Cosseted, purebred family dogs, going on “walkies” dressed in little coats, apparently long with all their hearts to be stray mutts – to be lean and scruffy, to have tough, ill-mannered, inappropriate friends, to live by their wits and do important work. This trope of dog fiction is at least as old as Mary Poppins, in which Miss Lark’s Andrew, a small fluffy dog who sleeps on a silk pillow and goes to the hairdresser to be shampooed, reveals to Mary (who understands dog language) that he dreams of running free with a neighbourhood stray to “sniff about in drains or garbage tins.”
Rachelle Delaney makes jaunty use of this tradition in her story of JR, a Canadian Jack Russell terrier living in Moscow with his diplomat human, George. In the book we discover that Moscow is home to a large population of feral dogs, some of whom have learned to use the subway to get around the city (it must be true, it’s on YouTube!). Delaney uses this intriguing phenomenon as a starting point from which to build a charming doggy detective story, as JR escapes his cozy apartment and joins a pack of street dogs trying to solve the mystery behind the gradual disappearance of their cohorts. Who is kidnapping Moscow’s strays, and why?
The nutty humour is pitched perfectly at the audience. Kids who spend hours hunched over Dog Breeds of the World will adore thumbnail portraits of Beatrix the elegant keeshond, Pie the timid Australian shepherd, Hazan the hyperactive vizsla, and tough mutts Boris and Fyodor. They’ll appreciate the breed jokes, too: “Embassy dogs almost never complained about their humans – except for the dachshunds, but they complained about everything.”
The embassy dogs come from a variety of countries, but their language is a kind of canine Esperanto that includes wonderfully apt phrases such as “going full terrier” and the ultimate insult, “He’s such a cat.” The dogs are doggy in some respects (they experience the world through their noses), but really they are like kids who’ve been let off the leash. Humans get similar archetypal treatment. There’s George, the hapless ladies’ man with unfortunate taste in cologne; Katarina, the anorexic supermodel; and elusive avant-garde performance artist Filip Filipov.
Because JR is a visitor to Moscow, it makes sense that he behaves like a tourist, asking for information about the Kremlin and thinking the Red Square is a big red box. However, Delaney doesn’t entirely avoid a tendency toward travelogue, including some parenthetical lumps along the lines of “… the State Historical Museum, a red-castle-like building capped with a white roof and turrets.” Some of the jokes are also laboured (a comic confusion between “dachshund” and “dacha” doesn’t quite float). In most cases, though, Delaney blends her research smoothly. We might think the story about a supermodel who stabbed a stray dog on the subway is just Moscow lore, but it is really a clue.
With the publishing industry’s current enthusiasm for young adult and crossover books, the early middle-grade reader has been neglected. Energetic but not too clever, The Metro Dogs of Moscow ably fills that gap. Unlike Doreen Cronin’s noirish The Trouble with Chickens, another dog-detective novel, it’s not a genre parody; Delaney doesn’t wink over kids’ heads. The mystery of the disappearing dogs is nicely constructed, with clues artfully woven throughout the narrative and a gradual building of tension that culminates in a glorious chase scene. The style is straightforward and attuned to the pleasure of language, with phrases such as “a one-walkie-a-day kind of dog” and “the off-leash dance.” The author also has a good time with Russian: “Kroshka Kartoshka” (a fast-food chain) and “Mendeleyevskaya” (a metro station) are as much fun to say out loud as the names of obscure dinosaurs.
The emotional pitch is also spot on. Though things get a bit scary during the climax – which involves the possibility of the kidnapped dogs being forced into a blood-sport fight – we never lose the sense of benign good-heartedness, a tone that gives middle-grade novels their particular flavour and appeal.
My only caveat: this book cries out for illustrations. Not only would drawings obviate the need for some of the touristic descriptions, they would add another level to the personality-based humour.
When did we decide that nine-year-olds don’t want illustrations in their books? Not those elegant tipped-in plates in the “classics,” but the line drawings that so enhanced middle-grade novels of the past. Think of Mary Shepard’s portrayal of Mary Poppins flying through the air; of the moody, grainy drawings in Bridge to Terabithia; of Patsy Berton’s illustrations in her father’s The Secret World of Og.
Isn’t it time for this idea to come around again?