Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (January 7, 2014)
Suspect, by Robert Crais, offers one of the great pleasures of crime fiction by welcoming the reader into the mind of a born killer, Maggie. Maggie is a pain-wracked veteran who after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Through nightmares and flashbacks, she bides her time, waiting to sink her teeth into the throat of her next prey.
Maggie is a German Shepherd.
Yes, she’s a killer, but she’s also an intelligent, agile working dog in the Los Angeles Police Department’s K‑9 unit. She’s equally happy to guard a millionaire’s compound or a poor man’s junkyard; just give her someone to kill. Her new partner Scott James is an LAPD officer suffering in his own PTSD hell after failing to save his previous partner in a shootout. Both he and Maggie are scarred and flinching, prone to sleepless nights of terror. Scott hopes that by healing Maggie he can heal himself, but he’s got more than a dog to care for: he’s got a career to salvage, a limp to hide, and a mountain of guilt to conquer. Most of all, he’s got a crime to solve. The problem is, none of this is as interesting as the dog.
Crais’s spare, measured storytelling does just what it’s supposed to, enlightening the reader with hardly a trace of stylistic flourish. The dialog reads clean, as if recorded by a transcriptionist. Characters come to life with minimal but evocative physical descriptions. The action sequences unfold in the same flat but effective manner. This writer lets the action do the talking, which is not surprising considering Crais’s history as a screenwriter.
But Crais can’t keep it quite that dry when it comes to the dog, and this might be why she’s the heart of the book. The story opens wide whenever Maggie goes to work, letting the reader share in Scott’s awe at her perception and power. She ‘sips’ the air, she finds the cone, she alerts, she holds and attacks with magnificent savagery. A few sections are told through Maggie’s point of view. Maggie’s areas of concern are focused, but her world is alive and astonishing, and predominantly scent-based. It’s beautiful and frightening to experience the world through her instinct-driven nose. She’s a German Shepherd, a dog/wolf hybrid, a breed so savage that in extreme cases euthanasia is the only option. Crais is not afraid to let the reader know just what that savagery looks like.
Through the narrative in Suspect, and the interplay between its powerfully damaged canine and human protagonists, Crais reminds us that cops and dogs have something basic in common: they are fiercely loyal to their own. But canine loyalty is adaptable. A dog will make a pack where she finds it—with a cat, a duckling or a primate. Baboons have been known to steal wild dog pups and incorporate them into their troops, socializing the pups through food, grooming, and play. Once their loyalties are established, these wild dogs intently guard their new packs. Dogs have genetically self-selected their ability to bond.
In Suspect, Maggie has lost her pack, and she’s depressed and resigned and largely indifferent to her surroundings. Scott tries to win her over with food, affection, patience and play, while they work together to solve the mystery of his human partner’s murder. And though there’s smuggling, flashbacks, hypnotherapy, dirty cops, break-ins and a rain of bullets, the real story of Suspect belongs to the dog. She’s the most compelling character, not because the other characters are weak, but because Maggie is so strong.