Bait Dog follows on from Shotgun Gravy, which I gave a very cursory review. I can easily say I liked this better than Shotgun Gravy, not for its tone or characters or even content but simply because it had a deeper, more intriguing mystery. Chuck Wendig turns Atlanta Burns into Encyclopedia Brown: Pet Detective. She agrees to find someone’s missing dog because she needs the money; the bad guys from the first book have used their pull with the bank to get her and her mother’s farmhouse foreclosed. What Atlanta doesn’t realize is that she will soon become mixed up in underground dog fighting and once again fight for her life, not just the lives of adorable puppies.
Remember how in my review of Shotgun Gravy I mentioned that you should avoid it if you like puppy dogs and rainbows? Yeah, that goes double for Bait Dog. I would not be surprised if Wendig goes after rainbows in the third book.
Still, this book benefits from having a more structured story. What begins as Atlanta grieving for her best friend’s apparent suicide—which she refuses to believe is anything other than a set-up—quickly turns into a mystery involving missing dogs and white supremacists. Once again, Wendig doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The same unvarnished hatred and cruelty and racism from the first book washes up here, with some animal cruelty thrown in for good measure. You might need to wash your e-reader after reading this.
While some of Wendig’s minor characters remain fairly one-dimensional (Atlanta’s mom, for example), he does have a go at fleshing out others. Chomp-Chomp, aka Steven, becomes more chaotic neutral in this book. He aids Atlanta at several turns. Similarly, Shane is now Atlanta’s sometime sidekick, and while she tries to shield him from the harshest parts of this case, she obviously values what support he can provide.
Perhaps the biggest change in Atlanta is that little sliver of hope for healing. She has friends—well, had, until Chad died, and now she only has a friend—friends who were “normal” in the twisted, messed up definition of normal one can apply to the diverse ecosystem of adolescence. For the first time in several years, Atlanta is forming meaningful relationships with people who don’t want to hurt her. In this light, Bait Dog is the universe attempting to slap her down again.
Without spoiling too much, I’m happy to report that it largely does not succeed. That doesn’t mean Atlanta always wins … I’d say she mostly gets what she wants, but not without fighting tooth-and-nail for it. Things seldom go according to plan, and more than once she finds herself fighting with her back against the metaphorical wall, no matter how well-prepared she thought she was.
Much like Shotgun Gravy, Bait Dog is a difficult book to enjoy for all its bleakness. I feel a little hypocritical saying this, because dark stories don’t have to be difficult to enjoy: A Fine Balance cut me up, yet it is one of my all-time favourites. However, the latter differed both in setting and style, and Mistry includes many humorous and uplifting moments amid the downturns of fate. Wendig also has humour, but for the most part it is like a postmodern abstract painting: black upon black.