The Love Dog

By Elsa Watson. Tor. $7.99.

Digging up dirt doesn’t always produce grime. Sometimes the end result is guilt, tears and plenty of regret. But the catalyst here in Washington state author Watson’s second fast-paced, smooth-reading novel is a delightful golden retriever on a mission.

But equally front and center throughout is Samantha Novak, fired from a paralegal job she hated, who catches on with a Hollywood TV film studio as “Love Dog” Apollo’s handler. Her twisted purpose, however is to write an expose of the reality TV dating show, “The Love Dog” and its host Mason Hall, for Telltale, a Hollywood tabloid.

After losing her paralegal position, it isn’t long until Novak’s finances begin to suffer mightily. A blogger with two others, she has always dreamed of being a writer. When an editor of Telltale calls after seeing some of her colorful blogging entries and offers her an assignment contingent on getting inside information about the show, Samantha reconnects with a former acquaintance in a divorce case who helps her land an interview with Hall and the eventual job as Apollo’s handler.

Her assignment: Write three stories about the show and Hall, for which she would be paid in advance. The latter proves a key hook in her accepting the offer, since her bills were quickly piling up.

Sam, who was jilted at the altar, is a love doubter, and views “The Love Dog” story with a proverbial chip on her shoulder, but recognizes the opportunity could become the launching pad for a star-studded new career.

She quickly, however, discovers the worlds of reality TV and tabloid journalism are on a collision course here and the scenario is not quite what she expects. Apollo, a delightful pooch who believes he is a love maker, and the attractive Hall, a major Hollywood celebrity with a good heart, embrace her in their own fashion and regret begins to mount with her about the project.

Throughout, “The Love Dog” the text flows liquid smooth from Samantha’s words to Apollo’s thoughts, accented with plenty of quotes from those involved in the lives of both.

For instance, when explaining Apollo’s role on the show to the then new employee Samantha, Hall says, “Apollo has a subtle effect on every part of the show. You may not be able to see it, but his energy is what makes ‘The Love Dog’ special. That’s why he needs to be happy. His enthusiasm underscores everything we do.”

After two of her stories are printed, creating a downward spiral in both the show ratings and Hall’s trust for his entire inner circle, Sam becomes worried as her once outsider relationship with him moves toward a close personal friendship and possibly more.

Does she confess she’s the mole? If so, will she be fired? Will her budding relationship with Hall become an instant disaster? And what will happen to her beloved Apollo?

“The Love Dog” is a sobering reminder that the fishbowl of public life isn’t always what it appears. This bumpy emotional ride ends in a stirring, even-handed manner that is a solid testament to the author’s storytelling skills and her rich development of characters.