I never intended to make Brady, my big lovable Bernese Mountain dog, and Rondo, my huge goofy mutt, characters in one of my hard-boiled crime novels; but when I write, they are always with me, often sitting on my feet, their big heads in my lap.
So I suppose it was inevitable—but it was also a happy accident.
The fact is that when I write, I rarely intend to do anything. I never outline. I don’t think about my plot in advance. I just set my characters in motion and discover the story as I go.
Each time I start a new book, the first thing I do is to write a paragraph that establishes its mood. Later, it may end up on the first page of the novel, or somewhere in the middle of the book, or even nowhere at all. But until I get the mood right, I can’t press on. For me, everything flows from there.
When I began The Dread Line, the fifth novel in my series featuring Liam Mulligan, the first thing I wrote was this:
“He was a serial killer, but I didn’t hold that against him. It was just his nature. The way he killed irked me some. His victims were all missing their heads. But what I couldn’t abide was his habit of using my porch as a dump site.”
I had no idea who the killer was. Worse, I didn’t want to write another serial killer book. I’d already published one (Providence Rag) based on a real case I once covered as a journalist, and reliving those terrible days had been painful for me. I had vowed never to write about a serial killer again. But I loved the feel of that paragraph—the way it set the noir mood of the novel I wanted to write.
As I pondered what to do, I looked down at Rondo, the most territorial of my 130-pound behemoths, and thought about him patrolling my big back yard, driving off every intruder from foraging deer to our neighborhood’s most efficient killer, a friend’s predatory cat.
And then I knew. The serial killer in that first paragraph—which I kept as the opening of the novel—was a feral tomcat who deposited its daily kill on Mulligan’s back porch.
To deter the killer Mulligan dubbed “Cat the Ripper,” he would need a dog. A big one. So he rescued a young Bernese Mountain dog named Brady at a local animal shelter and set him loose in the yard.
I figured that would do the trick, but the dog and the cat didn’t see it that way. When the two animals first encountered each other early one morning, Brady tried to make friends, got scratched on the face for his trouble, and immediately became terrified of the intruder.
Meanwhile, Mulligan had bigger things to worry about—the things that emerged as the main plot and sub-plots of the novel. He became obsessed with a baffling jewelry robbery. He was enraged that someone in town was kidnapping and torturing family pets. And all of this—including his vendetta with Cat the Ripper—kept distracting him from a big case that needed all of his attention.
The New England Patriots, still reeling from a double murder charge against one of their star players (true story) hired Mulligan (not a true story) to conduct a background check on a college star they were thinking of drafting. To all appearances, the player was a choirboy, so at first the case seemed routine. But as soon as he started asking questions, he got push-back. The player had a secret, and somebody was willing to kill to prevent it from being revealed.
The detective work kept Mulligan away from home for long hours, and one day he returned to find that Brady had shredded his couch, tossing stuffing all over the place. (The real Brady had never done anything like that, but the real Rondo had.) Mulligan did a little research about destructive dogs and learned that it was usually the result of separation anxiety. The solution—another dog to keep Brady company. Enter Rondo, another rescue from the local kennel.
As I sat at my keyboard day after day, Mulligan’s two dogs grew inseparable, just as my two big boys did. And soon, their personalities emerged on the page—personalities that corresponded nearly exactly to my real dogs.
Rondo was protective, displaying his suspicion of strangers by barking incessantly at them. Brady was gregarious and affectionate with every one he met. Rondo was eager to please, constantly studying Mulligan for clues about what he should do next. Brady was stubborn and independent, obeying commands to come or stay only when it suited him. Rondo loved to fetch, gleefully chasing tennis balls across the yard and carrying them back to Mulligan. Brady watched the balls sail over his head and tossed Mulligan a look that said, “You expect me to get that?
But the two dogs—both named after New England sports heroes (Tom Brady of the Patriots and Rajon Rondo, formerly of the Boston Celtics)—surprised me by becoming integral to the main plot. Both—but especially Rondo—were always on alert for intruders. More than once, their barking alerted Mulligan to the nighttime appearance of bad guys who intended to do him harm.
Cat the Ripper shocked me by playing a larger role too. One day, instead of depositing the corpse of a mouse or a wren on Mulligan’s porch, he showed up clutching a severed human ear in his jaws.
Although The Dread Line marks the first time in the series that Mulligan has lived with a dog, I’ve always included dogs in my novels. Why? Because they are invaluable for developing characters. You can learn a lot about people by the way they treat animals.
This article first appeared as a guest blog Janet Rudolph’s “Mystery Fanfare.” You can read more of what she has to offer here.
The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva is the fifth hardboiled crime novel featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter and part-time private eye in Rhode Island. To order it from a choice of independent or chain online bookstores, please click here.