10.7.11

Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Saw Red


Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who books have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, an especially amazing feat for a writer who lived below the radar and did not take part in author tours. This long-running series began in 1966 with The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. The 29 Cat Who books have been translated into 16 languages. Braun began her career as an advertising copywriter, worked as a Detroit Free Press journalist for 30 years, and then wrote short stories about cats for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She passed away in June at the age of 97.

Most of the Cat Who novels are set in the upper Midwest and feature the likeable Jim Qwilleran – journalist, amateur detective, and owner of two Siamese cats who help him solve mysteries. This unlikely trio of detectives is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The cats do almost nothing outside the range of the possible. As Braun maintains, “Koko is no supercat; he neither flies nor drives a car no speaks English. He merely sniffs and scratches in the right place at the right time, enabling Jim Qwilleran to uncover clues.” The cats are presented with gentle humour and wry insight into the feline character. By adding cats to the detective mix, Braun has carved a unique niche for herself in the cozy mystery novel.

The Cat Who Saw Red, an Edgar Award nominee, is one of the most engaging novels in the series. Qwilleran and his two cats move into Maus House, an old pottery transformed into an eccentric gourmet boarding house. He is intrigued by the story of two suspicious deaths that occurred years ago, the first of many mysterious circumstances associated with Maus House. Qwilleran meets Joy Graham, an old flame who lives in the boarding house and then suddenly vanishes from it. Soon after her disappearance, a child is drowned and another boarding-house inmate goes missing. With the help of his clever cat Koko, Qwillerman investigates these mysterious events.

People who delight in cozys will love these adventures. Barbara Fredricksen of the St. Petersburg Times writes,
I enjoy them for the same reason I enjoy Jane Austen: because they are well-written (at least the first 20 or so are; after that, well, suffice it to say there are rumors that someone other than Braun wrote them, and they don’t have her playful, light-hearted intelligence), with interesting, complex, evolving characters, unique settings, whimsical touches here and there, and just enough story to keep things moving.

There is no mention of politics, religion, war or steamy sex, and what dopers there are, are just dopes – all-in-all, a relief from the realities of the world and a respite from the news of the day. (2008)
The whimsical tone and gentle humour of these novels are reminiscent of the stories of James Herriot.

“I think I was a cat in a previous incarnation,” Braun (2006) told The Wall Street Journal. Certainly her deep affection for the feline character is evident throughout the series. Cats are the perfect choice of animal for detective novels. These creatures use their preternatural instincts to assess people and situations; they can also sneak into places unnoticed by others. Traditionally associated with mysterious, the enigmatic and the unfathomable, cats originated in Ancient Egypt – the land of inscrutable mysteries. Cats in fiction have always been synonymous with superstitions and the uncanny. “As subjects for mysteries,” observes Braun, “cats are clever, funny, independent, subtle, wily, profound, inscrutable and – yes – mysterious.”

Although The Cat Who Saw Red is an intriguing mystery story, it is the characters who are unforgettable. Qwilleran is genial, funny, and self-deprecating. And the odd assortment of characters he encounters in Maus Haus are truly unique. “I really have to work hard at the murder,” Braun admits, “drag the mystery in by its heels, because I don’t really think along those lines,” she says. “I love my characters; they’re what I’m interested in” (Kaufman 2006).

According to The New York Times “Critical response to the books was generally favorable, with many reviewers praising their essential warmth and cozy charm. Others, however, faulted what they saw as scanty plotting and an overreliance on formulaic set pieces. But for cat lovers, those set pieces offered dependable pleasures.”

Braun, Lilian Jackson. The Cat Who Saw Red. New York: Jove Books, 1986.

Fredricksen, Barbara. “Discovering ‘The Cat Who ...’ Series a Delight.” St. Petersburg Times. January 5, 2008.

Kaufman, Joanne. “The Cat Woman Who Writes Mysteries.” The Wall Street Journal. March 15, 2006.