reader that Fen is of unimpeachable character.
Waterworks music starts
A few years ago, I went to a talk given by the Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin, in which he spoke about his decades of writing books featuring his curmudgeonly police detective, John Rebus. At the end, he answered a question from an audience member about whether he had any regrets about what he had written. After thinking for a moment, he jokingly said that he wished he hadn’t had his hero adopt a stray dog he names Brillo in 2015’s Even Dogs in the Wild, because now in every subsequent book he had to remember to make Rebus take care of his dog as well as chasing bad guys.
I don’t think his readers regret that choice at all, though. Every detective is better off with a dog.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thedetectivesbestfriend. If you purchase a book using one of the links to Blackwell’s in the shownotes, the podcast gets a small commission at no extra cost to you — it’s a great way to read more books and support the podcast at the same time. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Don’t forget to fill out the audience survey to let me know what you think of the podcast: find it at shedunnitshow.com/survey.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. The show’s production assistant is Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.