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« About a Boy | Main | Die Verwandlung (part 6) »
Tuesday
Dec162008

The Oracle of the Dog

A dog is a devil of a ritualist.  He is as particular about the precise routine of a game as a child is about the precise repetition of a fairy-tale.  In this case something had gone wrong with the game.  He came back to complain seriously of the conduct of the stick.  Never had a thing happened before.  Never had an eminent and distinguished dog been so treated by a rotten old walking-stick.

If you know a lot about dogs (I happen to have grown up with cats), you might be able to divine the secret to this story from the quote above.  The circumstances involve the murder of Colonel Druce, one of those Anglo−Indians who still seem to pepper our imagination with a particular flavor, in his isolated summerhouse on the Yorkshire coast.  A bevy of suspects slip in and out of view: the Colonel’s solicitor, Mr. Aubrey Traill; Dr. Valentine, a foreign neighbor who might just be a expatriated Marquis; Janet Druce, the daughter of the deceased and Valentine’s lover; Donald Druce, her brother; Herbert and Harry Druce, nephews of the deceased; and Patrick Floyd, the Colonel’s ingenious and startlingly arrogant American secretary.  All of them had motives and opportunities (given to us in piecemeal form owing to the brevity of their literary existence), as well as comments on what actually happened.  There is also one other witness who might know much more than anyone else.  Unfortunately all he can do is bark or howl.

 The titular canine is Nox, a big retriever as black as the Latin night for which he is named.  He is also the companion of a young, fair−haired man called Fiennes.  Fiennes was strolling on the coast with Nox and the colonel’s nephews when he heard “a faint and far−off shriek” that indicated, they would soon learn, the discovery of the colonel’s still−warm corpse.  Being a dog lover and of a very modern temperament, Fiennes thinks the “Invisible Murder Case,” as the humdrum press has dubbed it, of special interest precisely because of the reaction of his four−legged friend.  As he tells us and a certain cassock−clad sleuth:

We were … doing nothing in particular — throwing stones for the dog and throwing sticks into the sea for him to swim after …. And then the curious thing happened.  Nox had just brought back Herbert’s walking−stick out of the sea and his brother had thrown his in also.  The dog swam out again, but just about what must have been the stroke of the half−hour, he stopped swimming.  He came back again on to the shore and stood in front of us.  Then he suddenly threw up his head and sent up a howl or wail of woe, if ever I heard one in the world.

Nox, enjoying his starring role, does not stop there.  Upon sight of Traill (who, in a wonderful description, “had a rather grave face and a fine grave manner, but every now and then … seemed to remember to smile”) shortly thereafter, the retriever barks at him “madly, murderously, volleying out curses that were almost verbal in their dreadful distinctiveness of hatred.”  It is this last comment that provokes the otherwise demure Father Brown to vituperate Fiennes for searching for superstitions like the proverbial birds of ill omen.  From there, Fiennes is obliged to provide details untainted with the sludge of poppycock fortune tellers and repeat them slowly until the priest, busy preparing a lecture on the encyclical Rerum novarum, comes to see exactly how the crime might have been committed.

The story is a curious member of the Father Brown collection for three reasons: its length, its unnecessary abstruseness, and the vitriolic way in which the protagonist and amateur detective is permitted to lash out against “heathen humanitarians.”  A wealth of asides and tangential observations informs every page and one forgets, at moments, that we reading about a small British priest and the impossible mysteries that are foisted upon him for our pleasure.  Father Brown himself becomes an aside, a banshee full of pedantic wit and steam that devolves into a life lesson about personalities, which is always the case in Chesterton.  The man most admired (and envied) by Fiennes in his account is undoubtedly Floyd, whose tall thinness, spastic know−it−all impertinence, and boundless energy are so clearly inherited from this detective obsessed with empirical evidence that even Fiennes notices the similarity.  But it is not similarities that we are after.  Similarities do not explain why perfectly rational people do the wildest things, even when they sense they will not get away with it, and others with almost every opportunity do not seize the moment even when they sense they will never have it again.  As much as we might hope to find evidence in the smallest microcosms of our universe we would still do well to instruct ourselves through observing all varieties of behavior in our fellow species: how they act, what they say, what their goals and ambitions are in life, and what they think is right and wrong.  And, sometimes, it even pays to notice the differences in other, somewhat less evolved species.

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