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