As promised, I am still doing sARTSurday posts about arts, including book reviews. In this case it’s not the review of a book but a review of a series. Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series, to be precise. So sit down and relax for a bit of feline whodunit review.
This is a very special series for me. I was in primary school when I read a book from the series for the first time — not the first book in the series, though, but rather the 16th book, The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, titled in Italian Il Gatto Che Giocava a Domino (“The Cat Who Played Dominoes”). For a kid that was already into Agatha Christie novels, it felt so nice to read something more modern, and despite this not being something that my parents or my sisters ever cared about, it turns out the series is also fairly age-appropriate, at least most of the time.
I did manage to read four of the books in Italian – plus one of the unrelated short stories by Braun – but anything more was a lost cause. I went into so many different bookstores, even second hand bookstores, and I never found more than those. I even wrote to the publisher (Mondadori) asking them if they published more of the books, and how to find them and order them… this is before Amazon, and before most online bookstores, you need to understand. When I say I wrote to them, I mean that I typed it on an Olivetti typerwriter, and sent it over by snail mail. They did reply, by the way — but they also had no idea how to find any of the other books; I’m fairly sure the impression I got was that they didn’t print any of the other books, but Italian Wikipedia appears to disagree with me. Instead, they sent me over an anthology of short stories about cats and mysteries (or deaths), that included one story by Braun.
As an extra fun aside, some of you out there might remember a toy called 2-XL – not the 8-track version but the compact cassette one – which was available in Italy as well as a number of other countries. I loved that toy as a kid, and I think I might still have it somewhere at my mother’s house. It was pretty much just a tape player with trivia questions. One of the tapes I was given for that toy was about mysteries, and it had a question about this series of books! With hindsight, I guess they just translated the original Tiger Electronics cassette to Italian, because the series clearly had much more success in the USA than in Italy.
Anyway, when I decided I really wanted to be able to read English – after high school, when I didn’t have terrible teachers thinking they were helping while making us hate the language – I turned to these novels again, and bought a few books from one of the first Internet bookshops in Italy that actually sold English editions. Unfortunately even then it was not something I could read start-to-finish, because of the availability of the physical books. So it wasn’t until earlier this year that I decided to read the whole series, in order. It was a quarantine project.
This is one of the reasons why I feel that eBooks are still extremely empowering, despite the whole problems of artificial regions, DRMs, and so on. With very few exceptions, eBooks, like all digital goods, are removing the wall of scarcity that physical books have to live with. For good or bad, there’s no hunting down a second hand copy of the Italian translation in a bin in a small bookshop on the outskirt of Treviso — you go online, and get a copy of the book.
Well, at least most of the time. I know that some authors have explicitly boasted setting up deals selling only a limited amount of eBooks copies, to make an artificial scarcity that reproduces the physical world’s rarity into the digital world. I don’t particularly like this, but it’s their art and it’s their choice — I’ll just avoid playing to those notes myself, and not buy “limited edition” eBooks.
400 Miles North of Everywhere… or Not
So let’s talk setting for a moment, because this is a series that is fairly interesting. First of all, these are mystery novels, and they are generally light mystery novels. With a handful of exceptions, there’s no description of gruesome deaths, and while there’s fairly obvious references to characters sleeping around, they are only obvious to an adult, and I’m sure I had not picked up on any of them when I was younger.
The protagonist is Jim Qwilleran, a journalist from Chicago, and his cat companion Koko, who are later joined by another cat, Yum Yum. These are the only constants throughout the series, because the rest of the characters are not only varied, but they are also fairly disposable: I have not calculated the body count of each books, but there’s a lot of characters that, despite surviving for a number of books, end up dying some times “off stage”, for all different type of reasons: accidents, malfeasance, old age, health issues, …
The location of where the main action takes place is also not constant. When I read the four books as a kid, they all took place in the fictional rural community of “Moose County”, which is described as being 400 miles North of everywhere. But that’s not where the series started.
Indeed, the first few books take place “Down Below” in a city that could very well be Chicago, but is never specified. That’s where we get introduced to recovering alcoholic Qwill, and the posh Siamese cat Koko, and the first characters in the cast, some of which will stay around until the very end of the series. Then after twenty years from the first book, Moose County is introduced, which became the permanent setting for the series — well, with a couple of exceptions.
The different setting doesn’t really change the main feeling of the series, except for the fact that book number four The Cat Who Saw Red, the first book after the 18 year hiatus of the series, and the last one in the big city, that contains the only death that made me sick in my stomach when reading. Otherwise, the main difference between the two settings is that the cast stopped cycling, and started “building up”.
As for the cats… they feature prominently in the stories, not just as human companions but as raison d’être, at times, with most of the “good folks” sharing their life with a cat. The titular character, Koko, is a normal, pampered Siamese cat, that somehow acts just the right way to make Qwill see through misdirection and mysteries, and solve whichever murder just happened around him. While there’s the usual need for a suspension of disbelief of the typical whodunit series – why did people still invite Jessica Fletcher for events, knowing full well that someone will die just before or just after dinner? – Braun made a point that none of Koko’s behaviour was not out of the ordinary for a cat… just a lot of coincidence.
While the cast is far from diverse, and you can probably tell that Braun had not been mingling much with people outside of the USA, except maybe for Scots, it gives a warm feeling of rural closed communities, with a lot of time dedicated to the fictional history of the county, with immigrants from… a bunch of white European places. It’s definitely the product of its time in this regard — the only character that is described as being not white is a woman with not-well-defined “Mediterranean” origin.
A more interesting point is that, unlike a lot of other books I have read when I was a kid, the cast is generally older. Qwill himself is middle-aged to older, having gone through a nasty divorce before the events of the first book, and being a recovering alcoholic, and most of the friends he makes in the whole series are older than him. Any character that is described as being less than thirty is pretty much described as a youngster, if not a delinquent!
Qwill also appear to be – like me, my wife, and Sarah Millican – a “cheery childless”, not having particular fondness for children, avoiding babies, and having a short temper with their “nonsense”, which I totally relate to. While there’s a number of babies being born in Moose County, they usually stay off-screen, until at least they are grown up enough to at least say something.
And being a recovering alcoholic, he’s also the character that always goes for a mocktail — although I wonder if that word was even used at the time. But the Squunk Water with cranberry juice sounds pretty much like it. Once again, relatable.
As I said already, there’s a couple of exceptions about all the action happening in Moose County. Two of the books – The Cat Who Lived High and The Cat Who Moved a Mountain – have a different settings, Down Below and a different rural community, respectively. But at the same time, they are very clearly books that remind the reader why the action will stay in Moose County. So not really “pilots in disguise” for any reboot.
29 25 Delightful Novels.
The Cat Who… series includes 29 novels. Of these, I would recommend stopping after the 25th, The Cat Who Brought Down the House. There are repeated rumors that Braun, who was getting on with age herself, had not been writing the last few books — I have no idea nor proof about the situation with this, but the last four books definitely have lost their shine, and would not recommend reading them. Indeed, as I’m typing this review I’m still not done with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, but I thought it wouldn’t be important to actually finish it, as already the previous book was hard to swallow.
It’s not just the writing going a bit off-style — Braun has definitely played with different writing styles between books – in a way that reminds me a bit of the first few books in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files – but her characters have always behaved… in-character. While many of them have not been particularly well developed, they have at least always acted consistently between books… until those four books.
My honest, personal impression is that Braun might have had a general outline of where she wanted to bring a bunch of stories and threads, and a ghost writer took care of fleshing it out. The reason why I say that, is the number of inconsistencies, the characters that appear to be completely forgotten, other characters that appear and disappear out of nowhere, instead of being at least introduced and discussed.
I’ll give you a few examples with spoilers, so be careful about this section.
In the Moose County books, the unofficial historian throughout is a character named Homer Tibbitt — who became clearly a dear friend of Qwill. Indeed, Braun at times talk about how the latter never met his grandparents, and that’s why he gravitates around older people, such as Homer. As of Turkey, the title of county historian has been passed on to a different character (Thornton Haggis), and there’s no hearing about Homer until Bombshell, in which he dies, off-stage, announced by a phone call — not to Qwill, but to the plumber, never heard of before, and never heard of since, who came visiting the barn just right then. And despite the long-running job that funerals are big deals in Pickax, and that Homer was like a grandfather to Qwill, there’s no discussion of funeral arrangements, no discussion of wills, no call to his widow, … it isn’t until Whiskers (the last book), that Qwill even appears to care about Homer being dead!
This is just one of the reasons why I think Braun might have left notes about her wanting to “kill off” Homer before the 150th anniversary of the city, but it wasn’t her actually writing the whole treatment. And similarly, once people complained about not having heard anything about Homer’s funeral, the following book tried addressing that.
Similarly, at the end of Bombshell, another, much younger, character dies, that has a relationship with a close friend of Qwill — and neither him nor anybody else that talks about how that death will reflect on the friend! Not even a quick call to express regrets, no talk about funeral arrangements… despite, once again, the local tradition of funerary prowess.
And to top it off, the reason why I’m slow at finishing Whiskers is that I’m now reading descriptions of how Qwill, a columnist that prided himself to be able to write a thousand words on the colour green, is having trouble finding new topics, and can’t extract a good column on… viticulture. I mean, sure, he’s not had a drink for half a century by then, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him before mixing cocktails and talking shop. This is all so out of character that it makes reading the book just painful.
Speaking of out of character… in the last four books, Koko becomes a caricature of himself — while there’s always been the tension and mystery of whether Koko actually had supernatural powers, or just happened to be doing stuff that Qwill would read too much into (which, I found out recently, is called apophenia)… but in the last four books it became much more paradoxical, including suggestions that he would be able to send wrongdoings pretty much unrelated to anyone in the books at all — come on, someone “firebombs” city hall, Koko senses it before it happens, and it’s dismissed with a call of the police chief?
There’s more — the attorney that would rarely be spoken about except when something bad happened suddenly becomes “Uncle George” and appears every third chapter — the multiple young women that appear out of nowhere, drop the answer to the current mystery, and disappear — the young sidekick that joins the newspaper under false name, and then disappears without a trace — Lisa Compton nearly flirting with Qwill, or vice versa, despite them knowing each other for years by then.
I can see why the rumors spread, and I’m willing to believe them. As I said, my impression is that some time during the writing of Turkey (which starts fairly on par with everything else, but then degenerates), Braun started being unwell, and the publisher brought in someone to help. Someone who only gave a superficial reading of the plots of the series, and maybe a character sheet, but couldn’t keep them straight enough to write as well as Braun.
There’s a missing closure for Turkey, there’s missing characters in Bananas, there’s just plain bad writing in Bombshell, and Whiskers feels like a hackjob to the point I ‘m not sure how else to describe it.
Personal Views and Impact
I really enjoyed the “trip down memory lane” with reading The Cat Who… back to back. I wished there was a bit more closure towards the end of the series. I have a feeling that it was planned for it, but it just didn’t manage to materialize.
I can’t say for sure that the books have directly influenced me. But they definitely have left an impression in my memory, with the whole experience of trying to find a copy, writing to the Italian publisher, starting to read English books with it, and so on.
And maybe a bit of a subtle, subconscious influence made me worry less about old age and loneliness — even though I’m very unlikely to inherit billions of dollars like Qwill, particularly after reading the whole series, I can feel that there’s plenty to do in my later years to feel satisfaction, even without kids of our own.
While the journalistic profession is not really something I’m interested in, you can see from this blog that writing is something that I ended up doing quite a bit for. Was I impressed as a kid that from Qwill’s lifestyle? Did I miss the part where he could afford it because he inherited billions and owned the newspaper he wrote on? I don’t think it’s that easy, but I guess it might have been in the back of my mind growing up after all.
And of course, reading this now, that I’m not quite that young, that I can’t be drinking (and don’t care for), and that I share my life with a person I love, with no intention of having kids, I can definitely feel closer to Qwill, although clearly not entirely, and not just for the money.
Generally, if you’d like a reading that “feels” like the early seasons of Murder, She Wrote, then this might be the series for you. For the most part, I’d say it’s also a kid-friendly read, since there’s very little explicit violence – beside the murders, of course – and as I said, not really any explicit sex. Indeed, at most it’s said that Qwilleran and Polly just happen to lose track of time, since at many points Braun wrote they met after dinner for a quick chat, and one or the other left when it was quite dark out there — this was totally lost of ten years old me, since the concept of “after dinner” in Italy would imply darkness anyway. It wasn’t until I lived in Los Angeles, and then Dublin, that I realized how early Anglosaxons eat!
There’s a lot of nice pearls to dig around; Braun seems to have been predicting a lot of the banes of modern life, including smartphones’ autocorrects. And while she sounds a lot like a technophobe, you also need to keep in mind that most of the books predates “modernity” by quite a bit. And is aimed at a generally older audience.
I’m happy I read these books in a binge – and I hope that, if you pick up the series yourself, you’ll enjoy it as well. Given it’s now “winter lockdown” up here, I would suggest reading it while wrapped up in a blanket while drinking a strong, black coffee — just like Qwill would like it!
The big city “down below” is probably Detroit, since it is mentioned in one of the books that Qwilleran hadn’t lived in Chicago for decades. Also, Lillian Jackson Braun worked for the Detroit Free Press for many years.
Ah good point. My US geography is clearly lacking 😅 I need to visit either city one day.