For the Perrys, the Goltzes,

and the Lees.

With thanks to Dr. Jo.


Carl Hiaasen

In one of my favorite scenes in Metzger’s Dog, a group of senior spooks from the Central Intelligence Agency is sitting around talking about a top-secret project known as the Exploding President.

The idea, conceived by a flaky agent named Molnar and ultimately rejected by his superiors, was to create a replica dummy of the President of the United States and then fill it with two hundred pounds of high explosives.

“What the hell for?” asks one of the CIA guys.

“To assassinate assassins. You know, at parades and ceremonies.”

“But that would kill everybody around it for a hundred yards.”

“Right. Well-done hamburger. If we’d gone for that one, we might have gotten the Nuclear President. I guess it’s our loss. Glad to see you’ve found something else for Molnar to do.”

At which point the Director of the CIA looks up earnestly and says, “It’s not fair to mark a man for life just for one bad idea.”

That subtle dose of absurdity is worthy of Graham Greene, who I suspect would approve enthusiastically of Thomas Perry.

So many mystery writers know how to spin a “crackling good yarn,” as reviewers are fond of saying, but precious few make us laugh out loud. Elmore Leonard can do it in his sleep. So can Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block.

Perry has been blessed with the same gift. Other novelists would kill for lines he tosses away like cigarette butts.

“Marbled-eyed beggars with noses like snorkels” is how he describes a mob of hardcore dopers, queuing up for a clinical experiment that doles out free cocaine. The imagery might not be politically correct, but it is wickedly funny.

Another trait that puts Perry in an elite league of writers is the seditious zest with which he breaks the rules of his genre. Metzger’s Dog is notable for its wildly pinballing plot and also for a refreshing scarcity of traditional good guys and bad guys, which frees readers to root guiltlessly for whoever is most entertaining.

In a nutshell, the premise of the story is that a trio of marginally talented crooks sets out to steal a stash of drugs and ends up trying to blackmail the Central Intelligence Agency for ten million dollars. The chain of events is utterly outlandish, a fact wryly (and ruefully) acknowledged by every major player on both sides of the scam. Consequently, the reader is not only forgiving but hooked.

The gang’s nominal ringleader, Chinese Gordon, is a prize. He drives around Los Angeles with a loaded M-39 aircraft cannon mounted in the back of his van, while merrily improvising bawdy verses to “Bringing In the Sheaves.”

Yet, when he’s not scouting for something to rob or blow up, Gordon can be an old-fashioned romantic, struck rapt and goo-goo-eyed by a simple glimpse of his girlfriend reading the newspaper:

“Chinese Gordon watched Margaret arch her back and then rock her hips slightly to get comfortable on the bed. She was definitely losing her suntan, the peculiar demarcation that seemed to intensify certain parts of her with a white light as if they glowed with an energy of their own, or as though some principle of evolution had caused them to be marked as areas of special interest, in the absurdly literal way that nature did things.”

That’s quite a lovely reflection for a common felon, but more important, it’s lovely writing. Metzger’s Dog is rich with it, between the gunplay and the laughs.

Gorgeous and sensible Margaret informs Chinese Gordon that “someday I hope to marry you if I ever can find one shred of evidence that you’re not criminally insane.”

“Feel free,” he says, “to plumb the depths.”

How can you not adore this couple?

In Perry’s world you’ll find no faces from Central Casting, and you’ll hear no dialogue that rings flat or familiar. Almost every character plays against type, and the result is an exquisitely interesting ensemble. There isn’t a bore or a stiff to be found.

While some of the CIA bigshots come off as arrogant boobs, none of their round-table conversations— including the reminiscence about the Exploding President—seems particularly implausible. This was the same outfit, after all, that in real life plotted to kill Fidel Castro with poisoned cigars. Seriously.

So it hardly seems surprising when Perry’s fictional spooks gravely conclude that they are being shaken down by a cell of sophisticated international terrorists. At that very moment, Chinese Gordon and his sidekicks are guzzling beer at a country bar and debating whether it would be prudent to invest their future windfall in a beefalo ranch.

“I’ve been looking into this and Saskatchewan is perfect,” chirps one of the blackmailers. “Way up north where cattle can’t live and land is cheap.”

Purists might say that Metzger’s Dog is more of a caper than a mystery, and that’s technically true. However, Perry’s likable lowlifes deliver plenty of suspense, and the climax is as cinematic as it is mischievous.

About the title: Doctor Henry Metzger is the name of Chinese Gordon’s pet cat. The dog at issue is a vicious hellhound that is foolishly stolen by the gang, which then must operate in constant fear of being mauled and possibly eaten by their new companion.

Mysteriously, only Dr. Metzger the cat, with its cool inscrutable gaze, seems able to subdue and control the demented beast.

Like most of the human relationships in this book, the one between canine and feline is somewhat unconventional. Although it might be incidental to the plot, it’s not incidental to the story—and there is a difference.

Many novels I’ve read would have been greatly invigorated by the presence of a psychotic two-hundred-pound mastiff, and a writer who wasn’t afraid to throw away the leash.

CARL HIAASEN is the author of Tourist Season, Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, and Basket Case, among other bestselling novels. He has worked for The Miami Herald since 1976, and lives with his family and pet snakes in the Florida Keys.

1                  Chinese Gordon was fully awake. He’d heard the clinking noise again, and now there was no question the cat was listening too. The cat, Doctor Henry Metzger, had assumed the loaf-of-bread position on Gordon’s blanket, his ears straight up like a pair of spoons to catch the sound and lock onto it. Doctor Henry Metzger sat up and licked his paw, then froze as he detected some variation in the sound that Chinese Gordon’s ears couldn’t hear.

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