In the eyes of the Manhattan police the crime of dognapping is right down there in the priority list next to jaywalking and parking violations. No one Ed approaches seems to care. Until that is rookie patrolman Clarence Duhammel gets word of his colleagues' indifference. Duhammel -- whose name is often pronounced Dummel by his fellow cops -- is no dummy at all, but there is something a little bit off about his somewhat distant, all too officious behavior. He is primarily interested in helping Ed retrieve his poodle because no one else wants to. And unusual crime like the theft of a dog and a demand for ransom money is a lot more exciting than his uninspired street beat.
Clarence finds his routine life of arresting lowlife junkies and chasing after juvenile delinquent teens pilfering goodies from the local bodegas to be tiresome. Here is a chance to use his college education in police work. Clarence is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied psychology and sociology and he decides to put to use all he learned in textbooks to finding the dognapper. Clarence is on a quest. He is the do-gooder cop defiant of the buddy tactics and cronyism inherent in the NYPD. Using only instinct combined with college boy psychology and some incredible luck he actually finds the dognapper in two days. But the sociopathic Kenneth Rowajinski cleverly manages to implicate Clarence in the dognapping plot. Now the rookie cop must clear his name and do right by his promise to Ed and Greta.
Clarence -- too much of an individual, too focused on doing good and too much of an intellectual -- is ironically a failure as a policeman. His biggest fault is not fitting in, not being a team player. He’s targeted by other patrolman as not being one of the guys, not honoring the tacit policeman’s code of watching out for each other first. And oddly Clarence's sympathy for the Reynolds plight gives way to a weird devotion to the Reynolds, a misplaced friendship that at first is met with feigned politeness but becomes increasingly disturbing to the couple, especially Ed. This relationship is contrasted with Clarence's cold and distant attitude with his mother and father. Ed and Greta become almost surrogate parents to him while his blood relatives continue to be puzzled by Clarence's aloofness, his refusal to introduce them to his girlfriend Marylyn and his reluctance to visit them though it's only a short ride on the subway to Queens.
There aren’t many nice or even likable people in this book. Everyone has it in for someone. And most of the antipathy is unfounded. To use the juvenile defense of pre-teens they dislike one another "just because". While there are outright villains like the vile Rojanowski, who finds his only joy in unsettling complete strangers with his creepy behavior and violent acts, the rest of the cast of characters are really no better. A runner-up for the most detestable character of the lot is Manzoni, a bigoted hostile patrolman who is determined to prove Clarence was in on the dognapping. He cruelly harasses Clarence, his parents, and his girlfriend Marylyn. He relentlessly follows Marylyn, interrogating her and insinuating that she is a prostitute being kept in a lust pad. He impersonates a detective in the process when he is no more than a beat cop just like Clarence.
"Why such malice?" Clarence keeps wondering. But when events lead Clarence to committing a crime himself he finds himself trapped and Manzoni's pursuit intensifies with determined hostility and a thirst for retribution. Clarence turns to the only people he thinks will believe him and help him -- the Reynolds and Marylyn -- making them all complicit in his criminality.
The book is drenched in hatred in all its forms. Racial epithets are thrown around casually to further isolate the characters from one another. Rojanowksi is called the Pole or the Pollack, Manzoni is referred to as the wop. Marylyn, a symbol for the 70s counterculture type mistrustful of any authority figure, after being followed, questioned and insulted by Manzoni begins to hate all police including Clarence. She calls them fuzz, pigs and worse. A dognapping which should have affected only two people infects the entire cast like a virulent disease and unleashes the worst in their personalities. And though Highsmith lulls the reader into thinking all will turn out well she still manages to pull off a few unexpected sucker punches in the final pages.
It's a fascinating book in the way that the sideshow of circuses long gone have been fascinating. We stare in disbelief, sometimes laugh self-consciously, or shake our heads in pity, but never truly see the manifestations of disfigurement and genetics gone haywire as a metaphor for the ugliness that lies deep within us all. In A Dog's Ransom Highsmith shows that all of us have the capacity to be creeps and freaks. Why is it that we decide to hate someone for no good reason? Why is that sometimes truly awful things happen to decent good people? She has no real explanations for this true mysteries of real life. She only holds up a mirror to ourselves and allows us to see the sudden bursts of unwarranted violence, the vulgar words, the betrayals and deceit and all sorts of freakishness that lie deep within most of us.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I3 - "Animal in the title"