Detecting with cats

Mystery author Lilian Jackson Braun died Saturday, June 4 at the age of 97. Braun was the author, or perhaps the perpetrator would be the better description, of The Cat Who series of mysteries. She was probably the single author responsible for the entire genre of cozy mysteries with cats as, not merely lap adornments, but actual detectives.

The concept began innocently enough. Her human protagonist was a newspaper reporter named Jim Qwilleran. Like so many detectives, both amateur and professional, Qwill has gone through some rough patches in his life, and is now trying to get his life back on track. A former crime reporter, he is now “demeaning” himself by covering the art beat–a last chance given by an old friend. But crime comes to him, a gallery owner is murdered, and Qwill decides to investigate the homicide. As part of his investigation, he “temporarily” adopts the gallery owner’s Siamese cat Koko, convinced that the cat must have seen, heard, or perhaps sniffed something related to the murder. Qwill’s investigation, his redemption, and his growing “partnership” with the cat Koko complete the story of The Cat who could Read Backwards, the first in the 29-book series that ended with Braun’s death this weekend.

Braun started a trend. Throughout the series, Qwill believes that Koko is providing him with hints and clues, but Koko still acts like a cat, and only like a cat. The “clues” that Qwill gets from the big Siamese are all a matter of the human’s interpretation.

But it’s pretty easy to trace the line of descent from Koko to two feline detectives who really ARE the detectives, Midnight Louie and Joe Grey. Midnight Louie is the co-narrator of a series of mysteries, starting with Catnap by Carole Nelson Douglas. His human is a public relations freelancer named Temple Barr, and the city they investigate is the Sin capital of the U.S., Las Vegas. Midnight Louie is an overweight, all black tomcat who sounds like he just stepped off the stage of the latest “Guys and Dolls” revival. Louie has clawed his way through 21 books so far, and is still going strong.

Joe Grey is my personal favorite, partly because Joe knows what happened to him is wrong for a cat, and he thinks about it sometimes, then washes himself and goes back to solving crimes, usually after he’s ordered delivery from the local deli over the phone. In Cat on the Edge by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, we discover Joe Grey, a smoke grey tomcat with white socks a docked tail. Joe suddenly discovers he can talk, and understand, human. He just doesn’t know why, or how. Then he witnesses a murder behind his favorite deli. Now he has the power to do something about it. But with the ability to talk like a human, comes the ability to think like one, too. Cats don’t face moral dilemmas–but Joe Grey does.

Lilian Jackson Braun created a cat who had his human convinced that he was helping him solve crimes. After three books, she stopped her successful series for 18 years, then picked it back up by moving her human and his feline assistant from the big city to a place she created, Pickax City in Moose County, a place “400 miles north of everywhere”.  Moose County was so far north, it even had a town named Brrr. Read the books. Especially some night when you need to cool off.