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Cadaver Dogs: A Nose for Murder

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I stood there dumbstruck. A sadsack clutching his parka and briefcase—empty except for a half-eaten bag of Twizzlers—and stepped backward to allow those dismissed from the jury pool to flow past as they’d just been allowed to return to their regularly scheduled lives.

Had the bailiff really called my name?

But I’d done everything correctly. I’d laid it on thick as syrup when the lawyers quizzed me. Though not an attorney myself, my father is one, taught real estate law for decades and had been dean at a prestigious law school. My wife, an executive at a healthcare organization, was also an attorney. And I’d spent a dozen years at a litigation-support company creating databases used in major lawsuits. For the bulk of my life, I couldn’t turn around without bumping into an attorney.

And so I must have muttered some variant of “attorney” forty times—lawyer, counselor, advocate—as they grilled me and, based on my careful study of Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer novels, that should have been good enough to get me tossed.

However, there I stood, dopey smile on my face, wishing I’d packed more than cherry-flavored licorice for lunch as they ushered me into the jury box. Then I recalled another legal thriller I’d recently read, one where the attorney-protagonist had worked hard to get the dumber ones onboard.

Oh shit! I stewed over that epiphany. Who knew?

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no qualms against performing my civic duty—glad to help wherever I can—but that meant a forty minute trek to the Dakota County Judicial Center in Hastings, Minnesota, during March, the snowiest month of the year, and then back home in the evening. Plus, I’d have to get there extra early to pass through security and make it into the courtroom in time to not piss off the judge.

On the commute to Hastings for my first full day of the trial, I suspended my self-commiseration long enough to catch a story on the radio about a sheriff’s department calling in cadaver dogs. Evidently, some elderly gent had wandered out of his assisted living home, gone missing, was presumed dead, and they were hoping to find the poor old guy’s icy remains. As I stood in the security line, the news blurb stuck in my head. I got to thinking how bomb and drug-detecting and K-9 dogs had been done in novels, film, and television, but, perhaps, there was room for a story about a dog handler and his very special human remains detection dog (HRD dog), and the adventures they get into and, with a little luck, out of.

After all, whenever an HRD dog sniffs out a body, you’ve got a built-in mystery just raring to go.

During lunch and breaks throughout the absurdly complex real estate trial I’d been selected for, I jotted down plot ideas, notions on lead characters (predominantly dog handler Mason Reid), canine names (Reid names his pups after country or country rock songs—Elvira, Sue, Maggie May, Delta Dawn, Billie Joe), story location (set in and around Chicago), potential villains, as well as assorted twists and turns the tale could potentially take.

By the time the trial had ended, I was excited to fire up the laptop. Originally, my notes served as a roadmap for a short story—a mystery with a supernatural element, ala Dean Koontz, titled Cadaver Dogs—but, weighing in at a spry 5,800 words, the story was paper-thin and I grudgingly realized it needed to be a novella. However, once it hit the 40,000 word mark, I knew I had a full-blown novel on my hands.

Upon completion, I sent Cadaver Dogs off to my agent thinking my job was done when, in fact, it was only just beginning. My agent loved the novel, but instructed me to bag the supernatural element as it’d be easier to sell it as a straight mystery. So I scrubbed the novel of its supernatural element, sorry Dean Koontz, placing it squarely in the mystery/thriller genre. Somewhere during this rewrite I came to appreciate how clever my agent’s two cents had been, and, soon after, a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press enjoyed the novel, but informed me that no dogs can die.

In my original story, Reid’s male German shepherd, Sue, saves Reid’s life but sacrifices himself in the process. Dying pups tend to turn off readers, the editor had explained, so I reluctantly resurrected Sue. My books are hardcore thrillers and this ran against the grain, however—when all was said and done—Sue became my favorite character. Sue practically runs away with the novel as he’s the pack’s alpha male who struts about Reid’s trailer, chest out, presenting Old Testament–like editorials on passing cars, squirrels and rabbits, mailmen, the doorbell, and the sound of toast popping up. To be honest, Sue’s not that much of a human remains detection dog, but he scares the living piss out of any marketers that may stop by.

As a dyed-in-the-wool research geek with a degree in Journalism—and after a ton of Googling articles on human remains detection dogs—I knew I needed to give the reader a taste of what an HRD dog’s job entailed as well as what goes into their training (endless games of hide-and-seek using blood, hair, bone, teeth or scent tubes along with a dog’s favorite toy or tennis ball). I also knew this information had to be stirred together in a gripping manner and peppered throughout the novel so as not to bore the reader or bring the story to a screeching halt with some ten-page dissertation.

After the novel came out, a couple friends asked if I could train their pooches into sniffing out narcotics or explosives or cancer or cadavers, but I lack a dog handler’s patience, so I tell them when they’d return to pick up their pets, they’d find their pups five pounds overweight, spoiled rotten, and fans of Gopher Football.

Similarly, I’d written a trilogy of thrillers starring FBI Special Agent Drew Cady. I’d also gone to town on research for those novels and my then-publisher asked me if I’d ever worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (nope). Sure, I can talk the talk, get the investigative procedures down on paper, and make for a slick beach read, but if the FBI ever placed me in charge of tracking a serial killer—I’d likely come across more Ted Baxter than Will Graham.

Finally, and this came down the pike a few months before The Finders (first novel in the series) was set to launch, St. Martin’s Press didn’t like the title. Cadaver Dogs was a bit over the top. It sounded like a bad horror movie you’d catch on Cinemax at three in the morning. We’d toyed briefly with Prey Grounds, but that also wasn’t quite right. Then it came to me in the middle of the night (always keep a notebook on your nightstand)—The Finders, which is ultimately what HRD dogs are. Plus, in terms of titles, it allows us to play off the old children’s rhyme: Finders, Keepers, Losers, Weepers.

In fact, The Keepers comes out in late June of 2021.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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