Susan Conant Essay - Critical Essays


Susan Conant’s style is reminiscent of that found in popular mystery fiction featuring strong female protagonists, such as the series of Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton, which were popular during the 1980’s, when Conant was first inspired to write mysteries. In her character-driven mysteries, Conant presents her stories through the first-person narrative of Holly Winter, whose perceptions of people and situations she encounters are sometimes unreliable and distorted by her emotional reactions. Winter’s point of view is the narrative device in all of Conant’s dog mysteries. Her voice gains maturity as she survives various attacks and seeks justice for mistreated dogs and people.

Conant’s literary strength is her use of humor, particularly her characterizations of eccentric and pretentious people. Winter recognizes the flaws of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, environment, wittily commenting about Ivy League culture and the abundance of psychologists. Conant’s professional background as a language educator enables her to present dialogue well.

Conant’s depiction of places immerses readers in her settings. Her expertise and insights regarding dogs can be considered both a strength and a weakness. At times, the details are welcome, but sometimes they seem intrusive and overwhelming. Conant admits that she has an interest in teaching readers about proper dog ownership and care. Through her characters, she stresses themes of animal welfare and humanitarian treatment, warning readers of abuses at puppy mills and animal research laboratories.

Conant’s experiences as a psychologist’s wife and longtime resident of Cambridge provides authenticity while sometimes presenting information that eludes readers unfamiliar with those subjects. Usually, such incidental descriptions and revelations are not essential for resolution of Conant’s mysteries and do not serve as red herrings. Conant’s mysteries are sometimes predictable and have weak conclusions. Villains’ motivations occasionally seem unbelievable and not substantial enough for the individuals to resort to committing crimes or murders. Narrative pacing is frequently slowed by too many unnecessary details and introspection, particularly involving psychological disorders and treatments.

Conant’s characterizations of dogs are often more vividly portrayed and developed than those of humans. Her canine characters exhibit authentic dog behavior, while some of her people are caricatures. Through her characters, Conant emphasizes themes of service and loyalty as well as of disobedience and stubbornness. In particular, her canine characters underscore her overall themes of companionship and devotion. Conant’s presentations of exploited, abused, and neglected characters, both human and animal, stress her themes of mercy, tolerance, and the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

A New Leash on Death

Conant introduces Holly Winter in her first mystery, A New Leash on Death, which foreshadows many of the situations and relationships that are important to Winter in later books in the series. By revealing Winter’s reactions to crises, Conant establishes Winter’s independent personality and commitment to dogs. Readers learn that the dog trainer is resourceful and determined to protect animals from negligent owners and that she will seek assistance when necessary to...

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