I don’t write about myself in my stories. But I do write about what I find around me. In many ways I’ve long viewed my work as post-it notes for those I hold close. Messages that whisper, ‘I might not say this out loud but we’re all scared, all excited, all baffled and entranced by the rich dark thing we call the world. You’re not alone. You’re part of the ceaseless, questioning, unfinished throng we call “humanity”. This is who we are.’
The Costa books came out of my wondering how a good, ingenuous young man would survive in a society that was as bleak and broken as it was beautiful. That was a deliberate choice on my part. Sometimes those ideas happen without my conscious knowledge too.
My current book (excluding The Killing) is the Venetian standalone Carnival for the Dead. One of the key ‘characters’ in it is a small dog which may or may not be the same animal seen in this painting by Carpaccio which you’ll find in the wonderful little Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice.
Click for a bigger view but to be honest the only way to appreciate this and the other wonderful Carpaccios in the Scuola is to go to Venice and see them for yourself.
The little dog in that painting serves a purpose, and guessing what the purpose is forms one of the riddles inside the book. Yes, it is a book of riddles, a conscious nod towards writers who’ve inspired me like M.R. James, Daphne du Maurier, Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Aickman. Not a police thriller. I don’t get a kick out of reading the same kind of book again and again. So why would I writing the same thing?
But here’s the truth. I wasn’t just writing about Carpaccio’s dog in that book. I was quietly voicing my own fearful concerns about a dog closer to home, our own little wire fox terrier called Eddie, then just turned ten years old, entering the last lap of a canine life. It’s impossible for me to untangle Eddie from the part of my career that began with those books in Italy. He was a puppy when I started writing them. He listened to my plot ramblings when we went for walks. These interludes out in the countryside with him were key moments when I could stand back from what I’d written and think, out loud often, while Eddie sniffed and tugged and probably thought, ‘What’s he going on about now?’
He grew as that series grew, year by year. When times were hard and my career seemed to be steering towards the rocks I’d look at his terrier face, watch the determination with which he went about everything in his little life, confined to a square mile of Kentish countryside. Then pick myself up, brush myself down and do what Eddie would always… try again and keep on trying until something worked.
Terriers never give up even in the face of failure. Authors shouldn’t either. We both need that resolute obstinacy in our genes. Something else I learned from him too, and in Carnival for the Dead I put this into the mouth of one of the principal characters towards the end of the book. He says this…
‘There’s a wisdom about dogs. They’re not like us, trying to brush mortality aside in the hope it might simply disappear. For a dog the idea of death is nothing more than a ridiculous fleeting nightmare. He lives in the full knowledge his existence will never come to an end. So every day begins afresh, every moment has some unforeseen promise in it.’
He reached over and threw some money on the counter.
‘We can learn from this. We should. Some more than others.’ Arnaud, the Count of Saint-Germain – he would always bear that name – turned and stared at her, into her. At that moment he was the man from those strange stories, no one else, and Teresa had no idea what to do, to say or feel.
‘We watch them grow, from puppy to prime to feeble old age. All in such a brief space of time, for us anyway. A man or woman with feelings, witnessing this passage, remembers they’re just like us. On the same journey. Merely one that happens to be a little shorter, with fewer opportunities perhaps, though full of all the same excitements and uncertainties, terrors and joys. The wisdom of dogs is to remind us of our own arrogance and stupidity in believing tomorrow may somehow prove more precious than today.’
Yesterday morning I took Eddie for a walk before catching a train to London for meetings. Twelve years old, he was full of life, happy, sweet-natured, mischievous, always looking to please. When I got back he was semi-conscious on a table in the vets. Some bastard thing called a tumour of the spleen had stolen up on him in his joyful, elder prime. Less than twelve hours after I walked him along one of the country lanes he loved that hidden monster took him from us.
Grief for his untimely passing still grapples with gratitude for his boisterous, selfless loving life. When the disbelief had finally dissipated I knew I’d have to go back to that book and find that passage. Because what I was half-consciously writing in Venice two years ago was the thought with which I hoped to console myself today when we woke to a house full of his things — the bed, the ragged tee-shirts, the toys, the chaos — but bereft forever of his cheerful bark and bright-eyed anticipation of the day to come. I said that mostly I wrote notes to others in my books. On this occasion I penned one, a hesitant, apprehensive message, to myself.
And like an idiot I forgot to write the final words I wanted for the UK edition. But you’ll find them in the US one, on the dedication page…
Here he is a few months ago, poised above the garden steps where he liked to sun himself with a toy.
A hell of a dog who added something to everyone’s lives he touched. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that knowing him, watching him, thinking about how he saw the little world around him added to my range as a writer. Eddie was a lesson in life, composed, confident, inquisitive, demanding and most of all devoted beyond all else to his family and those he loved.
He taught me a little of the wisdom of dogs and for that, and much else, I’ll always be grateful.