Flashback: Look what the cat dragged in! – Mysterious Cats

Originally ran in Crimespree issue 11 Mar 2006

By Ayo Onatade

Look what the cat dragged in! – Mysterious Cats

I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat. – Edgar Allan Poe

Let me preface this article by saying that I do not hate cats. Despite the fact that I do not own a cat it does not make me ailurophobic, elurophobic, felinophobic, galeophobic, and gatophobic or whatever name you would like to call it. In fact, I am quite fond of them as pets but I won’t have one because I am too selfish. Anybody that was at Bouchercon in Chicago in 2005 and attended the panel with Laura Lippman, John Connolly, Mark Billingham, and Karin Slaughter will no doubt of heard John’s robust views on cat mysteries. I am not too fond of them myself, (the books I mean, not the cats) and I am not sure that I do understand the appeal of them. Nevertheless not all of them should be consigned to the nearest scrap heap, just some of them.

However, it is not surprising that cat mysteries have a sub-genre of their own. I am disappointed that it has had such a long shelf life. So when and where did this all start? It’s a relationship that has ranged from their being adored as gods in the Nile valley to their slinking into medieval witch-hood and rising again to be revered in poet T.S. Eliot’s verses Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. We have been fascinated with cats for a very long time, as far back as the Egyptians for whom cats were considered sacred. Cats of course come in all types of breeds, colours, and sizes so one can imagine the different types of cats that are now investigating crimes.

In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe wrote what could be considered one of the earliest stories featuring a cat The Black Cat. The story was first published in the United States Saturday Post on August 19, 1843 and serves as a reminder for all of us that the capacity for violence and horror lies within each of us, no matter how docile and humane our dispositions might appear. D B Olsen however was one of the earliest authors to write a series featuring a cat when she wrote a series set in the Depression era featuring a crime-solving cat called Samantha who was owned by Miss Rachel Murdock. There were thirteen books in this series. The first book The Cat Saw Murder was written in 1939. Not long after this in 1940 the first of a twenty-six series, which was jointly written by husband and wife Richard and Frances Lockridge was published. The book The North’s meet Murder introduced readers to detectives Pam and Jerry North who shared their home with three very hip and cool cats named Martini, Gin, and Sherry. The last book in the series is Murder By The Book and was published in 1963 the same year that Frances Lockridge died.

While Olson and the Lockridge’s may have been the earliest authors to write a series featuring a cat, they pale into comparison when it comes to Lilian Jackson Braun. In 1966, she burst on the scene with the very first “Cat Who” series with The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. This book introduced readers to James Qwilleran a once respected journalist who is a recovering alcoholic and his Siamese cat Kao K’o Kung better known as Koko. The second Siamese cat Yum Yum joins them not long afterwards. This series has been going on strong for quite sometime now with at least one book per year apart from a period between her third and fourth book The Cat Who Turned Off and On and the Edgar nominated The Cat Who Saw Red when there was a space of 18 years in between publication. The latest book (the 28th) in the series is the Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell. This time Qwill is running around trying to get things ready for Pickax City’s celebration and of course doling out funds from his inheritance at the same time. The mystery concerns the death of a very wealthy couple whose only heir is a rather loathsome and greedy nephew. You can imagine the rest! I love a long running series especially if the series is well written and the author can keep the series innovative and attention grabbing. However, twenty-eight books featuring two Siamese cats are twenty-seven books too many. I didn’t know cats lived that long. This series has also managed to generate a reference book – The Cat Who Companion in 1999.

The runaway success of the Cat Who series has of course spurned a number of similar books. Lydia Adamson (aka Frank King) also writes a number of animal related series. His cat series features ailurophilic actress and amateur detective Alice Nestleton. In contrast to most series, each book has a new cat or cats but sticks with one sleuth. Set in New York, the first book in the series was published in 1990 and was entitled A Cat in the Manger the most recent being A Cat Named Brat (2002).

In 1990, Rita Mae Brown also started writing a series featuring a cat called Sneaky Pie Brown (who subsequently went on to be joined as co-author of the series). The cat a gray tiger cat called Mrs Murphy belongs to the postmistress Mary Minor Haristeen better known as Harry. The first book in the series is Wish You Were Here. The latest book in the series is called Sour Puss. I mean, how could one give a cat writing credit? When the author has book signings, does she take the cat along with her so that he can sign with his paw print as well? Would he not be entitled to as well if he were joint author? I would be very much surprised if the cat knows how to type.

Another author who has also joined this coterie of writers is Carole Nelson Douglas. The series featuring a sleek black tomcat called Midnight Louie started with catnap in 1992. Midnight Louie considers himself not only to be a gourmand, but also a world class dog baiter, a ladies man but most importantly he also happens to think that he is the cat equivalent of Philip Marlowe! I am not sure how much Raymond Chandler would appreciate a cat (no matter how smooth) being the equivalent of one of the best private investigators around. The only time a cat has been anywhere near Philip Marlowe was in Robert Altman’s 1976 version of Chandler’s book The Long Goodbye where Marlowe owned a cat. The latest book in this series is Cat in a Hot Pursuit. Midnight Louie also has his own newsletter. A much more rewarding series written by this author is her outstanding Irene Adler historical series.

Not to be out done Shirley Rosseau Murphy began a series featuring Joe Grey a tomcat and Dulcie, a library cat who live in the Bay Area town of Molina Point. What is so unusual about this series is that Joe Grey can actually speak to humans. Now while I admit that cats can quite easily manipulate their owners and do no doubt communicate with each other in someway, I cannot actually believe that they can talk to humans. The first book in the series written in 1996 was Cat on the Edge. The most recent book in the series is Cat Breaking Free. This is the eleventh book in the series and finds Joe Grey and his friends Dulcie and Kit examining the case of a feral cat, a mauled and dead motorcyclist found in a ravine and a gang of Los Angeles thieves who are hiding out in the hills.

Despite the fact that I have an aversion to series featuring cats, the only series that I have managed to read without wincing is the “Big Mike” series by Garrison Allen featuring Mycroft (better known as Mike) a 25-pound Abyssinian cat who belongs to ex-Marine turned Arizona Mystery bookseller Penelope Warren who manages to become involved in various scrapes. Desert Cat the first book in the series came out in 1994 while the most recent is the Dinosaur Cat, which was published in 1998. In the Dinosaur Cat when the discovery of a baby Seismosaurus fossil attracts a horde of media vultures to the town of Empty Creek, Arizona, the incredible find is shadowed by an even bigger sensation. A young scientist has been murdered at the site, sending sometime sleuth Penelope Warren out to the scene. Nevertheless, before Penelope arrives, a mysterious explosion removes any evidence. Now, with the help of her Abyssinian cat “Big Mike”, the ex-Marine and part-time bookstore owner digs up clues buried deep in Empty Creek’s history, and soon realizes that she has just scratched the surface of a very deadly mystery. Sadly, Garrison Allen does not appear to have written any more books in the series, which is a shame because this is an excellent series with some very quirky characters, least of all Mycroft the cat. Unsurprisingly Big Mike is an honorary member of the local Police Department.

Writing a series featuring cats is not the sole prerogative of American writers. Marian Babson is also known for combining her excellent writing skills with her love of cats. Luckily, they don’t actually solve the crimes. The exception to this is perhaps Nine Lives to Murder, which was published in 1994. In Nine Lives to Murder, Shakespearean actor Winstanley Fortescue finds himself transposed into the body of Monty the cat who lives in the theatre after an attempt on his life. As Fortescue (in the body of a cat) investigates who attempted to murder him, Monty finds himself in the actor’s body as it lies in the hospital bed. This is a rather surreal and improbable tale, but it manages to work because it is the ultimate fantasy of any true cat lover by being in the body of the cat themselves.

Turkish-German author Akif Pirinçci’s 1989 book (translated from German in 1994) Felidae is a story by a cat about cats. Francis lives with Gustav (whom he considers his human companion and feeder) and he finds himself reluctantly drawn into investigating the brutal and mutilated murders of several neighbourhood cats. The cats in this book are not the type of felines that you would want to pat, snuggle up to or take home as pets. They are tough, swear, distrustful, clever and able to survive in the human world because they cannot only read their owners books but they can also operate their computers. Highly sceptical of course but it is fiction. Nevertheless, this is no cuddly mystery story. Seriously written and slanted not only for cat lovers Felidae is actually a fast-paced engaging thriller. The book was consequently made into an animated film. The subsequent sequel to this novel was Felidae on the Road. This time Francis finds himself investigating the slaughter of farmyard cats by a serial killer.

Alex Matthews is the author of a series featuring Cassidy McCabe a divorced thirty-something psychotherapist and of course amateur sleuth who while struggling to make ends meet finds herself adopted by a calico at called Starshine who has a triangular face and odd ears, one black the other orange. Despite the fact that she is initially not too fond of cats, Starshine becomes her chief confidant and tormentor. The First book in the series is Secret’s Shadow while Wedding’s Widow is the seventh and the latest book in the series. While attending the wedding of one of her clients, psychotherapist Cassidy McCabe and her husband, Zach, witness the violent death of the groom by a sniper’s bullet. This series I think does not really fall into the category of the above as lucky for us the only thing that the cat does is act as her confidant. At least the cat does not solve crimes!

Literary Agent Evan Marshall is also the author of a series of books featuring a tortoiseshell cat. Set in New York City the main protagonists are Jane Stuart a widowed literary agent and her cat Winky. The first book in the series is entitled Missing Marlene while the most recent is called Crushing Crystal.

There have been other books of course involving cats. Christopher Reed’s 1988 book The Big Scratch is a wonderful satire on the detective novel; it features a feline sleuth called Manx McCatty as he investigates white cat slavery in San Francisco.

Of course, one can also not forget Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series. While the series may not, be on the same wavelength as the Cat Who series (thank goodness) etc it does feature a cat called Raffles who belongs to Bernie Rhodenbarr a burglar who now owns his own bookshop and is constantly trying to go straight with the odd lapse along the way.

This sub-genre appears to be resilient enough that anthologies have also been written about cats. Some of the anthologies that have appeared include Cat Crimes I, II, III (a collected anthology of three volumes) edited by Martin Greenberg. Cat Crimes for the Holidays and Cat Crimes Takes a Vacation both again edited by Martin Greenberg, Feline Felonies edited by Abigail Browning and Felonious Felines edited by Carol Gorman. Mystery Cats edited by Lilian Jackson Braun, Purr-fect Crimes again edited by Martin Greenberg and Too Many Tomcats: And Other feline Tales of Suspense edited by Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins to name a few.

Not all the cat books are mystery related and not all of them are so dire. There are in fact some quite humorous books involving cats. Most of them just happen to be parodies of popular books, magazines, or philosophies. For example between 1991 and 1997, Henry Beard wrote three books, French for Cats, Poetry for Cats and my favourite Zen for Cats. Others include Internet for Cats by Judy Heim, Catmopolitan, and Good Mousekeeping by Irene Hochberg and Feng Shui for Cats by Roni Jay. What can I say? They are silly, they are funny, but at least you know that you are reading something that should not be taken serious and is meant to amuse you. Furthermore, at least they won’t be attempting to solve a crime.

So why I am I so anti cat crime books? Partly because they exasperate me! Having read some of them, I feel as if I am reading a book with no soul and I certainly would not want a cat to investigate any crime that I was involved in. I constantly feel the need to re-assure myself that it is in fact a book that I am reading and not a figment of my imagination. This might also be due to the fact that I prefer reading books that are more realistic and a cat investigating a crime does not fit the bill. Cats may have a mind of their own and their owners might think that they are intelligent, but I fail to see how they can use this to explain the way in which cats solve crimes. It is impossible for them to do so. Cats are pets, they are not detectives, and they should not be treated as such. While writing one book about a cat detecting a crime might be seen, as a novelty to have for example over twenty-seven is to me ludicrous. The fact that this sub-genre has produced a whole stream of copycat books is to me mind-boggling. I am flabbergasted at how popular these books are and the fact that publishers still think that they are worth publishing. I know that cats are supposed to have nine lives, but surely, by now the publishers have used them all up?

No doubt, there will be a lot of teeth gnashing by some by the time they have finished reading this, but take heart from the fact that as long as there are people willing to read these books then there will always be someone willing to write them.

So who is my favourite literary and fictional cat? It has got to be Macavity, (from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) also called the Mystery Cat, the Hidden Paw and Napoleon of Crime. He is best known as a master criminal who is never there when a crime is discovered and seems impossible to capture.


Ayo Onatade