Mystery writers are a weird bunch. They organize meetings and invite forensic scientists, retired FBI agents and secret service agents. Then they pepper them with questions like:
“Where can my hero be shot and still survive?”
“Can a person swim with broken ribs?”
“How safe is it to handle cyanide?”
“How long does it take to smother someone with a pillow?”
I kid you not.
I once sat in one of these meetings and watched the speakers’ expressions change from mildly amused to downright horrified.
Given that I will never write a scene from a killer’s point of view – heck, I don’t like reading that stuff – I probably will never use most of the information gleaned from these gatherings. And yet, as a mystery writer, I do view the world differently.
Like the time I was walking my dog, following a new stretch of boardwalk. The wooden path veered away from the Chesapeake Bay, along a river and passed a residential area before crossing a stretch of estuary. Up ahead I could see that the path continued through some trees.
As we neared the center of the estuary, clouds suddenly blocked the sun. The sparkling watered turned gray and flat. The path ahead darkened. And the trees – the trees actually loomed.
A normal person would think “Hmm, maybe I should turn around.”
Instead, excitement swept over me as I thought “Wow, what a great place to set a murder.”
Whipping out my phone, I snapped a photo.
The thrill of finding a potential scary scene for my books often arises unexpectedly. Only recently, while following GPS directions down a winding, two-lane road, I passed a collection of old institutional buildings.
The gray stone façades stretched several stories high. Ivy clung to the walls, draping across barred windows and imposing doors. Weeping willows, their trunks thick and misshapen, dotted the overgrown landscape.
“What is this place?” I asked my husband.
“Old insane asylum,” he said. “Don’t know why they never tore it down.”
We drove on in silence. But my insides were jumping up and down as I thought “Wow, what a great place to set a murder.”
Then there was the time I was scrolling through my email, only to stumble upon an invitation to The Poodle Club of America’s National Specialty – a yearly gathering that brings poodles from all around the world to compete for various prizes in conformation, obedience, agility and hunting.
Yes, in addition to the Westminster competition you see on television, the American Kennel Club supports hunting tests for dogs. While the Westminster competition seeks the most structurally sound dogs, the hunting tests showcase the dogs’ ability to work with their “handlers.”
For decades, only designated hunting breeds – spaniels, setters, retrievers and the like – were allowed to participate in sanctioned AKC tests. Poodles need not apply.
According to a friend who bred and hunted with English setters, poodles were specifically banned from hunting.
She revealed this interesting tidbit while strolling the 50 acres we once owned in Oregon.
Hunting dogs need to be trained to work with their people. My friend Arlene had been teaching her three setters to locate flocks of hiding quail, identify the flock by lifting a front paw and pointing their noses at the birds and waiting for Arlene’s signal before rushing into the brush to chase the birds into the air.
Now wild quail are not common in most backyards. Arlene had used tame quail to teach her dogs the basics. When she learned of the flocks of quail living on our property, she asked if she could bring her dogs out to see if they could find the birds.
I agreed provided no one got hurt. And when the time arrived, I asked if Charlie, my standard poodle, could come along. Arlene agreed.
So there we were, strolling the rolling hills. Up ahead, Arlene’s three setters frolicked and sniffed and appeared to be having a great time. Charlie ran beside them.
The dogs started to circle a giant hedge of blackberry bushes. Charlie sudden stopped, lifted his front paw and pointed at a spot in the bushes. The three setters continued loping around what they clearly viewed as nothing more than an obstacle to their fun.
I looked at Arlene.
“Should I send him in?”
Arlene shrugged. “Sure.”
Turning to Charlie, I said, “Okay, get the birds.”
Charlie dashed into the brambles. A flock of quail burst out, squawking, into the sky.
The setters froze, turned and ran back toward the brambles. It was too late, however. The birds had already flown.
“Have you ever trained Charlie to hunt and point?” Arlene said.
“No. I had no idea he could point.”
Arlene sighed. “This is why the AKC banned poodles from the hunt tests. They were better than the hunting breeds.”
While this was the first time I’d heard about hunting poodles, it didn’t prepare me for a decades-long debate that erupted on my email discussion lists. A group of poodle owners, led by a California vet, petitioned the AKC to once again allow poodles to compete in the sanctioned hunting tests.
I wasn’t particularly surprised that owners of designated hunting dogs opposed the change. After all, only a certain number of dogs were allowed to participate in each trial. Adding a new breed to the mix would increase the demand for the limited spots in the trial.
I was very surprised, however, by the number of poodle owners who opposed the move. These folks tended to view hunting as, well, beneath a poodle’s dignity.
While I’m not and never will be a hunter, I’ve watched hunting dogs’ enthusiasm whenever their people offer to take them hunting.
From the dogs’ point of view, hunting involves a stroll in the great outdoors with their favorite person. If all goes well, there’ll even be a good meal at the end of the day.
The dogs’ only responsibility is to round up whatever birds their people shoot and return them to the hunter. No catching, no killing, no plucking, no cooking. No wonder hunting dogs enjoy the experience.
Given this, I was among those cheering the AKC’s decision to allow standard poodles to enter hunting tests. (I knew a few miniature and toy poodles who would have loved to participate, but you take your victories where you will.)
Years passed. People posted photos of hunting poodles on social media. Even so, I’d never actually seen a hunting test.
But now one was being held on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, about a 90-minute drive from where we lived.
After a few phone calls I learned that I could come watch the test. Dogs who weren’t participating in the test weren’t allowed to watch. However, a nationally known breeder of hunting poodles would be conducting a free hunting aptitude test. If I wanted to bring Dash, my current standard poodle, he could participate in that.
My sister Joan and her longhaired dachshund offered to join us and take pictures. Seeing an opportunity for a fun weekend, I made hotel reservations.
The day of the tests was chilly and overcast. We arrived at the test site, a large farm, mid-morning.
A dirt road leading deep into the farm had been blocked off with sawhorses. The sign posted on the wood read “Only entered dogs beyond this point.”
We pulled into a gravel parking lot, leashed the dogs and stepped out of the car. To our left, a group of people and poodles gathered around an open field. To our right – down the dirt road – I could see more people huddled near a pond.
The crack of a gun sounded. Joan and I jumped. The dogs sniffed the air. Someone nearby assured us that they were using blanks.
Another gun shot.
Say it with me: “Wow, what a great place to set a murder.”
I’m not going to tell you here what happened next. You can read about it in The Turquoise Treasure. Don’t worry; you won’t find dead wildlife anywhere in the book.
You will, however, find Rory imitating Dash’s method of retrieving. And, no, hunting dogs aren’t supposed to fly in orbit.
Originally published in The Diamond Digest
copyright 2020 by Lynn Franklin