April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

by Kirsten Bakis

Historian Ludwig von Sacher wears kid gloves and pince-nez, is fluent in English and German and has a face like a German shepherd. Actually he is a German shepherd. The elegant Lydia Petze, a pianist who dresses in flowing, bustled gowns, is a Samoyed; their associate the financier Klaue Lutz is a malamute.

They are Monster Dogs (their phrase), members of a surgically altered race of superintelligent canines who stand on two legs and have prosthetic hands and mechanical voice boxes—the result of a sinister project begun in the late 1800s by Augustus Rank, a mad Bavarian scientist driven to create an army of fierce, intensely loyal soldier dogs. More than a century later, the dogs, who have been enslaved in a secret city by Rank’s successors, massacre their cruel masters, loot their riches and Prussian finery and move to New York City, a place they understand to be inhabited by “many kinds of immigrants.” There, the 150 refugee dogs throw glamorous parties, stage an epic opera and build a castle called Neuhundstein.

First-time novelist Bakis’s fantastic, skillfully told story unfolds through the recollections of narrator Cleo Pira, the dogs’ human confidante, as well as through excerpts of the scientist’s papers and Ludwig’s diary, kept while the dog researches the origins of his ultimately doomed race. This poignant, mostly magnificent book (the end drags a bit) inspires all sorts of wild wonderment about man’s best friend. What do dogs think about? What would they say if they could talk? What if dogs were more like us? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23)

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