BEST IN SHOW – Laurien Berenson

While everything is on lockdown due to COVID-19, I am still very much working and my amount of “reading time” has seemingly dwindled, so I’m a bit behind my 2020 goals. I’m hoping to pick it back up and better manage my reading and writing time. That said, Laurien Berenson’s BEST IN SHOW was a fun and quick cozy mystery for anyone who loves the sport of purebred dogs, cozy mysteries, or dogs in general.

I’d honestly forgotten about the hot pink hardback that I’d picked up from the used bookstore. I was working on one of my works in progress, which was a murder mystery at a dog show, and I wanted to see how Berenson handled explaining aspects of the dog show without interfering with the flow of the plot. (My WIP is dark, gritty and about as far from a cozy as you can get. I set it aside for Merchants Town and haven’t found the time to return to it.) In the spirit of “research,” I bought this one and another one, and then I promptly forgot about them. But when I looked at the TBR pile, that hot pink spine called for attention.

BEST IN SHOW is a Melanie Travis Mystery, and I may have been a wee bit disadvantaged to have entered into Melanie’s world so late in the game (this is book ten in a series that she is still actively writing), but it certainly can survive as a standalone. Set at the Poodle Club of America National Specialty Dog Show, the novel is full of poodle-love. (Berenson is most decidingly a poodle person.)

 Being part of what I call the “fringe” fancy (one foot in, one foot out), I am quite familiar with national specialties, and I know that PCA is the best of the best. My personal and professional experiences had me read this with a different lens, and at times I found some of her explanations obnoxious and unrealistic. (Example – I don’t much think she’d need to explain how PCA worked or how the handlers must pick up the poo at the hotel to a professional handler who has been in the sport for years.) I also questioned the trustworthiness of the narrator. At times, she seemed still the novice to the dog world, but her beloved Aunt Peg has been a top breeder of poodles for decades. Her brother is married to a professional handler. Her lover is a handler. She herself has bred a litter of poodles. This isn’t her first rodeo at PCA – though it is her first time showing; however, at times she acts like she’s never been before and doesn’t know who the Sisters, who have been running that raffle for years, are. She talks about how small the dog show world is and how the poodle world is even smaller, but she is puzzled by some of the professional handlers and doesn’t know the contenders.

 I imagine I wouldn’t feel this way if I’d started at the beginning of the series, so this likely isn’t a fair criticism. I also get that much of what she does is a writing choice that affords Berenson the opportunity to explain certain things and allows her to create an air of mystery around certain folks that is necessary in a whodunit.

That said, it’s a fun little mystery. There is a murder. There is an affair between a rich client’s wife and their hot handler. There is a “fix” in the winners ring. There is a pet psychic. There is a neatly tied up resolution with an unexpected twist solved by, of course, Melanie. And then there are the poodles. Berenson does a fantastic job of capturing and appreciating the electrifying energy of a poodle, both in and out of the ring. She equally does an excellent job of capturing the thrill of even just being pulled for the long list at such a prestigious show.

As a final note, this was published by Kensington Publishing Corp. and I imagine there were multiple folks who had their hands on this manuscript before it went to print. Yet this was printed: “The problem – as every dog show exbitor knew full was – was that bredding dogs wasn’t a money-making venture.” … … … (Yes, I know there are mistakes in my works, but I also didn’t have a publishing company behind me and I did run it through spellcheck once or twice…)

As a final note that is unrelated to the book, this year’s PCA was canceled due to COVID-19. I know this was a heartbreaking decision for many, and I wish the club, exhibitors, breeders, owners, spectators and remarkable poodles the best of the best come 2021’s show.

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