James O. Born has always been fascinated with K-9 units. One memory stands out: It happened in January 1995, after a prison break at Glades Correctional Institute (the event inspired Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight and later prompted the Miami Herald headline “I slept with a murderer”). Born, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement agent, was on the task force to track down the escapees.
“They used dogs to try and find those guys,” says the West Palm Beach native, who appears Tuesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “I was just watching them follow the scent, cutting through the sugar cane fields. … The dogs have the ability to do things no one else can do. I remember searching houses for drugs, and they’d bring in dogs and they’d find in minutes what it would take you hours to find.”
After five of his own crime novels and the collaboration Border War with Lou Dobbs, Born finally has gotten around to writing about dogs. His latest book, Scent of Murder (Forge, $25.99), focuses on deputy Tim Hallett, who works on a special K-9 unit with his Belgian Malinois Rocky. As the book opens, they’re searching for a kidnapper with fellow K-9 officers in the same Belle Glade fields Born remembers after the prison break. The trail eventually leads to murder, and their partnership is tested. But Rocky isn’t just a work partner; he’s part of Tim’s home life, interacting with his son Josh as well.
“I never met a K-9 guy who didn’t think his or her dog wasn’t the best dog in the history of the world,” says Born, now a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who lives in western Boynton Beach. “I love that.” He hopes to have a K-9 officer or two at the Books & Books reading.
Q: How is the relationship different with a canine partner?
A: A human partner you’re with eight hours a day. With a human partner, most interactions are good, but there is always going to be some friction. … that’s never an issue with a dog. Whatever you do, the dog loves you, and unless you’re a complete tool, you love the dog. There’s not any argument. You’re with the dog 24 hours a day. I tried not to make it too saccharine in the book, but I have a friend, his dog lies at the foot of his bed every night. When the dog retires, he stays with his handler.
Q: In the book, one of the officers uses a Golden Retriever. Do K-9 units really use different sorts of dogs?
A: They use everything. One of the drug dogs now is just a mutt, and he’s great. But a patrol dog used to chase someone down is almost always a Malinois or a German Shepherd. They’re big, they’re scary. Old-timers like me used to say that you never put a round in a shotgun. You want the chamber empty so you can rack the shotgun so that everyone can hear it. Everything stops, everyone looks over. It’s an instinct — they know what the sound is. It’s like that with the dogs. You walk up with a dog like that, you don’t have to let it off the leash. Everyone sees it and thinks, “I’m going to stop misbehaving.”
Q: How did you decide to tell part of the story from Rocky’s point of view?
A: When I turned the book in, my editor said, “Hey, I like it, but we’ve got to add some scenes from the dog’s perspective.” My initial reaction was: “I don’t think so.” But he’s a smart guy, and he had me read White Fang by Jack London and some psychology books on dogs. I talked to handlers and learned everything is a game to the dogs. They know: “When I bark at someone, I get a reward.” I tried to approach it that way. What was hard was when the dog would see an alligator, he doesn’t have a name for it. There’s a part where he sees a rabbit, and I spent a lot of time thinking, “How would he know the word rabbit?” Then I decided he’s heard the word so many times he knows to call it a rabbit. … He doesn’t have a wide vocabulary. But in a way it’s the same writing a scene from different human perspectives — writing as a cop is easier for me. Writing the same scene as a victim is different. A victim would be scared and would miss things. But if you’re a serious crime writer you have to do it. This was just a degree more difficult.
Q: How did you end up co-writing Border War with Lou Dobbs?
A: I’d like to say he sought me out as the greatest law enforcement agent in the country, but no. He’s with Macmillan [both authors are published by Forge, a Macmillan imprint] and he liked my books, so Macmillan approached me. Who’s going to say no? He turned out to be one of the easiest guys I’ve ever dealt with. He can get research done so fast. We were writing about NATO and a question came up, and he said, “I’ve got a guy I can ask,” and it turns out to be the retired Supreme Commander of NATO. … It’s been great working with him. He tells me the other day I can never bitch about anything again, because he does so much of the promotion, I don’t have to do anything.
Q: And now you’ve got to do the promotion on your own.
A: I like some of it! But the last two weeks, the amount of emails I’ve dealt with has killed me. I didn’t even get to follow basketball this year. I didn’t even watch the Final Four games.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com