Purrfect Crime Fiction
Guest Post by Margot Kinberg
Thanks so much, Ingrid, for welcoming me to The Conscious Cat. As a pet lover myself, I was very excited at your invitation. For many of us, pets are an important part of our lives. They’re our companions and often our comfort and solace. So it’s not surprising at all that animal companions also play roles in crime fiction. And cats are natural matches for crime fiction novels. They have the reputation of being somewhat mysterious, and cats have a certain presence that can add a great deal to a good mystery. They also often have delightful personalities that can add humor to a mystery, too.
Lilian Jackson Braun has had one of the most successful mystery series that features cats. Her sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, is a columnist for the Moose County Something, a paper that serves Pickax, a town “400 miles north of nowhere.” Qwilleran is aided in his cases by two extremely intelligent seal-point Siamese with interesting histories of their own. One, a big male, is named K’ao Ko-Kung, named for a 13th Century Chinese artist. K’ao Ko-Kung, usually called Koko, has been with Qwilleran since before he moved to Moose County. In fact, Koko meets Qwilleran in The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Braun’s first Cat Who… novel. At the time of their meeting, Koko lives with George Bonifield Mountclemens III, the Daily Fluxion’s powerful and roundly-hated art critic. Qwilleran’s doing a feature for that paper on the art world, and interviews Mountclemens. Mountclemens then goes out of town, entrusting Qwilleran with Koko’s care. Not long afterwards, Qwilleran finds out that the owner of a local art gallery has been murdered and his gallery left in disarray. Then, two other murders occur, including that of Mountclemens himself after his return. As Qwilleran sorts through the clues, he’s helped by Koko, who has unique ways of communicating. In the end, Koko adopts Qwilleran, who learns to have a lot of respect for Koko’s instincts.
Qwilleran’s other cat is Yum-Yum, a small, dainty female. Qwilleran and Koko meet Yum-Yum in The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern. In that novel, Qwilleran’s assigned to edit Gracious Abodes, a weekly magazine on interior design. He’s not thrilled about the assignment, but a job is a job. He meets several of the local decorators, and even gets the chance to sublet the posh apartment of one of his new acquaintances, Harry Noyton. Qwilleran’s first assignment is to visit and profile the home of G. Verning Tait, a local “blueblood” with a fabulous jade collection. Just after the first issue of Gracious Abodes hits the news-stand, Tait’s wife, Signe, is killed, and his jade collection stolen. The next few profiles of designer homes seem just as ill-fated. Qwilleran soon realizes that the deaths and burglary are all related, and that if the magazine is to continue, he’s going to have to solve the original mystery. In the end, Koko’s habit of sniffing furniture helps Qwilleran figure out what’s behind all of the events, and he’s able to solve the mystery. He also adopts Signe Tait’s beloved Siamese, Yum-Yum. Eventually, the two cats move with Qwilleran to Moose County, where they soon rule his home. Koko, especially, is especially intelligent and often gives Qwilleran clues that help him solve his cases.
Several other cats also feature in the Cat Who… series, including Brutus and Catta, who are companions to Polly Duncan, first the librarian of Pickax, and later, owner of a local bookstore. In many of the books, she’s also Qwilleran’s love interest. Then, there’s Jet Stream, companion to Joe Bunker (AKA Weatherby Goode), meteorologist for the local radio station. Joe and Jet Stream live in a condominium community where Qwilleran has a winter home.
The Cat Who… series is by no means the only mystery series that features cats. There’s also Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, which she’s written with her feline companion, Sneaky Pie. This series features Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen. As the series begins, she’s the postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. Harry’s recently been divorced from the local equine veterinarian, Pharamond “Fair” Haristeen, and is starting life on her own. Harry shares her life with Mrs. Murphy, a wise tiger cat, and Tee Tucker, a Corgi. Mrs. Murphy’s quite fond of Harry, and often helps solve the mysteries Harry investigates. She worries for her human companion, because Harry is insatiably curious and has a habit of getting herself in danger. Later in the series, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker are joined by Pewter, a large gray cat who’s much more interested in her own comfort – and food – than just about anything else. What’s interesting about this series is that some of the action is told from the point of view of Harry’s animal companions, so Mrs. Murphy and Pewter play very important roles in the stories. We also get a fascinating and fun look at their different personalities.
Lorna Barrett’s Book Town series mixes bookstores, mysteries, and a delightful cat named Miss Marple – an irresistible combination, and as an Agatha Christie fan, I love the choice of name for the cat. Tricia Miles and Miss Marple own Haven’t Got a Clue, a mystery bookshop in beautiful, small-town Stoneham, New Hampshire, where one of the local leaders has been behind an effort to revitalize the town by making it a bookshop mecca. In the first installment, Murder is Binding, Tricia’s moved to Stoneham from New York City after a divorce, and set up shop. All’s well, except for Tricia’s cranky next-door-neighbor, Doris Gleason, who owns The Cookery, a cookbook store. Doris blames Tricia for their landlord’s raising the rents on their shops, and she’s not a particularly nice person to begin with, so the two don’t get off to a good start. Then one night, Tricia finds Doris stabbed to death in her shop. What’s worse, a rare and valuable cookbook is missing. Sheriff Wendy Adams suspects that Tricia may be responsible for Doris’ murder, and so do several of the other bookshop owners. So Tricia decides, as the saying goes, to take matters into her own hands and clear her name.
In Leann Sweeney’s Cat in Trouble mysteries, we meet Jilian Hart. Recently widowed, she lives in Mercy, South Carolina, where she owns a home business making specialized quilts for cats. Since the death of her husband, John, she’s been comforted by her own three cats: Syrah, the Abyssinian; Merlot, the Maine Coon and Chablis, the Himalayan. In The Cat, The Quilt and the Corpse, Jilian comes home from a business trip one day only to find that her home’s been broken into and Syrah’s been abducted. The police chief isn’t exactly open to using a lot of police resources to search for a missing cat, so Jilian begins to do some searching and asking questions on her own. Her search leads her to stories of other missing cats – and to Flake Wilkerson, a local eccentric hermit. Shortly after she traces Syrah to Flake Wilkerson’s home, Jilian finds Wilkerson stabbed to death. She also finds herself the most likely suspect, since she certainly had a motive. So Jilian decides to find out who killed Wilkerson, to keep herself from being arrested.
The series I’ve mentioned thus far are cozy mysteries. Lest you think that those are the only type of mysteries where cats play a role, though, think again. Robert Crais’ sleuth, private detective Elvis Cole, is also a cat owner. He “inherited” the cat when he bought his current house on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Los Angeles area. In fact, his cat’s rather particular about the humans he prefers. He loves Cole himself, and really worships Cole’s partner, ex-Marine and gunshop-owner Joe Pike. Ed Lynskey’s private investigator Frank Johnson is also a cat owner, and never forgets to call the cat sitter to check up on his companion when business takes him out of town. There are several other books and series, too, that I haven’t had space to mention, where cats play roles. Sometimes, those roles are critical to solving a mystery. They also set scenes, provide welcome comic relief, and make human characters, well, more human. No matter what role they play, cats can add to a crime fiction novel. Meow!
Thanks again, Ingrid, for hosting me!
Kinberg’s newest novel is B-Very Flat, a murder mystery about gifted violinist Serena Brinkman, who dies suddenly on the night of an important music competition. Serena’s partner becomes convinced that her death was no accident, and asks Dr. Joel Williams, former police officer-turned-professor, to help find out the truth.