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Chow Down

Chow Down

4.0 7
by Laurien Berenson

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If Melanie Travis was planning on a quiet family summer with her Standard Poodle Faith, son Davey, and new husband Sam, her plans are about to turn upside down. An unexpected competition, a trip to New York, and—oh yes, a murder—later, Melanie finds herself in a choke collar of deceit and corruption.

When she receives the letter from the Champions Dog


If Melanie Travis was planning on a quiet family summer with her Standard Poodle Faith, son Davey, and new husband Sam, her plans are about to turn upside down. An unexpected competition, a trip to New York, and—oh yes, a murder—later, Melanie finds herself in a choke collar of deceit and corruption.

When she receives the letter from the Champions Dog Food Company informing her that Faith has been selected as a finalist in the "All Dogs Are Champions" contest, Melanie is mystified—until she discovers it was Davey who entered Faith in the contest.

At the reception where they meet the other finalists, Melanie immediately picks up the scent that this pack is a bone's throw away from a major dog fight. And when Larry Kim, one of the finalists, dies in a suspicious fall, something smells rotten to Melanie. With the final decision for a winner drawing near and the competition getting downright ferocious, Melanie and Faith will have to watch their backs—because Melanie's digging may well unearth a barking-mad killer who'll do anything to win.

"Enjoyable…plenty of twists and turns for a tight suspenseful package." —Publishers Weekly

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Berenson's enjoyable 13th dog-themed cozy (after 2005's Raining Cats and Dogs), Melanie Travis's standard poodle, Faith, is a finalist in a contest sponsored by Champions Dog Food company, which is in search of the next "spokesdog" for a new dog food. Though Melanie and her new husband, Sam, have no modeling ambitions for Faith-her nine-year-old son, Davey, entered the pooch without her knowing-the other finalists' competitive owners are lured by the promise of a $100,000 contract. What begins as a matter of grooming and carriage becomes the stuff of life and death when Larry Kim, the handler of a Yorkshire terrier, plunges to his death down a stairwell. Once again, Melanie, a Greenwich, Conn., teacher, sets about carefully piecing together the clues to solve the crime. Berenson creatively combines a multitude of red herrings with plenty of twists and turns for a tight suspenseful package. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A breeder gets wound up tighter than her poodle's topknot when murder disrupts six pooches' bids to become top dog in a kibble contest. Melanie Travis (Hot Dog, 2002, etc.) is shocked at the letter from Champions Dog Food congratulating her on her prizewinning standard poodle Faith's selection as finalist in their "All Dogs are Champions" contest-until she learns that her nine-year-old son Davey, bored with waiting for Mel and her hunky new husband Sam to produce a sibling for him to play with, filled out the online application himself. And once Doug Allen, Champions' VP of marketing, reminds her that the application is a binding contract to compete, Faith must join energetic Bill and Allison Redding's spaniel,Ginger; washed-up soap star Ben O'Donnell's boxer, Brando; formidable dowager Dorothy Foyle's Scottish terrier, MacDuff; and Larry and Lisa Kim's Yorkie, Yoda, in a series of increasingly outlandish publicity stunts cooked up by Champions' PR director Simone Dorsey and ad director Chris Hovick. As the contestants develop questionable alliances with each other and with the Champions staff, the whirl of receptions and public appearances leaves Melanie barely enough time to show Eve, Faith's offspring, in the final competition of her championship, and even less to hunt for clues when Larry Kim is killed in a fall and Lisa mysteriously disappears. Although there's some question as to who'll become the Champions spokesdog, Melanie's success in solving the murder is never in doubt.

Product Details

Publication date:
A Melanie Travis Mystery Series , #13
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chow Down

A Melanie Travis Mystery

By Laurien Berenson


Copyright © 2006 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61773-144-0


Champions Dog Food Company
1066 Industrial Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06855

Dear Melanie Travis: Congratulations!

We are delighted to inform you that your Standard Poodle, Champion Cedar Crest Leap of Faith, has been selected as a finalist in our "All Dogs Are Champions" contest. The winner will be named the official spokesdog for our new dog food, Chow Down, and will be awarded an exclusive advertising contract in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. The essay and pictures you submitted on your Poodle's behalf were very persuasive; we quite agree that Faith would make a superb representative for our product.

Being chosen from among the thousands of entries we received is both an honor and an achievement. As outlined in the contest rules on the entry form you submitted, each of the five remaining candidates must now make themselves available to compete in the final phases of the selection process. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter, and a representative from Champions Dog Food will be contacting you shortly so that arrangements can be made for a personal interview with Faith at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your interest in Chow Down dog food and, once again, our heartiest congratulations on being chosen as one of our finalists.


Doug Allen
Vice President of Marketing
Contest Chairman

Huh? I thought.

Not the most scintillating response, but hey, it was early. I'm never at my best before my first cup of coffee.

I stared at the letter in my hands, hoping that a second reading might help my comprehension. It didn't.

Chow Down dog food? I'd never even heard of it. And I certainly hadn't entered Faith in any contests, much less submitted an essay and photos. The Poodle in question was one of five — all big black Standards — currently snoozing on my kitchen floor.

Faith was highly intelligent but I'd never seen her compose a letter or lick a stamp. And why would she have wanted to enter a contest? Fame? Fortune? She already had all the dog biscuits she could eat.

That brief flight of fancy was enough to send me straight to the coffee maker on the counter for what was obviously a much- needed jolt of caffeine. Summer mornings, I grab the chance to sleep late whenever I can. During the other, more productive, nine months of the year I teach at a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. From the moment my alarm goes off at six thirty, I'm up and running. So by the time June arrives each year, I'm ready for a break and the unaccustomed luxury of a little laziness.

Sam and Davey, my husband and eight-year-old son, respectively, had risen at least an hour earlier. Over dinner the night before, there'd been talk of building a tree house in the backyard. That had led to plans for an early-morning visit to Home Depot to purchase supplies.

Sam had gotten up, let the dogs out, and started the coffee. Davey had brought in the mail and left it sitting on the counter. By the time I'd made my way downstairs at eight thirty, both had disappeared. Only the five Poodles — Sam's and my recently blended canine families — remained.

Faith lifted her head as I navigated my way through the obstacle course of Poodle bodies. Her dark eyes watched me with avid interest. We'd been together for four years, and our bond went far beyond that of master and pet. Faith knew my strengths and exploited my weaknesses. She read my thoughts and anticipated my moods.

Right now, she knew I needed coffee. If she'd possessed opposable thumbs, she probably would have already poured me a cup.

As it was, I had to perform that task for myself. I added a splash of milk to the mug, carried it over to the back door, and walked outside onto the deck. We'd been in our new house less than a month and I was still getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings. Having a deck to enjoy was only one positive change of many.

I sat down on a chaise, drew up my legs underneath me, and breathed in deeply. Later the day would be hot, but now the dew had yet to burn off and the morning air was fresh and cool. It smelled of honeysuckle and roses; both bushes grew wild over the fence that enclosed the large expanse of our new backyard.

I had left the screen door open. One by one, the Poodles picked themselves up and followed me outside as I'd known they would.

Faith had been part of my family since she was a puppy. So had her daughter, Eve, born two years earlier in a whelping box next to my bed. Sam and I had gotten married in the spring, and his three Standard Poodles — Raven, Casey, and Tar — had been added to the mix.

All five were show dogs; the three oldest were retired champions. The youngsters, Tar and Eve, were still "in hair," which meant that they sported the highly stylized continental clip that was required for competition. The continental is the trim of pom pons, shaved legs, and big hair; the trim that makes Poodles unique, eye-catching, and sometimes a little goofy-looking; the trim that gives rise to the notion — not without due justification — that Poodles are clowns with a great sense of humor.

Tar was Sam's "specials" dog, a title that identified him as one of the best of the best. He'd finished his championship handily at a young age and now competed against champions in other breeds for the prestigious group and Best in Show wins. Eve, hampered by having me for an owner handler, was nearly finished herself. Only one more major win was needed to put the coveted title of champion before her name. It was a goal I was hoping to accomplish over the summer.

The thought of summer plans reminded me of the letter I'd left sitting on the counter. I wondered if it might be some sort of scam and if a request for money would follow shortly. The letter looked genuine, but how could the contest committee have gotten Faith's name, much less her photograph?

Sam wouldn't have entered one of my Poodles without my consent. Our marriage was new enough that we were still feeling things out and finding our way, but we'd been a couple for several years. I knew him well enough to be quite certain he wouldn't have done something like that without checking with me first.

Without the slightest pause, my thoughts slid directly to the next most likely culprit: my Aunt Peg. Margaret Turnbull was a force of nature; one I alternately embraced or cursed, depending on the circumstances. On good days, Aunt Peg was a blessing. On bad ones, her presence was akin to an itch that I couldn't quite reach, or a pebble lodged inside my shoe.

Peg could be imperious and demanding; living up to her expectations was a constant challenge. Never satisfied with less than anyone's best, she held herself to the same high standard. Aunt Peg had been a mainstay on the dog show scene since before I was born and she'd taught me everything in the world I knew about Poodles. Half the time she drove me crazy, but there were few people in the world that I loved more.

Might she have entered Faith in a contest on a whim? It seemed unlikely, but where Aunt Peg was concerned, I'd learned never to discount any possibility.

I got up, walked inside, and retrieved the letter and a telephone. Aunt Peg's number was first on my speed dial list, a testament to how often we spoke. I didn't even hear a single ring before she picked up. A perfect, drowsy summer morning and Aunt Peg was in a hurry. Somehow I wasn't surprised.

"What?" she barked into the phone as I carried it outside and settled back down on the chaise.

"It's me," I said.

"I know that. I have caller ID. How's the tree house coming?"

Trust Aunt Peg to be up to speed on all current events, even those that had been decided upon only the evening before. I think she has some sort of subliminal radar that keeps her constantly apprised of what we're up to. A network of spies wouldn't surprise me, either. I know for a fact that she has ears like a bat.

Need I mention that she had accepted Sam's proposal before I did?

"It's still in the planning stages. Sam took Davey to Home Depot to buy lumber and nails. If I'm really lucky they'll come home with a general contractor."

"Pish," Peg scoffed. "I can't see any reason why Sam wouldn't be perfectly capable of constructing a tree house on his own."

"That's because he's never tried to repair your ice-maker or rewire your microwave."

I love Sam dearly, but Mr. Fix-It he isn't. I let him change my oil once. That was a learning experience. Now I've gone back to doing it myself.

"All things considered, lumber seems fairly safe," Peg mused. She'd been at the dog show with me when my engine had seized.

"Yes, but he's not building this structure on the ground. He and Davey are going to be up in the air."

"How high?"

I looked out across the yard. Davey and Sam had chosen a lovely old oak tree with a thick trunk and spreading branches for their project. A fork midway up seemed like a likely choice. "Fifteen feet?"

"I suppose someone could break a neck falling from there."

"Go ahead," I said, "make me feel better."

"That's what I'm here for." Aunt Peg sounded cheerful. "Would you like me to come and supervise?"

Heaven help us all. We'd end up with a Taj Mahal on stilts, or the Petite Trianon in a tree. Deftly I changed the subject.

"Actually I'd rather have you answer a question."

"Excellent," said Peg. "I'm good at that."

"What do you know about Champions Dog Food?"

"They make a perfectly decent product and, I believe, a fairly popular one. Despite their company name, they've targeted their previous marketing mostly toward the pet owning public, though it seems they're currently looking to change their focus."

"How do you know that?"

"I received a couple of flyers in the mail. I might even still have one lying around here someplace."

I heard the sound of papers being shuffled, but Aunt Peg never stopped talking.

"I got the impression that the company had bought some kennel club's mailing list and done a mass mailing to local exhibitors. I'm surprised you didn't get a brochure yourself. There was a promotion for a new product with a perfectly ghastly name ..."

"Chow Down?"

"That's it," Aunt Peg confirmed. "So you did hear about it."

As of ten minutes earlier, yes. Though I didn't remember receiving any brochures. Which wasn't to say that one might not have been overlooked. My days were generally so busy that anything that arrived looking like junk mail was promptly disposed of unread.

"Apparently they're running a contest ..." I let the thought dangle for a moment, just in case Aunt Peg might want to jump in and make a full confession.

"Right. That was what the new promotion was about. Although why any self-respecting breeder would want her dogs associated with a kibble with an odious name like Chow Down, I have no idea."

"So you didn't fill out an entry form?"

"Heaven forbid." Peg laughed. "Hope and Zeke are not about to go prancing around on television touting the virtues of anything, much less a dog food that sounds like it fell off the back of a wagon train."

Hope was Faith's litter sister. And Zeke was Eve's brother. Our canine families, like our human one, were indelibly intertwined.

"Why the sudden interest in Champions Dog Food? Are you thinking about switching to a new brand of kibble?"

"Nothing that easy," I admitted. "I got a letter from the company this morning. To my surprise, Faith has been named as one of five finalists in their 'All Dogs Are Champions' contest."

Aunt Peg gasped. Or maybe she was laughing. "Faith has?" she sputtered. "Well, why didn't you start with that information? I would imagine you must know a great deal more about the company than I do."

"Hardly. This is the first I've heard of them, or their contest."

Aunt Peg moderated her tone. Like she was speaking to a child, or a particularly slow relative. "Then why did you send in an entry?"

"I didn't. I have no idea where they got Faith's name from. Or her picture."

There was a brief pause. Then Aunt Peg said, "Oh."

The single syllable spoke volumes.


"Maybe it's nothing."

"I doubt it." Years of experience backed up my reply.

"You might remember that I gave Davey a digital camera for his last birthday."

Of course I remembered that. My son adored his present. He'd quickly become adept at capturing all of us in his photographs. We'd printed up the results on Sam's printer and stuck the best ones up on the refrigerator with magnets.

"About a month ago, Davey called and asked how to email someone a picture. I couldn't see the harm in telling him."

Oh, indeed. "And you didn't stop to wonder why he hadn't asked me or Sam for help?"

"I just assumed you were busy."

If Aunt Peg had been a wooden puppet, her nose would have been growing.

"Did you happen to ask where he was planning to email the pictures to?"

"No, I didn't. It seemed to me that an almost nine-year-old boy was entitled to have some secrets."

"Not when he's on the internet he isn't," I said firmly. "Did you help him write the essay, too?"

"I did not!"

As if I would be impressed by a show of outrage now. "I thought maybe that was another secret."

"Oh, pish," said Aunt Peg. "Stop being annoyed long enough to think things through. Apparently Davey took photographs and wrote an essay that was polished enough to beat out thousands of other silly, ambitious people who were all trying to turn their beloved pets into the next Morris the Cat."

She had a point. My heart swelled briefly with pride at Davey's achievement. I was still annoyed, though.

"I like my beloved pet just the way she is," I grumbled. "Happily anonymous."

"Perhaps you ought to try explaining that to Davey."

"I suppose I should."

"After that you can simply call the Champions Company and decline the honor. Let the contest committee choose some other, equally deserving dog to serve as finalist."

"Good idea."

"You see?" said Aunt Peg. "Problem solved."

As always, she made things sound so simple.

I'd been in this spot before, though, and I knew there'd be a catch. There was always a catch.

It was only a matter of time until I found out what it was.


"We're home!" Davey sang out as he came barreling through the front door.

As if anyone who lived with a crew of large, attentive watchdogs could possibly have been oblivious to that fact. I hadn't heard Sam's SUV come up the driveway, but the Poodles had. Scrambling to their feet, they'd deserted me without hesitation. No doubt Sam and Davey's return seemed more likely to provide biscuits and other forms of excitement than my talking on the phone had.

"In the kitchen," I called back.

I'd left the deck and started to follow the dogs toward the front of the house, but Davey was moving faster than I was. Perennially hungry, he must have come inside and headed straight for food. He raced through the doorway as I was putting the phone back on the counter.

My son had shot up two inches in the last year. Suddenly when I looked at him, I saw only lingering echoes of the little boy he'd been. It was hard to believe that in another year he'd be ready for middle school.

"Hey," said Davey.

His sandy brown hair hadn't seen a comb that morning; his cargo shorts were at least a size too big. A T-shirt from the Norwalk Maritime Center floated, untucked, around his narrow hips. He sketched a wave in my direction, slipped past me, and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the table.

"Hey yourself. How was the shopping trip?"

"Productive," Sam said. He walked into the kitchen, his Poodle escort trailing along behind. "We got everything we needed. Once we get it all unloaded, we'll be ready to start building."

Unlike Davey, Sam didn't sidestep around me. Instead he dropped the plastic bags he was carrying onto the counter and folded me into his arms for a quick kiss.

It was a crime that anyone could look that good first thing in the morning. Then again, Sam had the kind of appeal that wore well at any time of the day: shaggy blond hair, direct blue eyes, and a face that only grew more interesting with age and experience. Amazing, I thought, as I leaned into him, that this man was now my husband.

"Sleep well?" Sam asked.

"Umm ..."

With Davey in the room, I wasn't about to elaborate. But one look at the expression on Sam's face told me I didn't have to. Married for three months, we were still honeymooners. Both of us had been blissfully worn out by the time we'd dropped off to sleep the night before.

I stepped back out of his arms and said, "You're not going to kill yourself climbing around in that tree, are you?"

Sam grinned cheerfully. "I hope not."

That was reassuring.

"What about Davey? He's my only son and heir, you know."

Something flickered briefly in Sam's eyes, and I felt a small pang. Both of us were eager for another child. We'd been trying but so far it hadn't happened.

When Sam spoke, however, his tone was light. "Don't worry. Kids his age don't go splat, they bounce."

"Charming." I peered into a bag. I saw two boxes of nails, a new tape measure, and a small hammer, the size that Davey could easily wrap his hands around.

"We aim to please," said Sam.

Davey only giggled. The notion of bouncing — or going splat — apparently held more appeal for him than it did for me.


Excerpted from Chow Down by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2006 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Laurien Berenson is an Agatha and Macavity nominee, winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award, and four-time winner of the Maxwell Award, presented by the Dog Writers Association of America. She and her husband live on a farm in Kentucky surrounded by dogs and horses. Readers can visit her website at: www.LaurienBerenson.com.

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Chow Down (Melanie Travis Series #13) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another wonderful book in this series. I am reading them all. Melanie's life is always interesting. This is a wonderful time in her life as she is newly married and trying to have another child. The characters that she meets when her son enters their poodle Faith in a dog food promotional contest are well developed through the book. The mystery is interesting to the end as always. Don't stop writing, Lauren! I'm ready for the next book!
KathyAR More than 1 year ago
As always Laurien Berenson trips through dogshows and murder with great glee. A really fun read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed reading this installment of the series. Quick and easy read which kept my attention throughout the novel. Figured out the culprit two-thirds through the read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Styck on processing any one else have this problem with the under three dollar books thiis is the fourth this month babuska from sparta
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is summer vacation and Melanie Travis has the season off since she works at a school in Connecticut. She intends to relax and spend time with her husband of four months Sam in their new home that used to belong to her ex-husband. They¿re trying for a baby which has become news to family and friends and makes Melanie feel pressured. The real pressure comes in the form of a letter stating that her poodle Faith is one of five contestants in the Chow Down contests sponsored by Champions Food Dog Company.-------------- She finds out that her son Davy entered Faith in the contest and by the terms of the contest Melanie can¿t withdraw Faith. During the first meeting of the contestants, one of them falls down the stairs, his dog, Yoda, a Yorkshire terrier falling into Melanie¿s arms. She hears yelling on the staircase but nobody is there and the police believe the death was an accident. Melanie is sure it is murder and between events dealing with the competition, she questions the contestants and the company people, hoping to find a clue that will point to the killer.----------------- A Lauren Berenson mystery is always fun to read because the characters add something special to the storyline. This mystery is difficult to solve because nobody has a clear cut motive and Melanie has no idea who was on the steps with the victim. CHOW DOWN is a charming who-done-it and the glimpse into the heroine¿s personal life is just icing on the cake.-------------------- Harriet Klausner