Maggie may be Crais’ best hero yet

SUSPECT

By Robert Crais

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.95; 312 pp.

Maggie’s moment of truth came one hot day in Al-Jabbar Province, Afghanistan, while on patrol. Maggie is a patrol and explosives-detection dog, an 85-pound German Shepherd assigned to a Marine named Pete. “Pete was pack. Pete was hers. Maggie and Pete ate together, slept together, and played together 24/7. She loved, adored, protected, defended, and felt lost without him.”

What Maggie does, she does for Pete. When he tells her, “seek,” she goes looking for explosives.

When the patrol encounters a group of herders, two children and a man tending a flock of goats, the herders stop, and the man raises his hand in greeting.

“The taller male raised his hand in greeting again, and the molecules that carried their smells finally reached Maggie’s nose. She noted their different and complex body odors, the coriander, pomegranate, and onion on their breath, and the first faint taste of a smell Pete taught her to find.”

She smells explosives. It’s a suicide bomber and before Maggie or anyone else on the patrol can react, he sets off his bomb. Pete is wounded. Maggie is wounded. Then snipers open up on the group. Maggie drags herself to Pete, to protect him, but both are shot. The dog survives. Her Marine does not. The dog is sent to a hospital for treatment. She has surgery and is sent back to the U.S. for rehabilitation. She’ll go to a foster family who will make her part of their pack.

In Los Angeles, Scott James and his partner Stephanie Anders, LAPD uniformed patrol officers, are out late one night on duty when they decide to find a restaurant Scott has heard about. Searching for the eatery, they get lost. They stop at an intersection to get their bearings and Scott tells Stephanie to turn off the engine and listen to the quiet. “Let’s sit for a minute. How many times you hear silence like this?” he asks.

The quiet doesn’t last long. A Bentley comes out of nowhere and slowly glides past them. When the luxury car moves on up to the T-instersection in front of them, a black Kenworth truck shoots out of a side street. “It T-boned the Bentley so hard the six-thousand-pound sedan rolled completely over and came to rest right side up on the opposite side of the street.”

The officers turn on their blue lights, call in the accident and jump out of their car to rush to the scene just as shooting breaks out. Men with AK-47 rifles climb out of the truck and open fire on the Bentley and the police officers. Stephanie is hit. Then Scott is hit, and again and again. He passes out.

When the young patrol officer regains consciousness, he is in a hospital bed. His partner Stephanie is dead. The two men who were in the Bentley are dead. Scott is badly wounded but recovering, at least physically. He’s got scars on the inside, post traumatic stress disorder: PTSD. He could have been given a medical retirement, but he’s a hero so the department higher-ups treat him leniently. He’s not going to be able to get a SWAT assignment, which is where he’d been headed before the shooting, so Scott transfers to K9. He’s going to train dogs.

He’s not exactly welcomed with open arms at K9, but he refuses to give up. He doesn’t really bond with the dogs. His sergeant doesn’t think he’s a “dog man.” When he finishes the K9 training course, he is to get his own dog. Scott’s not too interested in the Belgian Malinois he’s offered, but another dog attracts his attention, a German shepherd with surgery scars on her hips. The female dog is a war dog who was wounded and sent to be rehabilitated with an adoptive family, a couple. When the husband dies, the woman donates the dog to the LAPD for use as a K9 officer.

The dog has to be retrained, and she has a problem. The dog was shot in Afghanistan and has a case of canine PTSD. Her name is Maggie.

The two scarred, traumatized veterans, man and dog, bond and set off to find Stephanie’s killers. No one in the LAPD has made any headway in the case, in part because Scott can’t remember much from the shooting despite the psychiatric treatment he’s been receiving. Some things are beginning to come back to him, though. So he sets off to find the killers, and Maggie is by his side.

Baton Rouge native Crais has created heroes in previous books that are indestructible (Joe Pike) and superior (Elvis Cole). Neither of them is as purely good-intentioned or as likeable as Scott James, and none of them has four feet like Maggie. It would seem like an obvious tact to make a dog a hero. Even a bad dog is better than most people. When writers have delved into personification of animals in the past, they’ve often tried to make them be humans in different bodies (think the rabbits in Watership Downs) or some kind of almost supernatural being (think Buck in Call of the Wild). Crais doesn’t make Maggie human-like, just the opposite. He explains why Maggie is superior to people. It’s partly physical, as Crais shows as Maggie watches over Scott as he sleeps.

“Maggie’s long German shepherd nose had more than two hundred twenty-five million scent receptors. This was as many as a beagle, forty-five times more than the man, and was bettered only by a few of her hound cousins. A full eighth of her brain was devoted to her nose, giving her a sense of smell a thousand times better than the sleeping man’s, and more sensitive than any scientific device. If taught the smell of a particular man’s urine, she could recognize and identify that same smell if only a single drop were diluted in a full-sized swimming pool.”

It’s partly how she reacts to what she perceives around her.

“Maggie was bred to guard and protect, so this was what she did. She stood in the still room near the sleeping man, and looked and listened and smelled. She drew in the world through her ears and her nose, and found no threat. All was good. All was safe.”

Once Maggie bonds to someone, her loyalty to that person is absolute. She is brave and fierce in protecting her pack. Her instinct and training is to face a threat and never back up an inch. Scott learns this in the course of their search for the killers, and so does the reader.

Crais is no stranger to the best-seller lists, and Suspect has already been on several, for good reason. It has a relentlessly fast-paced plot. Scott is a brave hero but not a superhero. The villains are very bad people with bad motivations. Many of the good guys are on the wrong track, and some are just confused.

The story is the perfect vehicle to showcase the author’s most remarkable creation: Maggie, who is never confused but always follows her nose to the the correct conclusion. It’s a gripping story but short enough to be read straight through on a long plane flight.