To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis’ TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is a clever mix of science fiction, mystery, and romance, wittily playing with the conventions of all three to provide a hysterical comedy with the class consciousness of P. G. Wodehouse or Oscar Wilde. The characters recognize that time travel creates the possibility of incongruities (causing events to take place that are known not to have happened) and that their attempts to fix the incongruities could be either part of the system’s self-stabilization or the cause of further incongruities. The plot involves a spiraling series of mysteries, and historian Verity Kindle (in historical disguise as Verity Brown) revels in her role as detective, frequently drawing allusions to Hercule Poirot and comparing herself and primary character Ned Henry to Lord Peter Wimsey and his sidekick Harriet Vane. Ned is smitten the first time he sees Kindle, and their romance flowers throughout the book. It is contrasted to the love of Terence St. Trewes, a bumbling undergraduate, for Tossie Mering, an apparently empty-headed socialite.
As the novel begins, Henry is on a mission to find the bishop’s bird stump in Coventry Cathedral, shortly after it was destroyed in an air raid. Lady Schrapnell, who is funding the cathedral’s reconstruction, wants every detail to be perfect; thus, she wants to verify whether the bird stump was present during the air raid. Ned is pulled out of the mission because he suffers from time lag as a result of too many trips to the past, and he is sent to 1888 to recuperate—as well as to perform one more mission. In his muddled, time-lagged state, however, he does not comprehend what this mission is.
Soon after landing in 1888, he hooks up with Terence. Thinking that Terence is his contact, he embarks with Terence on a trip up the Thames. They reach the Mering house, where Ned discovers that his contact is Verity. Together, they endeavor to discover why Verity’s attempt to save a cat from being drowned may have altered the course of history, along with trying to find the bishop’s bird stump and to prevent the marriage of Tossie and Terence, each known to have married someone else. Willis fills the plot with unexpected turns and misdirections, scattering dozens of fascinating references to how history might have been changed drastically by small events.