Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Cat Who…


If Hazel Holt’s books offer the ultimate in cosy crime, Lilian Jackson Braun epitomises it across the Atlantic, with her “The Cat Who…” series, which chronicle the lives of James Macintosh Qwilleran, his friends, and their various cats. Set in Pickax (generally supposed to be in Michigan), these relatively brief stories – usually around 200 pages – are masterly in their lack of excitement: death, which is proper murder mystery fashion, stalks the denizens of Moose County, almost always happens off-stage and to relatively unknown characters. The reader, however, along with Qwill, comes to hear of it secondhand but as it happens, signalled by the bloodcurdling yowl that it Koko the Siamese cat’s death howl. Koko exhibits startling prescience, but Qwill’s interpretation of the signs can be slow, since these are not whodunits in the usual sense. Indeed, murder often seems incidental to the gentle unfolding of everyday life – drinks parties, dining out, visits to the local bookshop, or just entertaining a succession of visitors to Qwill’s splendidly-restored apple barn and the gazebo where he and the cats go to commune with nature.

My local library seems happy to provide a steady stream of these books – there are currently 29 in the series (the publication of the 30th is evidently in some doubt as the author is in her nineties and it didn’t appear as scheduled last year) – and in the last couple of months I have read The Cat Who Brought Down the House, The Cat Who Talked Turkey and The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell as contributions to the Support Your Local Library Challenge. When I first discovered them some years ago I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked them: the later books have become exceedingly formulaic and, as I’ve said, very little actually happens, but over time I’ve decided that therein lies their charm, and now I am pleased to find an unread one on the library shelf. I’ve also managed to find some of the first in the series on Bookmooch and will renew my acquaintance with the earliest adventures of Qwill and the cats, written in the 1960s (someone once joked that the next should be called The Cat Who Lived Forever) which take place before the move to Moose County, in an unspecified city which is probably Detroit.

The writing combines a sense of humour and of the absurd with utter seriousness about the subject matter and a strong feeling for community. Local events are lovingly detailed and the history of Pickax and the surrounding country becomes very familiar to the reader as it is revisited in successive novels (though there is enough explanation as a rule to allow them to be read as standalone works). Crime and detection never get seriously in the way of a good pageant, though the weather may frequently interfere, and the cats always have a starring role between snacking on delicacies and rampaging around the apple barn dislodging books with significant titles, although Yum Yum has few intellectual pretensions and prefers to play with her silver thimble. I should add that this is a portrait of a well-heeled society, mostly at its leisure – the only suggestion of a harsher world seems to come with the large number of kittens in the animal shelter, an indication that somewhere on the margins there must be cats who stray beyond the confines of a warm home with never-ending supplies of chopped turkey, cat litter and the regular attention of a good vet! Similarly in the human world disruption and death tend to arrive only in the wake of incomers to the community.

In the Mrs Malory books Hazel Holt very much follows Miss Marple’s assertion along the lines that nowhere is murderous intent so strong as in an English village, but in The Cat Who… Lilian Jackson Braun is more concerned to show the goodness inherent in people and communities, which is only briefly disturbed by the aberrant behaviour of a few before lapsing into comfortableness, albeit nicely spiced with gossip. These are kindly, feel-good books, just the thing to take your mind off the garden on a wet afternoon, or to amuse during a tedious train journey, or even for a brain-weary conference organiser.

A theme in The Cat Who Talked Turkey is the appearance in Qwill’s garden of a wild turkey and his harem, the first sighting in the area for many years. I’d been trying to imagine, while reading, what it would be like to have such visitors, and not entirely certain what a turkey looks like au naturel (as it were), so you can imagine how delighted I was when Nan posted a photograph taken at her bird feeder, showing exactly such a scene.

2 comments:

  1. I read this with great interest because one of my library books is The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. I haven't started it yet but read on another blog that it is disappointing.

    I like your description of the Cat stories as "masterly in their lack of excitement". I really must find out for myself. When I've finished Ferney and We Have Always Lived in the Castle the Cat book is next.

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  2. These books sound like a delightful cross between Garrison Keillor and Alexander McCall Smith!

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