Strange Neighbors

by Mary Labatt

Published by Kids Can

110 pages, 2000

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Canine Detective

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Ten-year-old Jennie and her neighbor's dog Samantha have a special relationship. While Jennie seems to be a reasonably normal child, she has the ability to "hear" Sam's thoughts, a talent that the dog has assured her makes Jennie out of the ordinary. As Sam tells Jennie:

Most dogs are too stupid too notice when someone has the gift. Very few people have it, and I can always tell.

Since Sam herself is not afflicted by such stupidity, she noticed almost right away that she could communicate quite plainly with Jennie. That was back in book one, Spying on Dracula, when Sam's owners, Joan and Bob, bought the house next door to Jennie's family home in the small hamlet of Woodford.

The adventures of a girl and the dog she can communicate with could be interesting enough, without any elements of mystery. After all, what child wouldn't love to have a special canine friend with whom they can communicate plainly? But all three of the Jennie and Sam books thus far have been emblazoned with a logo that shouts, Sam: Dog Detective, so we know that there will be a mystery somewhere in the story and that Sam will solve it. Anyway, that's what you'd think. The fact is, Sam is not so much a canine sleuth as she is a canine troublemaker, or so it seems to me. She loves adventure and prides herself on solving mysteries so -- even though she's a dog -- she drags poor ol' Jennie along while she attempts to unearth the mysteries she will solve.

In Spying on Dracula, Sam became convinced that the old recluse who lived on the edge of town was, in fact, the famous vampire. In book two, The Ghost of Captain Briggs, the mystery involved ghosts and treasures. In Strange Neighbors, Sam becomes convinced that the three new ladies in the neighborhood are witches who are turning local reptiles and amphibians into puppies, kittens and -- occasionally -- lunch. The biggest mystery is really why Jennie keeps letting the dog talk her into believing all of these nonsense theories that never play out. But what adult doesn't have a childhood story about the haunted house in their neighborhood when they were growing up? Or the scary woman who lived three streets down? The fact is, children delight in mysteries; in the need to find things out and, perhaps, save the world. Even if, with all the facts weighed, the mystery isn't such a mystery at all. So Jennie allows herself to see things Sam's way and the two of them -- along with Jennie's best human friend, Beth -- embark on adventures that don't take them very far out of the neighborhood.

Sam is, however, not just adventure-starved, she's also a junk food addict who doesn't care much for the dog food her owners foist on her. She's also entirely too acerbic for my own taste. Occasionally the protagonists of children's novels can be too precocious. In this case, it's the canine pal who sometimes seems to be in need of an attitude adjustment:

In Jennie's room on Sunday afternoon, Sam suddenly got angry. This is an emergency and you're not helping me.

"Of course we're helping!" Jennie looked hurt.

Phooey. Those witches are changing me so they can sell me to the pet store. Sam climbed up on Jennie's bed and glared. I'm doomed, and you're useless.

"We are not!" Jennie turned to Beth. "Sam says we're useless!"

The Sam: Dog Detective stories are good fun, though. And an easy read for the seven-to-10-year-old set. There's little here that's soul or mind enriching, but Sam and Jennie are enjoyable companions, nonetheless. | June 2000


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.