Fiction with autistic characters where the main focus of the story is not autism are still quite uncommon. If you’re looking for that sort of story with a female autistic character then they’re currently even less common – although that is slowly changing. The Dog Thief is a crime novel with an autistic main character (confirmed as autistic by the author although not explicitly stated in text – it is referenced and hinted at) who finds herself caught in the middle of a murder investigation and pretends to be an animal psychic…
NB: I received a copy of this book for free from the author in return for an impartial review.
Within the first few pages of The Dog Thief a few things become quite clear about main character, Madeleine – Maddie – Whitney. Firstly, she can be a pain in the backside (more than one character describes her as difficult), and beyond this there are times where she’s also not even always a nice character. Secondly, this makes her character all the more compelling and engaging to read about. A few lines of clumsy dialogue aside, Maddie is a humorous, interesting and unique character whose passion for her job as a dog rehabilitator peppers most conversations she is part of. She is equal parts brilliant and disastrous depending on whether she’s in her comfort zone training her dogs at work or cycling drunk to visit her ex-girlfriend.
I was neither here nor there in regards to the parts about sex or hook-ups or the sexual way in which Maddie regarded a number of people she came into contact with – previous reviews have highlighted my general lack of interest in this particular area of fiction – but I will say that it is good to see an autistic woman who is also allowed to enjoy sex. The old presumption of autism and lack of interest in intimacy or sex is still hard to shake off – Maddie certainly doesn’t conform to that stereotype. She doesn’t conform to too many actually, and yet so many of her autistic traits were familiar to me. She perseverates on topics and needs to be redirected by those who know her well, she is blunt about her ongoing social difficulties, she references sensory processing difficulties throughout the book, and she will info-dump on anyone given half the chance. She has a sharp wit and a talent for working with the animals which she prefers to spend her time with, but also needs a lot of support from her sister to maintain a semblance of a balanced life.
The main storyline focuses on Maddie’s discovery of a murdered woman and the ongoing investigation which she gets involved in when she spontaneously claims to be an animal psychic who was guided to discover the crime scene by a flock of birds. Since most of the town already believe that Maddie is “mad”, they snatch up this claim and run with it. Maddie soon finds herself overwhelmed with new clients and with new social situations as she struggles to juggle growing friendships and relationships whilst old ones have to be let go or change. She grows throughout the novel without ever changing the core of who she is. The dogs that she trains, both for clients and for the Search and Rescue team, also have big parts throughout the book and – especially as someone who knows little about dog training – these sections were interesting and well integrated throughout the story. Maddie’s past and her dysfunctional family also weave problems and drama throughout, leaving Maddie much more out of her depth than she ever really wanted to be.
I did feel at one point in the book – where the dogs were used for a Search and Rescue during a big event in the town – that there was perhaps a little too much put into one book. This particular event, involving a missing boy, stood out as a little chaotic and out-of-place compared to other parts of the book and while there was certainly purpose to its inclusion in terms of character development and progression, there was a certain “rush” to it that seemed ill-fitting with the rest of the book. It felt like it could have been a part of a sequel book rather than an inclusion in this one as the events were over so quickly after they started that it was jarring. I’m also not sure if I received a final edit version of the novel or not as there were a few odd grammatical errors and missing speech/action tags that were noticeable – particularly nearer the beginning of the book. I’m reluctant to say more about them without knowing whether they cropped up in the final version.
Bouncing off one of the points above, I would enjoy a sequel just because I liked the characters – dogs included – so much. At the points where the story-line got a little wobbly, such as mentioned above, the strength of the characters kept it going strong. As with Maddie, not all of the characters are likeable all of the time. Even the “good guys” are assholes sometimes and that helps to make it all the more real. We’re not all perfect people, autistic people included and so it was entertaining to read about an autistic woman who manages to piss people off on a semi-regular basis while still being pretty awesome.