Virgil Cain lives as far away from Hollywood as geographically possible. A farmer in upstate New York, Virgil is just hoping to manage his small farm, take care of the two Percheron horses he’s somehow inherited, and keep up a relationship with his girlfriend, Claire, who also happens to be a police officer. Virgil’s immediate problem is coming up with the cash to pay his taxes. A film crew shows up in town and Virgil finds a way to make some easy money by lending his horses to the production as local color. When the leading lady turns up dead, Virgil finds himself in a real life murder mystery.
Shoot the Dog is Brad Smith’s third novel featuring Virgil & Co. following Red Means Run and Crow’s Landing. The series has all the ingredients of one that could prove to be quite addictive. Virgil is down to earth, no nonsense, and often the smartest person in the room, which makes him all the more likable in Shoot the Dog where the supporting cast of characters ranges from annoying to unlikable. Then again, they’re from Hollywood.
Producer Sam Sawchuck arrives with her team in Virgil territory, all set to begin filming Frontier Woman based on a best selling novel and set to star Olivia Burns. (Claire describes the novel to Virgil as the Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love set in another time and place. That comparison could stretch to the leading lady since Olivia begins to sound like a fictional Julia Roberts, a beautiful superstar who wears her celebrity lightly.)
Who would want to kill Olivia? For someone so rich, famous, and gorgeous, she treats everyone with kindness and respect. And her involvement in Frontier Woman is the only reason United States Network agreed to bankroll the production. Yet once her body is discovered, the list of suspects includes nearly everyone working on the set.
With Olivia gone, USN pulls out and Sam, desperate to keep the project alive, finds a financial angel in Ronnie Red Hawk, who has capitalized on the drop of Native American blood in his system to build a hotel and casino empire. Never one to take a back seat, Ronnie soon elevates his position to executive producer and casting director, bringing in another actress, Kari Karson (think Lindsay Lohan), to take over Olivia’s role. Kari shows up with her BFF, Nicole, soon found dead of a drug overdose in Ronnie’s hotel. Meanwhile, the other producer, Levi, continues to dodge a hit man sent by drug dealers.
Sam replaced the original director, someone with a proven track record, with her blundering husband, Robb, hoping Frontier Woman will establish him as a player. Instead, the assistant director, Tommy, is forced to babysit Robb whose creative judgment is impeded by the fact that he hasn’t read the book. “I’m not really sure what this scene is about,” Robb says in one scene. His wife, Sam, replies: “Country girl comes to school in town, is mocked by the locals. Think Mean Girls in long dresses and bonnets.”
The book’s title comes from a film industry expression for rescuing a production that’s in trouble by shooting a dog to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Apparently Sam Peckinpah coined the phrase after he resorted to extreme measures when directing a TV show in the 1950s.
Who can blame Virgil for wondering how he managed to get tangled up in this real life farce?
I admit to a bias. Being from upstate New York, it’s fun to read a mystery in a country location where the big city-big shots have a lot to learn from ordinary people. Virgil is one of those sharp locals and we look forward to learning from him for a long time.
Shoot the Dog