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I love mysteries and I love animals, so I’m pleased that there’s a long tradition of mysteries with important roles for animals. Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, DEAD CERT and most other Francis novels, Braun’s THE CAT WHO... books, Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries with fascinating wildlife-- the list goes on and on.
So it’s not surprising that animals found their way into my Maggie Ryan mystery series. Among them are the German Shepherd in MURDER IN THE DOG DAYS, the take-charge cat in BAD BLOOD, and Zelle the black cocker spaniel in several of the books.
But the Maggie book that literally crawl with animals is MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL–– for several reasons.
First, it’s about science. Helping scientists and keeping them honest is one of the main tasks of statisticians like Maggie. The story takes place in 1969, and of course the biological sciences have changed in many ways since then, but animal research continues to have an important place in research like biomedical research. As in 1969, animals are used when the research goals are important and the questions can only be answered in complex living systems. My degree is in experimental psychology, and my first paying job at Cornell involved training lab rats. So laboratory rats like B-716 and D-832 are important to the plot, as is understanding the commitment of the scientists to humane and careful research.
Second, MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL is about humans, of course, but focuses on our links to the animal world. Maggie Ryan is a bright, fun-loving statistician with a prankish sense of humor, but she’s suffered painful betrayals in her love life already, and wants to keep relationships with men strictly casual. She is determined to remain an independent woman who doesn’t depend on anyone. Maggie explains this to her friend Monica, a graduate student in neuropsychology who also works at the lab, and goes on:
“Everything was going according to plan until I bumbled into Nick. Damn it, Monica, why can’t I shake it off?”From Monica’s scientific point of view, the human needs we like to separate into intellectual, emotional, spiritual or physical categories are all based in one incredibly complex biological system of body and brain. Actor Nick O’Connor is more artist than scientist, but comes to a similar conclusion. In this book, we first see him acting the role of Ursula the Pig Woman, then walking his new dog Zelle. His realization that his life is out of balance drives him to Maggie’s side despite her reluctance and leads him to take a job caring for the laboratory animals. In this scene, he patrols the lab grounds at night:
“People can’t shake off what they’re built to do.”
“I am not built for that!” Another flare of anger, or was it despair?
Monica said mildly, “I thought you were asking a neuropsychologist about yourself as a human animal. Abstractly.”
Maggie’s tense hand pushed back a windblown black curl. “Abstractly. Right. Okay, I’ll be good. Lecture away.”
Monica kept her voice dry and detached. “There’s not that much to lecture about. We belong to a species that goes in for pair-bonding. So the majority of us develop a strong attachment to someone else. It involves sex, nurturing, grooming, feeding, rearing of young–– practically everything we can share. And since human infants are helpless for such a long time, having two parents has turned out to be a good way to see that the species survives.” She stopped; she could hear the bitterness seeping into her own voice.
Her friend had heard too. “Yes. Abstractly, it’s great. It may even be a good life for people who want to raise infants, and who stay pair-bonded, and who don’t suffer other catastrophes. But for the rest of us it’s hell. For you and me, right?”
“All for the good of the species.”
“Good?” asked Maggie. “To have so many people miserable? Because nothing hurts more than when that pair-bond breaks.”
Still no signs of cars in the lot. But the woods might have eyes. He wandered out the front door casually, hands in pockets; but everything was still. Or rather, not still, but murmuring with the normal sounds of an early summer night. Whispering leaves, frogs and insects singing, crying aloud for a mate. Well, he certainly could sympathize with that. Feeling a rueful primeval kinship with them, mateless Nick strolled toward the rows of pines overgrown along the front of the old lab.In MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL, Maggie and Nick puzzle over the murder and slowly resolve the issues separating them, and this most scientific, least romantic book in the series becomes the most romantic too.
PM Carlson talks about the background of MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL: