Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The End of The Cat Who...?

This summer I am listening to the audio books of one my favorite mystery series: The Cat Who... by Lilian Jackson Braun. For those who aren't familiar with the series, each title begins with the words "The Cat Who" as you can see by following the link to a list of the books.

Braun doesn't have her own web site. There are several devoted to her works but most are not up-to-date. I also noticed that no two sites have the same birth year for her; estimates range from 1912-1916, making her at least 92.

Braun wrote the first three books in her series in 1966-68, then took a break until 1986 when she began writing a book or two each year until 2007 for a total of 29 books, making this one of the most prolific and longest-running modern mystery series. I think it was also the first cozy series to feature cats among the main characters. Regardless, she is the Queen of the Cat Cozies.

The series follows the adventures of journalist Jim Qwilleran (called Qwill) and his two Siamese cats, Kao K'o Kung (Koko) and Yum Yum. The cats are just as important to each story and as realistically three-dimensional as Qwill. Braun skillfully walks a fine line in her portrayal of Koko. Is he a super-smart, psychic cat who can solve crimes, or is Qwilleran projecting his own subconscious ideas onto Koko's neurotic antics and interpreting them as clues to help him solve crimes? Is it just a coincidence that the apparently psychic Koko has an unusual abundance of whiskers (60 instead of the usual 24)? And what about the tingle in his magnificent mustache that Qwill gets when he has a hunch -- is he identifying with Koko or is it all just coincidence?

One of the things I enjoy about the series is all the places Qwill and the Siamese visit and all the people they meet. At the beginning of the series they live in the city but eventually settle in the country after Qwill inherits a fortune from his mom's best friend, "Aunt" Fanny. The state is never identified but is clearly the upper-Midwest. Since Braun is from Michigan, I like to think it's Michigan because some of the names sounds very familiar: Pickax sounds Bad Axe, MI and Ittybittywassee River sounds like Titabawasee River. She's never specific and drops enough hints that it could be anywhere in northern Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin

This is a very cozy series with an emphasis on descriptions of people, places, customs, food, and Koko and Yum Yum's antics (of course). There's a host of recurring supporting characters we get to know and love almost as much as Qwill and the Siamese including Polly, Qwill's long-time girlfriend; Arch Riker, Qwill's friend since childhood and fellow journalist; Junior Goodwinter
(and the extended Goodwinter clan), a newspaperman from Moose County, and many, many others. Qwill enjoys collecting folk stories so the almost every book contains a quaint historical or personal story from a minor character that greatly adds to the flavor of the series.

Cat lovers will enjoy the playful and sometimes neurotic behavior of Koko and Yum Yum and the way Qwill spoils them. Qwill doesn't cook for himself and lives on restaurant food but cooks or purchases gourmet food for the cats. In each book Koko and Yum Yum's antics relate to the title of the book and the current mystery (of course). I love the fact that they act like real cats! You can tell the author loves cats and has been owned by several Siamese. As the "owner" of a half-Siamese I can verify that Braun portrays their quirky personalities accurately and affectionately.

After settling down in Moose County (400 miles north of everywhere), Qwill and the Siamese sometimes visit his cottage at the lake, presumably one of the Great Lakes. Qwill is always skeptical of the lake residents' obsession with the UFOs said to appear over the lake in the summer. This becomes a running theme/joke in all the books set at the lake, my favorite of which is The Cat Who Saw Stars. (I won't give away the ending but it's perfect!)

Settling down with one of The Cat Who... books is like a pleasant visit with comfortable old friends. Although
the plots are interesting, there are seldom any surprises and you love them anyway because you get to visit the people and cats you love.

The series changed noticeably in 2002 with The Cat Who Went Up the Creek. It wasn't quite as focused as the previous books, but given the author's age (probably 90 at that time), it was understandable. The next couple books were better but the last few were shorter and had a lot less plot. Most disappointing was the last book, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers.

SPOILER ALERT! I'm about to give away important plot elements of The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers -- stop reading now if you don't want to know. The first problem in this book is the lack of a puzzle, an essential element in even a cozy mystery; there is no crime of any kind and, hence, no plot. Other troublesome problems are that a likable minor character is tragically and pointlessly killed in an auto accident; Polly unexpected leaves Qwill for a job in France, apparently permanently; Qwill, nonplussed, simply decides to date someone else; Qwill's home burns down; the cats are hardly in the story; and we never learn the significance of Koko's extra whiskers (which is what the title refers to). Most frustrating are Qwill and Polly's actions which are completely out of character. Although they never marry, Qwill and Polly are devotedly attached to each other and in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast he realizes he can't imagine life without her. These horrible events left me wondering if Braun simply wanted to end the series and decided to do so in a dramatic and unexpected way, however disappointing to her readers. When I heard she was working on a new book, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke, I hoped that she would fix or undo everything that happened in The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, or a least explain it. Sadly, the most recent news is that The Cat Who Smelled Smoke has been canceled by the publisher; no reason is given and I can't find any news about the author. I fear the worst. Apparently The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers was the last of the series and am very sad to have it end with such a disappointing and uncharacteristic book.

Despite the unfortunate last book, I still strongly recommend this series for anyone who likes cozies, cats, or light, fun mysteries. I also recommend the unabridged audio books read by George
Guidall. If you don't want to buy them, you can probably find them in your local library. (I know the Flint Public Library and Genesee District Library have them.)

Related Web Sites:
Stop You're Killing Me
Fantastic Fiction (a UK site)
Ronald Frobnitz and Family (not up-to-date; site name is a reference to one of Qwill's aliases)
The Unofficial Lilian Jackson Braun Site
(not up-to-date)

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