January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
Fuzzy. Persistent. Persnickety. Annoying. Allergy-inducing.
I'm referring here not to felines, but to the literary subgenre of cat mysteries.
Don't get me wrong: I love cats, and am currently owned by four. But I don't care for most of the crime fiction that is centered around them.
When a woman at a party or at the office (it is always a woman) begins to rave about the latest installment of a cat mystery series, I shudder. It is much the same feeling I have when I hear the cat door slam and Betaille, our Himalayan/Abyssinian cross, marches into the kitchen carrying a struggling rat. I think: Another one? Arrrgh.
Why is it that I enjoy cats, but can take or leave most cat mysteries? Because as much as I like the furry little guys, I prefer to interact with them in small doses. I don't care to spend three hours being entertained by one.
Cats, after all, are decorative and diverting, and they are at their finest in cameo appearances. There is no question that a muscular black panther signals intrigue, while a regal white Persian connotes wealth, power and even cruelty. Striped tabbies: domesticity. Tattered street cats: tough customers. Siamese: fey elegance and sensuality.
Do you really want a cat involved in the work of detection, though? Perhaps once, as a clever twist. But throughout an entire series? It's hard enough for a writer to keep a human sleuth fresh and interesting in a string of books, much less a sleuth who sleeps 20 hours a day and is better at leaving prints than spotting them.
Obviously I'm in the minority. Writers and their publishers are churning out cat mysteries faster than barnyard moggies can produce kittens -- and are considerably more successful at finding homes for them.
Even strangers to the realm of felonious felines know that the queen of cat mysteries is, without question, Lilian Jackson Braun. Her book The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (1966) launched a series in which cats have eaten Danish, seen red, played Brahms, known Shakespeare, sniffed glue, gone underground, talked to ghosts, lived high, known a cardinal (no, not the kind with wings), moved a mountain, blown the whistle, said cheese and seen stars. Behind her by just a whisker is Carole Nelson Douglas, writer of four outstanding Irene Adler historical mysteries (Good Night, Mr. Holmes, etc.), who is now producing a series about Midnight Louie, a feline sleuth who gambles his nine lives on the mean streets of Las Vegas. But for the first such mystery series, you have to reach all the way back to the Depression era, when D.B. Olsen started a series about a crime-solving cat named Samantha. Beginning with The Cat Saw Murder (1939), Samantha assisted amateur sleuth Miss Rachel Murdock as well as the Los Angeles Police Department. On the tail of Samantha, the husband-and-wife writing team of Richard and Frances Lockridge produced a 26-book series (beginning with The Norths Meet Murder, 1940) set in New York City, in which three very hep cats -- Martini, Gin and Sherry -- were background and conversational elements at the home of detectives Pam and Jerry North.
There was a time when cats stayed on the mystery writer's desk and out of the writer's manuscript. (Raymond Chandler referred to his black Persian, Taki, as his "secretary" but did not immortalize the cat in crime fiction -- although Robert Altman's 1976 film version of Chandler's The Long Goodbye had private eye Philip Marlowe owning a cat). Yet today even hard-boiled writers such as Donald Westlake say that cats influence their writing. Westlake claims that a particularly unpleasant family cat named Emily was the inspiration for some of the evil (human) characters he has devised.
Most of today's cat mysteries are what I think of as "clawzies," a variation on cozies in which the cat or its person is an amateur sleuth, and the action takes place in a domestic or small-town setting. Perhaps what I'm longing for, instead, are "purrlice procedurals," in which a cat makes its home in the cop shop, or a subgenre (I like to think of it as "hair-balled") in which the cat functions as a private eye or an adjunct to a licensed P.I. There is some hope for this fantasy, when contemporary authors such as Robert Crais and George P. Pelecanos are giving their investigators feline companions.
With cat mysteries proliferating like Tribbles on Star Trek, I'm taking a firm stand: They are best in small doses, and most of the current series have gotten way out of hand -- not unlike most feline-oriented households I know. ("We already have 10 of them, dear, no one will even notice another few.") Enough, I say. You can feed me a can of Fancy Feast the day that a cat mystery series ever wins an Edgar Award.
On the other hand, who can resist the cream of the crop? Read on to discover five cat mysteries that had even a finicky reader like me purring. You might enjoy curling up with one -- assuming, of course, that your cats allow you to share their sofa.
1. The Cat Who Robbed a Bank (2000), by Lilian Jackson Braun, is the 22nd adventure of a famous Siamese cat named Koko and her owner, ex-journalist Jim Qwilleran. (A second Siamese, Yum Yum, joined the team in 1968.) Don't let the cute cat names -- or the remote setting in the fictitious town of Pickax, Moose County -- fool you: Braun crafts a fine mystery. She was an Edgar nominee in 1986 for The Cat Who Saw Red and an Anthony nominee the following year for The Cat Who Played Brahms. In Bank, a wealthy jeweler staying at the town's newly refurbished hotel is found murdered. His young female assistant has vanished, along with the jewels. Qwilleran and his insightful cats have a lot on their hands and paws -- including a bookmobile hijacking and an attempted bank robbery -- in this amusing mystery.
2. The Man with My Cat (1999) is Paul Engleman's wickedly funny take on the cat mystery subgenre. It opens with Phil Mooney and his wife Frankie on the doorstep of a Chicago cat shelter, trying to summon up the nerve to unload a Maine Coon cat named Phull -- a charmless and destructive beast they have inherited from Phil's dad. They wind up taking Phull to the local vet instead, in the dim hope that neutering may discourage him from spraying the Mooney household from top to bottom. But when they return to pick up the cat, they discover that he's been stolen -- and a nasty fellow who cost Phil his career with the city fire department appears to be mixed up in it. The Man with My Cat is a wise-cracking urban mystery with the hard-bitten "sez who? sez me!" ambiance of a Mike Royko column. It will be treasured by anyone who's ever had a love/hate relationship with a cat.
3. Cat in a Jeweled Jumpsuit (1999) is the latest in Carole Nelson Douglas' series about Midnight Louie, a sleek black tom cat who sleuths in Vegas. Douglas started her Louie series with the relatively tame Catnap (1992). Since then, Louie has been almost as busy as Braun's Koko and Yum Yum, though he tends to get his paws a lot dirtier as he prowls parking lots along the Strip. Jumpsuit finds Louie and his human partner, PR maven and amateur detective Temple Barr, playing ghostbusters. Elvis Presley sightings are spooking a construction crew and threatening to delay the remodeling of a Vegas hotel Barr represents, and someone with a distinctive Memphis drawl has taken to calling up a local radio talk show. Is it a publicity stunt for a nearby Elvis theme hotel? When two murders occur, and a young ingenue who plays the role of Priscilla Presley is attacked, Louie and Barr team up with a troupe of Elvis impersonators to find out if the King really lives.
4. Forget Harry Potter. If you want to be enchanted by a book for all ages, try Sam the Cat Detective, by Linda Stewart. Published in 1993 by Scholastic as a trade paperback, it is currently out of print. Stewart tells a classic urban noir tale -- with all the key roles, from gumshoe to bimbo, played by cats. Sam, the P.I., is a handsome Russian blue who, with his human partner, runs a specialty bookstore. His client is Sugary, a sultry longhaired cat from the building's penthouse who comes to Sam for help after her owners are burglarized. The thieves took off with a jade necklace that one of her owners had made for a customer; it's not insured, and her owner faces financial ruin. After negotiating his fee -- half a pound of lox, plus expenses, and a small can of tuna in advance -- Sam goes to work. He enlists a few toughs (like Spike, a big black cat who lives upstairs, and Butch, who lives in an adjacent alley) and checks out the buzz on the street with a feline fatale by the name of Angie ("Tan-colored. Tough. You go to see Angie, man, you better sharpen your nails"). This book is a gem, right down to the cover illustration by Chuck Leslie. It shows Sam on a dark street corner with his shadow, cast by the streetlight behind him, sporting a tough-guy fedora.
5. A Cat of One's Own (1999) is the 17th book in the popular series about ailurophilic actress and amateur detective Alice Nestleton, written by Lydia Adamson. (Adamson is the nom de plume of Frank King, who also employs it for an animal-oriented series involving veterinarian Deirdre Nightingale and for a bird-oriented series with sleuth Lucy Wayles; in addition, King wrote a dog-oriented series under his own name.) While most cat mystery series follow a particular feline/detective team, Adamson sticks with one sleuth but cleverly introduces a new cat -- or cats -- in each book. In A Cat of One's Own, Alice has helped her recently widowed friend Amanda select Jake, a distinctive brindle cat, from the local shelter. When Jake is catnapped, Amanda pays $15,000 in ransom -- but then is found murdered with Jake, unharmed, by her side. Alice, who was watching the ransom pick-up, becomes a murder suspect. This New York series has more drama and passion than the usual cat cozy, plus a fascinating array of feline breeds and personalities.
No guide to feline crime fiction would be complete without at least acknowledging the rest of "the cats who come back" -- the major series that have followed in the prints of Braun's, Douglas' and Adamson's cat tales:
The "Big Mike" series by Garrison Allen. Mike (or Mycroft) is a 25-pound Abyssinian who lives with Arizona bookseller and amateur sleuth Penelope Warren. He debuted in Desert Cat (1994) and has appeared in Dinosaur Cat, Royal Cat, Stable Cat, Baseball Cat and, most recently, Movie Cat (1999). One reviewer compared Allen's clever plots and nimble pacing to the work of P.G. Wodehouse.
The "Samantha" series by D.B. Olsen (the pen name used by Dolores Hitchens). More than a quarter-century before Lilian Jackson Braun developed her first "The Cat Who" novel, Los Angeles resident Hitchens wrote a 13-book series about Rachel Murdock, a little old lady sleuth, and the crime-solving cat Samantha, who accompanied Miss Murdock on her world travels. Hitchens also wrote a distinguished hard-boiled mystery, without cats, called Sleep with Slander (1960). (All of these books are out of print.)
The "Mrs. Murphy" series by Rita Mae Brown and a feline co-author. (Yes, this is the same Rita Mae Brown who wrote the 1973 feminist classic, The Rubyfruit Jungle). This witty, whimsical series features a tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, from Crozet, Virginia. In the seventh and most recent book in the series (Cat on the Scent, 1999), Mrs. Murphy collaborates with another cat, named Pewter, as well as a corgi and the town postmistress to investigate attempted murder and a mysterious disappearance, all set against a backdrop of a Civil War re-enactment.
The cat mysteries of Marion Babson. While Babson has not done a major cat series, the fur flies in several of her books, including Nine Lives to Murder (1994). Bruce F. Murphy, in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery, describes Nine Lives as "perhaps the ultimate cat mystery because it completely abandons realism and puts into effect the fantasy of every real cat lover, that of being a cat." The detective in this case is Winstanley Fortescue, a Shakespearean actor who survives a murder attempt, but ends up switching bodies with Monty, the theater's resident cat. While the cat in the actor's body lies in a hospital bed, the feline Fortescue hunts down his own would-be murderer.
The "Joe Gray" series by Shirley Rosseau Murphy. This new series featuring Joe Gray, a tomcat, and Dulcie, a library cat in the Bay Area town of Molina Point, led to some wary hissing in the world of kitty lit. That's because Murphy's cats are not only fully conversant in English, but literate as well. This violates what had been the literary cats' prime directive against inter-species communications. However, it has led to a lively series, opening with Cat on the Edge (1996), and now up to a fifth installment, Cat to the Dogs (2000). I confess I've approached these books with real caution. Of course, I have no trouble believing that cats talk to one another, but I have difficulty understanding why they would stoop so low as to speak to mere humans. | February 2000
KAREN G. ANDERSON is a contributing editor of January Magazine. She has four cats, who are hard at work on The Mystery of the Refrigerator Door.