Mysterious Cats

Books and cats. Cats and books. They go together like a hot dog and mustard. Well, no they don’t. And I don’t like mustard on my hot dogs anyway.

What I meant was that cats appear in a lot of books (and poems, songs, paintings and other forms of art, probably including architecture). They’re just so adorable and full of personality (I didn’t say “purr-sonality” – you’re welcome) that authors can’t resist them.

I studied some cat literature when I was an English major in college. There’s the cat in Kipling’s Just So Stories: “I am the cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me.” And, maybe the best-known of all, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the source material for the Broadway musical Cats. Perhaps the most famous lines are “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter/It isn’t just one of your holiday games/You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

(Our cat Toby has at least three names. In addition to Toby, I may or may not have referred to him as “Toto-Booboo Baby,” and we also call him “Green-Eyed Monster.” But I digress.)

But contemporary books are populated by cats as well. Primary among the genres that feature them are mysteries and fantasy/science fiction. This week I’ll tackle mysteries and next week I’ll go on to F&SF, as it’s known.

Probably the best-known series of mysteries featuring cats is the “The Cat Who…” books by Lilian Jackson Braun. This was a series that started back in the 60s, took a break for a couple of decades, and eventually racked up 29 books with titles like The Cat Who Could Read Backwards and The Cat Who Read Shakespeare through The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers in 2007, the last one before the author died at the age of 97.

I was a devotee of the series, which featured cat-sleuths Koko and Yum Yum, until The Cat Who Moved a Mountain (1992), when the plot was an idiotic one featuring two rival clans, the Taters and the Spuds, which was (I think) meant to offer biting social commentary but fell beyond flat. Later there was a satire called The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun, by Robert Kaplow, featuring cats named Ying-Tong and Poon-Tang solving the murder of Braun herself.

Rita Mae Brown, the author of the sensational autobiographical novel Rubyfruit Jungle, credited her cat Sneaky Pie Brown as co-author of the Mrs. Murphy series, which included titles such as Murder She Meowed and Claws and Effect. The feline Mrs. Murphy shared the stage with a postmistress sleuth named Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, a dog named Tee Tucker, and another cat named Pewter, all of whom were definitely second bananas.

Another series is the Midnight Louie books by Carole Nelson Douglas, which started with Catnap and continued through titles including Cat in an Indigo Mood and Cat in a Zebra Zoot Suit. Las Vegas PR specialist Temple Barr and Louie (who was based on an actual cat) have adventures that include “wacky friends and sexy guys.” I read this series for a while, too, but quit not because of any flaw in the writing, but the endless failure to resolve any given plot line.

Cozy mysteries are rife with cat detectives as well. One series takes place in the Cat Cafe, a small establishment in Massachusetts. Writer Cate Conte uses the setting for a series of mysteries including Purrder She Wrote (don’t blame me) and The Tell Tail Heart (still not my fault). (There is a cat cafe in Dayton, Ohio, called The Catfe, where there are many cats up for adoption. I’ve never been there, though I’ve meant to go. I just know I’d come home with one or more of them. But I digress again.)

Another cozy cat mystery series with special appeal to me is the Cat in the Stacks series, which features a librarian named Charlie and a cat named Diesel. Titles are a plethora of puns, including Hiss Me Deadly, Cat Me If You Can, Careless Whiskers, and The Pawful Truth. I guess the author, Miranda James, just couldn’t help herself.

I’ve left out a bunch of other series, mostly cozies (for those of you who don’t know, these are mysteries where the sleuth is an amateur and all the violence happens offstage). But you get the idea. The cat usually uncovers some clue that helps solve the murder, or even has telepathic powers or internal speech. (We have a cat that has demonstrated telepathic powers, though not in the context of solving a mystery, unless “Why is my water dish empty?” is a mystery, which I guess it is to her. More digression.)

If you have any cat mysteries to recommend, please do. My TBR pile is threatening to topple over and crush me, but there’s always room for one more cat.

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