[Book Review] Play Dead (A Dog and His Girl Mysteries, #1) by Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens

When Dodge, a German shepherd police dog, finds himself retired after an accident leaves him deaf in one ear, he's lucky to be adopted by the perfect family. Twelve-year-old Cassie Sullivan, his girl, smells almost as good as a dog, and gets her nose for sleuthing from her police chief mom and coroner dad. Cassie is smart and quick on her feet, and doesn't mind breaking a couple rules to get to the bottom of a mystery. Dodge has forty-two dog years of experience solving crime, as well as a great network of other four-legged colleagues when he needs more intel.

When Verdel Ward, the richest man in town, goes missing, it seems like everyone from the mayor to the housekeeper wants his fortune, which he's left behind with no will. But Cassie and Dodge can smell a mystery from a mile away, and can't help wondering why a miser would go swimming in a dangerous cove, what's up with the suspicious fiancee, who's been sneaking around the mansion, and where a twin brother has come from.

A review copy of this book was received free via Netgalley.

Unfortunately, I'm inclined to say this is another of those cases where the cover is quite a bit better than the book itself. I wanted to love this story, based on how utterly adorable both the cover and the concept are... but I only kind of tolerated it instead.

Play Dead, the first book in Jane B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens' A Dog and His Girl Mysteries, is a mystery story told in alternating POVs, swapping at varying intervals between the titular dog, Dodge, and his titular girl, Cassie. There are some cute, funny moments throughout, most of which revolve around the dog (there's a bit about dogs using fire hydrants as what's essentially a community bulletin board where they leave each other notes), and I have to give it props for being what I'm fairly sure is the first chapter book (the cover makes it look like an MG novel, but it's definitely more along the lines of elementary grade fare) I've read that acknowledges that youngsters nowadays have phones.

On the other hand, it had two major elements that I was certainly not happy to see. Most frustratingly, we have the same old tired mean girl tropes trotting by one by one here in the form of a girl named Summer and her "posse", who all have "matching haircuts, phony smiles, and lunches that they'd barely eat". I'm genuinely inclined to wonder at this point why all all these kidlit and MG authors are recycling the same tired tropes with no regard to how they don't actually reflect reality--or if I'm supposed to believe believe that every one of them actually lived through childhoods beleaguered by roving gangs of catty, pretty girls. I'm certainly inclined to think it's the former, and I've gotta say it irks, to put it mildly.

Mean Girls was funny. Pretending that Mean Girls is an accurate reflection of female relationships is not.

But that's not the biggest problem I had with this. I can handle a mean girl or two. You have to be able to handle that stereotype if you want to read books like these simply because it's so frustratingly common. No, what really pissed me off about this one is that I couldn't stand Cassie; she's a complete at utter brat, an opinion was solidified when she decides that the only reasonable response to Summer's snide comments toward the new girl is to throw her lunch on her. Is that supposed to be funny? Because it's just utterly not.

Cassie, meanwhile, seems downright offended when she's the one who gets in trouble instead of Summer--you know, the girl she attacked. As she puts it, "As a member of the faculty, [the lunch aide, Ms. Croswell] automatically assumed the person screaming was the one who had been wronged." ...all of which perfectly exemplifies how Cassie is not, as the narrative would have you believe, some kind of underdog sticking up for the other students; Cassie's a bully. At a later point in the story, she refers to Summer as a "freaky Barbie puppet" and her friends team up to pull a prank on her that's every bit as mean and unnecessary as anything Summer and her friends pull. And I'm supposed to be rooting for this kid? No, thank you.

So my verdict on that front is a very simple, "no more mean girl plots, please and thank you." Seriously. I showed up for dogs and for mysteries; I neither want nor need any of this cartoonish cattiness. Are realistic relationships--both positive and negative--between fictional girls and antagonists who are more than cardboard cutouts of a stereotype really so much to ask for?

But the point of this story was the mystery, so let me get to that. The best thing I can say about it is that most of it is a perfectly reasonable, relatively enjoyable mystery. The worst thing I can say about it is that the plot twist was ludicrous. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that it involves a trope that is utterly nonsensical and doesn't work in a mystery--not even one for children--with these kinds of stakes. I simply cannot stretch my suspension of disbelief far enough to do anything but laugh about the ending to the Play Dead mystery. It is straight-up silly.

If you have a small child who is absolutely, super-duper addicted to reading kidlit mysteries or in possession of an overwhelming need to read about a sleuthing dog, Play Dead might be what you're looking for. But if you're just looking to introduce your kid to a solid mystery series of chapter books, I'd definitely suggest the A to Z Mysteries series instead.

As for me, I think I'll eventually get around to giving the sequel a chance. But if there's no improvement there--particularly on the front of Summer and co., since I've certainly forgiven much sillier plot twists that this one in the past (I'm looking at you, Who Cloned the President?)--I think I'm out. Plenty of other stuff to read.

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