Christopher Irvin’s novel Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All is a page tuner of a mystery/crime thriller, interwoven with a captivating story of family and community. The fact that all the characters are animals never distanced me from the drama; to the contrary, it provided a bracing reminder of the degree to which we’re driven by beastly instincts, which are never as far from the surface as we might wish to believe.
The leading character of Ragged, a mutt named Cal, is a classic crime-novel protagonist: a figure with a dark past he can’t quite escape. A former member of a smuggling ring based in the Fells, the bad side of the novel’s forest setting, Cal is regarded with suspicion on the good side of town, the Woods, where he’s married happily, fathered two pups, and tried to make a respectable life for himself and his family.
Suspicion, or the fear of inviting more of it, haunts Cal as he tries to answer two questions at the heart of the novel: What creature infected his wife, Winifred, with a fatal disease, one that threatens—and has struck fear into the heart of—every citizen of the Woods? And how might Cal put this creature out of action without tainting his family’s reputation, or worse? As he observes early in the novel,
Cal’s search for the source of Winifred’s infection takes him back into the Fells and back within reach of the notorious Rubbish Heap gang, the smuggling ring he’d hoped to put behind him for good. The vermin-filled gang is led by a mangy raccoon named Maurice, who raised the orphaned Cal years before and made him a leader in the ring. For those reasons, Maurice regarded Cal’s eventual departure from the gang as an unforgiveable betrayal.
The possibility of violence hangs over each of Cal’s encounters with Maurice and the other gang members, and Irvin has crafted all these scenes cleverly, especially the interactions between Cal and Maurice. In a thrilling paradox, these encounters hint at the bond that once existed between Cal and Maurice while suggesting that at any given moment, one of them might try to kill the other. It’s a great recipe for conflict and suspense, and Irvin employs it deftly.
Coming to Cal’s aid, and at times working against him, are residents of the Woods, who have a variety of strengths, flaws, and motivations that Irvin renders with thoughtfulness and humor. Just a sampling of these characters: a good-natured badger named Billiam who stands by Cal through most every trial; a toad dubbed Sir George Washington, a.k.a. GW, a war veteran who puts his military chops to brave use when it matters most; and Arnold, an alpha deer who believes he should be deferred to in all situations.
Although the Woods community is a source of support for Cal, it is also, at times, a breeding ground for conflict. As is all too common in the real, human world, unexamined suspicions and prejudices among citizens of the Woods lead to unjust behavior and, potentially, even more dangerous consequences, not only for Cal but also for a member of the community who is suspected of a murder that occurs near the end of the novel. These parts of Ragged feel uncomfortably relevant in our nation’s current sociopolitical climate, in which (unexamined) prejudices have been given freer rein, empowering more and more people to regard certain fellow citizens as outsiders or others—a perilous step toward exclusion, and worse.
In another uncomfortable parallel to the human world, the characters in Ragged are often driven by desires for dominance and vengeance, and some of them are willing to go to violent ends to satisfy those desires. Because these characters have both human and animal attributes, the novel reminds us of how closely human and animal natures are intertwined—and of how beastly drives and instincts, including bloodlust, reside to varying degrees in all of us, however hard we might try to put this reality out of our minds.
Yet the darker aspects of the novel are relieved by humor and by Irvin’s writing about the affection Cal has for his family. In one of my favorite scenes, Cal recalls to his son Franklin how he met Winifred at a moon festival for which she wore a white-fox mask. Cal first describes how he had to chase two foxes, who were annoyed that a dog would pretend to be one of their kind, away from Winifred. Then he tells Franklin,
I’ve been chasing her ever since.
Although the mystery and crime elements of Ragged make it a suspenseful and absorbing read, just as central to the story is its exploration of family and community—more specifically, how the bonds of both are tested and potentially strengthened in the face of outside threats, and loss.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Dramatic and compelling anthropomorphic tales, such as Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, and Fantastic Mr. Fox
▪ Crime thrillers or mysteries