I liked "This Dog For Hire". It kept me entertained from beginning to end. It also kept refusing to be the easy-to-classify book I thought I'd bought.
I was expecting a cosy mystery with a sassy woman PI accompanied by a cute-but-muscular dog that saves the day. It sort of is that, but it mostly isn't.
Rachel Alexander is more spiky than sassy. She's a hard-bitten New Yorker who's too tough to intimidate or to bullshit. She's a thirty-eight-year-old, recently divorced woman who gave up her dog training business when she married and took up the PI business when she divorced, mostly because her family thought it was a terrible idea. Dash, her pitbull who she rescued (stole) as a puppy from punks who wanted to train him to fight, is cute but muscular but he's sidelined for most of the book.
The plot is clever, with a few unexpected but reasonable twists in it. Most of the action is set at the Westminster Kennel Club Show in Maddison Garden and it's clear that this is a world that Carol Lea Benjamin understands very well. Seen through Rachel Alexander's unforgiving and perceptive eyes, the fiercely competitive nature of the show and the idiosyncrasies of its participants are thrown into vivid relief.
The story is a lot darker and more emotionally intense than I'd expect a cozy mystery to be. This isn't a tidy middle-class white-picket-fence kind of tale. We're taken amongst New York's homeless and dying and we're shown the taken-for-granted gay-bashing. A childhood of abuse is a key plot element. It's revealed with skill and told with a compassionate honesty that makes it painful to read.
Once I scrubbed my pre-conceptions and took the book on its own terms, I found myself enjoying being in Rachel Alexander's often abrasive company, partly because the traumas she was dealing with were real and important and not just devices needed to enable neat plot twists.
"This Dog For Hire" came out in 1997 and is the first of nine books in the series, that last being published in 2006. I'm looking forward to reading the next one "The Dog Who Knew Too Much" when it comes out as an audiobook.
I listened to the audiobook version of "This Dog For Hire" which was released in November 2019. It's narrated by Dina Pearlman who is the perfect choice for this series.