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The Right Side by Spencer Quinn

Published by Atria Books on June 27, 2017

Spencer Quinn is justly celebrated for his Chet and Bernie stories, which are light and amusing. The Right Side is dark and serious. About halfway through the book, however, a wonderful dog appears, although the dog isn’t Chet, who narrates the Chet and Bernie books. This dog, like the novel, is dark and serious. But she’s still a dog.

Readers who want a favorite author to write the same book over and over might dislike The Right Side. Readers who admire the ability and courage of a good writer who departs from a successful formula might like The Right Side even more than the Chet and Bernie novels.

Raised by a former Green Beret, LeAnne Hogan knows how to shoot. But she lost her shooting eye on a mission in Afghanistan and she has shrapnel embedded in her brain. Her memory is fuzzy as she recovers in Walter Reed, although she remembers the childhood that shaped her. As she recuperates, she has repeat visits from a psychiatrist and an Army intelligence officer, neither of whom she trusts.

LeAnne was in Afghanistan at the request of a female colonel who wanted her to join a team that would gather intelligence from Afghan women (on the dubious theory that women are more likely to talk to women). During the first third of the novel, LeAnne’s backstory alternates with her present, as she tries to cope with her injuries and memory loss, and with unexpected death, at Walter Reed and in her post-hospitalized life.

LeAnne’s experiences have changed her. Her injury has made it difficult for her to focus and to keep track of time. She’s become something of a bigot with regard to Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry. She’s gruff and short-tempered. She’s developed a sense of entitlement because of her military service and a sense of worthlessness because of her injury. In other words, she’s imperfect. That makes her interesting and realistic.

What happened on the mission that took her eye? LeAnne isn’t sure. The Captain from Army intelligence drops some hints, suggesting that there’s more to the story than LeAnne remembers. He keeps track of LeAnne as the story moves along, leaving the reader to wonder why he’s taking such an interest in her. And since LeAnne’s brain injury makes her a less than reliable narrator, part of the reader’s challenge is deciding whether LeAnne’s perceptions of reality are entirely accurate.

After this set-up, a dog appears. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how that happens and the almost mythical role that the dog plays in LeAnne’s life, despite her general antipathy to dogs. Suffice it to say, it would be hard for a dog lover not to love this book.

A brief friendship at Walter Reed with a woman named Marci animates the rest of the novel, as LeAnne becomes embroiled in Marci’s past while trying to make sense of her own past and present. Other characters help or hinder Marci, but she would be largely directionless if it weren’t for the dog, who leads her in the directions that only make sense to dogs, but as dog lovers know, those directions often turn out to be the right ones.

Quinn honed his storytelling skills in the Chet and Bernie books, all of which I’ve enjoyed. He knows how to keep the story moving at a good pace without sacrificing characterizations or setting. As LeAnne moves around the country (and Afghanistan), Quinn always establishes a convincing sense of place. His supporting characters are convincing and, given the serious nature of the novel, LeAnne has more depth than Bernie (or Chet, for that matter).

A couple scenes in the book would be difficult to believe if not for the dog’s mythical quality. This is the sort of story that a reader believes because the reader wants to believe it, not because it’s particularly plausible. That Quinn made me believe the unlikely is one reason I loved The Right Side. LeAnne’s character development and the dog story are the other reasons. The twin mysteries (what happened in Afghanistan? what happened to a kid who goes missing midway through the story?) are entertaining enough, but this is a novel I admire for reasons other than the plot.


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