Monday, February 28, 2011

In The Spotlight: Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mystery series has been a favourite of cosy crime fiction lovers for decades and has won millions of readers over to the genre. Braun’s work has had a strong influence on today’s cosy writers, too. So let’s take a closer look at the novel that started it all, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.

Jim Qwilleran is a former investigative reporter who made his name covering crime. He won several awards and became quite well-known and respected. He’s down and out now after a long bout with alcohol and a failed marriage. In fact, for the last two years he’s had no work at all to speak of. That all changes when Qwilleran is offered a “one last chance” job in the Features Department of The Daily Fluxion. It’s a long way down from his former status, but Qwilleran’s willing to take anything to get back into newspaper reporting. His “beat” is to be the local art scene, and he’s to feature local artists in his columns. As he begins to explore leads for stories, he’s introduced to Earl Lambreth, who owns a successful art gallery and his wife Zoe, a very talented artist. Through the Lambreths, Qwilleran meets other members of the local art community, and begins to get a bit of a feel for it. Then, he meets the Fluxion’s powerful art critic George Bonifield Mountclemens III, a reclusive art collector.

Mountclemens is not popular with the art community, since his reviews are generally caustic and he has nothing but contempt for most of the artists in the community. But he does have an apartment available in the building where he lives, so when he offers Qwilleran the apartment at a phenomenally low rent, Qwilleran can’t resist. The only “string” attached to this offer is that Qwilleran has to care for Mountclemens’ unusual Siamese cat Kao K’o-Kung “Koko” whenever his landlord is away.

Qwilleran’s settling into his new life when Earl Lambreth is stabbed one evening at his art gallery. There are several suspects, too. Zoe Lambreth’s art star is on the rise, so to speak, and her marriage to Earl was not exactly a happy one. Mountclemens considered Zoe a protégée, and had nothing but contempt for her husband. There are also other artists represented at the gallery who had good reasons to want to kill its owner. And there’s Butchy Bolton, a teacher and sculptor who’s befriended Zoe and intensely disliked her husband. Qwilleran’s journalist instinct leads him to start asking questions and trying to find out who the murderer is. Then one night at a party, another death occurs; Nino, another artist whose work was handled by the Lambreth Gallery, is killed. And then Mountclemens himself is murdered. Now it looks as though there’s much more going on than a heat-of-the-moment killing. In the end, Qwilleran puts the pieces of the puzzle together and finds out who’s behind these events that have rocked the local art world.

Several interesting elements run through this novel. It’s a cosy mystery, so in the tradition of the sub-genre, there are several eccentric and quirky characters. Mountclemens, for instance, is a hermit who has his columns delivered rather than go to the Fluxion’s office himself. He’s a gourmet chef and a connoisseur of food, and although he’s acerbic, impatient and snobbish, he’s an interesting character. So are several of the local artists, art collectors and gallery owners who make up the art community that Qwilleran investigates. And as with most other cosy novels, there’s no real graphic description, the murders are not described in gory detail and there’s no really explicit language.

The theme of art is another element running through the novel. Readers get an “inside look” at the art world from the perspective of artists, gallery owners, art critics and others involved in the community. Braun goes about that in an interesting way, too. As Qwilleran himself says,

“I don’t know the Venus de Milo from the Statue of Liberty.”

So as he slowly learns about the way art is created, displayed, bought, sold and critiqued, readers get introduced to that world, too.

Qwilleran is a newspaperman, so we also get a good “behind the scenes” at a newspaper office. This book was first published in 1966, so in many ways, quite a lot has changed about finding, getting and reporting news. But the stress of deadlines and the push for good stories that’ll sell papers haven’t changed. Neither have the basics of what makes for a good story – a “hook,” the “five W’s,” and the need to follow up and get sources for information. For those who work in today’s world of journalism, it’s also a nostalgic look at how newspapers were put together in the years before there were personal computers, the Internet and mobile ‘phones with cameras:

“Qwilleran could hear familiar noises beyond a glass-paneled door – typewriters clattering, teletypes jigging, telephones screaming.”

What’s interesting about this is that Qwilleran’s been a journalist for a long time. So from his perspective, what happens at the Fluxion is too modern:

“Then he noticed a copyboy feeding pencils into a small moaning contraption. Qwilleran stared at the thing. An electric pencil sharpener! He had never thought it would come to this.”

Those who’ve read and enjoyed other Cat Who… books also have the added bonus of reading how Qwilleran first meets Koko and ends up being adopted by the Siamese, as well as some important backstory on some other characters who figure later in the series.

And then there’s the character of Jim Qwilleran himself. He’s more thoroughly developed in later novels but we get a sense here that he’s an interesting person. He’s a former crime reporter and author of a best-selling novel. Although he has battled alcohol, he’s “on the wagon,” so he’s not a stereotypical “sleuth with demons” who spends more time in bars than anywhere else. He’s highly intelligent, sometimes impatient, a language purist and a lover of words.

One other interesting factoid: the first three novels in this series were published in 1966, 1967 and 1968. The next wasn’t published until 1986. I don’t know a lot of other series where there’s a break like that between instalments.

But what’s your view? Have you read The Cat Who Could Read Backwards? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 7 March/Tuesday 8 March – The Case of the Missing Servant – Tarquin Hall

Monday 14 March/Tuesday 15 March – Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Monday 21 March/Tuesday 22 March - Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen


  1. Oddly enough, I don't like cats, but I love this series -- for many of the reasons you point out. Quirky characters, Qwill's backstory, the location. I don't think I ever read the three from the '60s though! I didn't know there were any that old.

  2. Karen - You're absolutely right. This series has such delightful characters, and as the series goes on and we get to know Qwilleran better, he gets more and more interesting. But even here, he's not stereotypical. I've always liked that about him. And funny thing, when I first started reading the series, I didn't even pay attention to the publication dates. That nearly twenty-year gap is interesting, isn't it?

  3. Your post made me check what say about the writer. It seems she was born in 1913 - also fairly interesting, and I think it explains why some of her fans discuss if she is still the one who writes the stories :D

  4. Dorte - I've read that question, too, about whether she is still the one writing her books. Certainly most people think the books written before about 1998-1999 were much better than the last ones have been. And I haven't yet read that she's passed away. Interesting when an author is a bit mysterious like that...

  5. I have only read a couple of this series and I don't think either were this one but I can't be sure - I have to say I wasn't really compelled by the ones I read (well not compelled to read any more of them anyway) but I can't really remember why that was. Perhaps it's because I'm a dog person :)

  6. Bernadette - LOL! I'm a dog person, too, actually :-). And I will say, Braun's books are not everyone's cuppa. Also the series underwent a real change after the first six or seven instalments. Some folks have loved all of the novels, some the earlier ones, some the latter ones and some have never been captured.

  7. I started reading one of these cat books one time but couldn't get through it. I'm not sure why because it was so long ago. I should really give her another try. Thanks for the spotlight. I love the series.

  8. Clarissa - I've done that, too - started a book and not finished it, but couldn't remember why. If you do choose to try Braun again, I recommend starting with the earlier books, where some of the backstory is laid out. Also, the earlier stories take place in a variety of settings and have different casts of characters, and a lot of people think that adds to their appeal.

  9. I enjoy this series I guess for several reasons - cats, journalist and a cozy mystery. I find that I enjoy the later books more even though the first ones do give you background on how Quill came to be where he is and doing what he's doing. It's one series I've read or listen to out of order. I'm currently listening to The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. I always enjoy your spotlight series.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thank you:-) You know, I figured that the journalist in you would find this series really appealing. And of course, there are the cats :-). One of the things that Braun did in the later novels was create the town of Pickax, "400 miles north of nowhere," and she made it quite an authentic place. I've even heard of people actually trying to find the place on maps and asking where it was. I find the character of Elizabeth Hart in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast really interesting. I hope you'll enjoy the rest of the story.

  11. What fun that you've highlighted the "Cat Who.." series. I discovered cosy mysteries through these books. I love being able to sit down with a good story puzzle that has a satisfying end, and the fact that these were my introduction into mysteries just gives me a soft spot for them.

  12. Faith - This was the first cosy mystery series I read, too :-). And you're right; it is really nice sometimes to be able to enjoy a good mystery with an ending that gives closure like that.

  13. I've read all of The Cat Who . . . books and loved every single one of them. I find Qwilleran fascinating, maybe because I was a journalist in past years, and because of his interest in words. I enjoy the characters and their names (sort of Dickensian) and their little feuds with each other which are so true to life. Koko is a stretch of course but the animal lover in me thinks he and YumYum are great.

  14. Barbara - I've always found that journalist aspect of Qwilleran's personality really interesting, too. Even more, I love his facility with words - probably because I have a background in linguistics. I hadn't thought about it, but you're right; those names do have a sort of Dickensian hint to them which is interesting, too. And as far as Koko goes, one of the things I like about Qwill is that he himself is skeptical of Koko. He doesn't automatically assume that Koko has these "magic powers," and that makes Qwill more realistic.

  15. That I have never read this series is wrong on so many levels. My only excuse, I have no excuse. I shall head to the library today and rectify the situation. *hangs head in shame*

  16. Elspeth - No need for shame. There is so much good crime fiction out there that I truly don't see how it's possible for any one person to have read it all. Not, anyway, and actually make time to eat, sleep and so on. No need to have any excuse :-).

  17. I think these are the only cosy mysteries I've ever read. A few people recommended them to me when I was writing my last book, when I told them I had a talking cat. Mine was a middle grade story, and these stories are completely different - I can only assume that even though they were recommending them, those friends hadn't actually read the Cat Who books.
    I'm glad I have though! I've read about 1/3 of them so far, and love Braun's characterisation above all else. Qwilleran is very well drawn, and she's quite accurate about cat behaviour too. I love his reading and writing habits too, though I haven't yet tried reading to my cats [g]

  18. I've read this book a couple of years ago. I wrote about on my blog and this is some of what I said then:

    "I enjoyed it - I liked the slowness of it, the humour and above all Koko, the Siamese cat.

    I found the art snobbery amusing. For example, an exhibition of a local artist’s watercolours of sailboats is described by Mountclemens by detailing the fine craftsmanship of the picture frames, and dismissing the paintings by saying that they “do not detract from the excellence of the moldings.”

    What I didn’t like was the ending, with the introduction of a new character at such a late stage; most disappointing."

    I haven't read any more since then, although if I find one in the library I'll borrow it. Lilian Jackson Braun - what an interesting and mysterious person!

  19. Deniz - LOL! And that's interesting that you created a talking cat for your middle grades story! I agree with you that Braun developed Qwilleran's character quite well as the years went by, and gave it depth. Perhaps it's because I'm a bibliophile and I write that I like her depiction of Qwill's love for words. I think Koko is a fascinating character, too, in this book.

    Oh, and there is a series actually where one does hear what the animals in the story think and say: Rita Mae Brown's series featuring Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen. The humans in the novels can't understand what the pets say, but we (readers) can.

    Margaret - Thanks for reminding me of your thoughtful review of the book. I agree with you that Braun does a great job of poking fun at the affectedness and snobbery of the art world (your example, too, is terrific). I know what you mean about the very end; not the sort of end I'd have chosen. But, yes, Koko is a great character in and of himself.

    And you're quite right: Lilian Jackson Braun is fascinating and mysterious. I've often wondered about her...

  20. Thanks for telling me about that other series Margot, I hadn't heard of it!