Recent Reading: The Killing Trails by Margaret Mizushima

Deputy Mattie Lu Cobb liked her new partner. In fact, she was quite taken with him.

This is the mystery with the K9 police dog, so I bet you can guess who the partner is.

I can tell, I think, that this is a debut novel. I can see the author thinking behind the scenes. I can see thoughts like, “How can I describe my main character without having her look in a mirror? Is this thought about her own appearance too much or does this work?” The prose looks just a little, I don’t know how to put this … self-conscious, I suppose. On the other hand, the author’s decisions were good ones: the descriptions and so on were indeed pretty smooth.

As a mystery, Killing Trail is just so-so. I remember a good while ago reading a historical mystery in which the detective was stymied largely because the murderer was a woman and the detective thought himself in circles looking for a male murderer, while all the time if he had ever, just once, paused to think, “Hmm, what does the PHSYICAL EVIDENCE indicate?” he could have solved the mystery in jig time. In the same way, though the author does a good job throwing red herrings across the trail, if Mattie had trusted her dog more, then she could have thought, “Hmm, why might Robo seem hostile toward this particular guy?” and boom, there you go. On the other hand, Margaret Mizushima has WAY more justification for her protagonist to be a little slow than most mystery authors. Mattie is brand spanking new to the K9 thing, literally on her way home from three weeks of training in how to handle the dog. Some of the training involved “Trust the dog, dimwit!” practice, but it would be startling if Mattie really had that part of being a dog handler down after just three weeks. She honestly does really well with the dog!

As a dog story, this mystery is great! That dog is just beautifully drawn, practically everything about him rings true, and although I think I can see the author painstakingly drawing him into the story, I don’t care. She did a great job capturing Robo as an individual. He seems like a real dog, and actually he is based on a specific individual dog, so probably that helped. But a great choice! I love that this dog was play-trained and has such verve and such a great attitude.

As a bonus, Mizushima only used the word “alpha” once, which is pretty decent considering how embedded this term and concept is in pop culture. I’m sure the K9 trainers and handlers she spoke to and watched probably used the term, but at least Mizushima mostly avoided it.

Digression: The idea of the “alpha” wolf and, even worse, “alpha” dog, is ludicrously distorted from anything to do with actual wolf or dog behavior. Not sure I’ve said that before here, but it’s been interesting to watch because this weird distortion has taken place in my adult lifetime, so I’ve had a chance to watch it happen. It went like this:

Misleading descriptions of wolf behavior based on observations of unrelated captive wolves kept in an enclosure à first wrong description of the “alpha wolf” à wrong descriptions of alpha wolves applied to dogs, where it is an even worse fit to reality à correction of original wrong descriptions and accurate descriptions of wolf behavior enter the field of animal behavior, but simultaneously à an absolute explosion of werewolf paranormals, which picked up the alpha concept, already wrong, and absolutely ran with it à pop culture assumption that the way alpha werewolves are depicted should be based on accurate descriptions of wolf behavior à amazingly distorted view of how real wolves behave heavily popularized à Quora questions such as “When two wolf packs meet and the alpha males fight, does the loser submit to the winner and the two wolf packs merge?” appear in considerable numbers, and there you go, pop culture now has no idea at all how wolves actually behave. Pop culture is committed to werewolf tropes, so who knows how long it will take to get rid of the alpha concept. Probably we’re stuck with it for good.

All right, end of digression, back to the mystery.       

I did find all the characters a little simplistic. Not badly drawn, but again, I can see – or I think I can see – the author making decisions about how to draw them and painstakingly drawing them. Another way to put this is, I think I see the brush strokes. But, again, it’s not that the story is bad. It’s not bad at all. It’s quite good. There’s very little surprising, which I don’t really mind, as I read mysteries for character and setting, not for the mystery part. I enjoyed the dog so much I was fine with Mattie’s fairly cliched backstory – which had some nice details that prevented it from being too cliched. The male lead here, who did not take a hugely central role in this book, is the veterinarian whose wife left him and their daughters to go find herself, and that’s also cliched, but again, largely redeemed from cliché in this case because there are nice details. Among other things, the author makes no attempt to justify the wife’s decision to walk away from her family, which is good, because considering she wants nothing to do with her daughters, that would be hard to justify. Mizushima is plainly setting Mattie and Cole, the vet, up to be an item eventually, but she’s got the restraint to let that relationship unfold slowly.

The other deputies and the sheriff and the female detective who arrives from the city to take charge of the investigation are all drawn simply, in broad strokes, but with just a little complexity as the story moves toward the climax. I liked how Mizushima shifted one of the cops from “jerk coworker” to “maybe actually not such a jerk.” That was believable and I liked how Mizushima used this character throughout the plot. The final interaction between Mattie and her boss is genuinely powerful.

Will I go on with the series? Yes; and here we see the power of putting a teaser for Book Two at the end of Book 1. I was kind of maybe/maybe not on that because as you know I have a lot of books right here and do not need to pick up the rest of a seven-book series. But I enjoyed the beginning of Book 2 quite a bit, so yes, I went ahead and downloaded that.

Update: Okay, I did read the second book after writing this post. I liked it, and I like how the author is handling characters and relationship development, and I still like the dog a lot. But, wow, I may never in my life have seen such an obvious murderer. No red herring even began to distract attention from the exceedingly obvious murderer, who was exceedingly obvious. I don’t read mysteries for the puzzle, but wow, I would prefer a little bit more of a mystery than this! Not sure whether I’ll go on to Book Three.

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Killing Trails by Margaret Mizushima”

  1. I read all of this series earlier this year, I think after someone mentioned it here. I had the same reaction you did to the dog and the characters, and they were why I kept reading. I don’t remember finding the brush strokes too obvious but I’m sure I’m not as aware of the prose as you are.

    As the series went on, there was a tendency for the new villain or victim to have connections to a past one. That was intentional because there’s a series arc as well as the mystery and solution in each volume, but it did start to feel a bit repetitive.

    The author did lose credibility with me later in the series for a couple of points that gave me a “That is not how this works!” reaction. I mean, I understand the difference between author knowledge/attitude and character knowledge/attitude, but these seemed embedded enough that they pulled me out of immersion in the story and made me skeptical.

    I am a sucker for good search and rescue stories and while that’s only part of Robo and Mattie’s duties, there’s enough of that and it’s well enough done that I will probably keep an eye out for new releases in the series.

  2. Good to know how you felt about the rest of the series, OtterB. I will probably go on and try the third book because I do really like the dog and everything to do with him, but if I listed my top ten favorite mystery series, I don’t think this series would be on the list. Maybe I should try that and see!

  3. I read this book back when it was recommended here, but I don’t think I’ll go on with the series, it didn’t hold my attention as well as other books. My favorite books with dogs are Troublemaker by Linda Howard, which is more of an action/adventure/mystery kind of romance but which is really about the dog, and Vanessa Nelson’s Outcast series, which is one of those paranormal women with a mysterious past kind of series, but she has two wonderful dogs.

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