Lilian Jackson Braun, Part One

Written by Donna


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January 3, 2013

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lillian Jackson Braun

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

Lilian Jackson Braun, who passed away in 2011, provided me and no doubt many others with endless hours of entertainment via her cozy mystery series featuring Jim “Qwill” Qwilleren and his two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.  The Cat Who…series contains 29 novels, as well as three collections of short pieces.  I first ran across Ms. Braun’s books as a grad student (someday I shall write a piece about the used bookstore I used to practically live at in Bangor, Maine.  I met some of my very best friends there…) at a time when the series was actually in moth balls and was quite sad when I learned that there were only the three books.  A few years later, my pusher, er, bookstore owner informed me that a new LJB had been released.  And so it goes.  It so often does with me, you know.

I think of The Cat Who books in sections.  The series is so long, and the quality of the books varies quite a bit—like many an author, Braun’s much later books severely declined in the plot quality in her later years (the final book in the series was published when the author was 94—a subsequent title was eventually withdrawn by the publisher, one assumes because it didn’t meet their standards), and in her case, it’s hard to tell if this was advanced age or advanced lack of interest in plotting anything more than the most rudimentary mystery by that point—evidence to support either theory is hard to come by.  Braun rarely gave interviews and when she did, she kept herself to herself, refusing to even reveal her actual age until she accidentally let it slip in a 2005 interview.  The important thing, then, is that the charm never faded in her books, even if the mystery elements did.  Even the nearly impossible to defend final entry in the series, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, hit the best seller lists, and while the prose is clearly not what it was in her prime, the elements that made the series so much fun to read were still firmly in place.

The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern

The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern

Got sidetracked there. Sections.  I generally divide this series into 3 parts.  The first part is the first 4 novels, which are set completely in a large, unnamed metropolis that I always assumed was a stand-in for Detroit. This section is clearly different from the rest of the books as well because they were all written in the 60’s (although the 4th book didn’t appear in print until the mid-80’s)–they’re a little different stylistically as a result, with prose that’s a little more lively. The next section contains novels 5-20, when Qwill moves to Moose County (again, Braun never revealed where her fictional Moose County was, but it is thought to be located in the thumb of Michigan’s mitten, although a case can also be made for its upper peninsula) and settles in there.  The final 9 books are what I mentally think of as “the declining years”, when the mystery plots are wonky and take a backseat to the general story of life in Moose County.

Each of these sections has its own plusses, but I confess that I have a truly sentimental attachment to those first 4 books.  I read the first three during the summer that I was supposed to be studying for my comps, a summer that is special in my memory for a variety of reasons I won’t bother you with here.  But my introduction to Qwill and his cats is bound up in those memories.  And frankly, they are the strongest books in the series in terms of mystery plotting—in fact, I’d consider entries 3 and 4 to be among the best cozies I’ve ever read.  So today, I’m going to concentrate on what I mentally think of as “Section 1”.

Qwill makes his first appearance in The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (1966).  A former prize-winning crime reporter in his mid-40’s, he’s come through personal difficulties and landed a feature job at The Daily Fluxion that requires him to dig up stories on the Art Beat—a subject he knows nothing about.  He soon learns that the artists in the city are perpetually at odds with the Fluxion’s art critic, George Bonifield Mountclemens III  (whose savage reviews of most local artists’ works have won him no friends) and with each other—there are personal grievances and petty backstabbings and jealousies everywhere.  Qwill, who is summoned to dine with Mountclemens one evening, meets his Siamese cat, Ka’o Ko Kung, whose everyday handle is Koko.  Qwill and Koko soon become friends, and Qwill eventually adopts the cat, who helps him figure out the various mysteries Qwill is snooping around in.

Braun’s first book reveals a talent for capturing the hustle of a big city newspaper (not a surprise, given that she worked as an editor of the Living section of the Detroit Free Press for 30 years) and a real skill for plotting an engrossing mystery peopled with quirky, yet realistic characters, and she has a pretty good time skewering the haughty pretensions of the art world to boot.  The book feels a bit dated, if only because of things like typewriters and a description of a “happening”, which clearly puts the book in the mid-sixties.  But that’s easy enough to overlook, given the gentle humor and the truly delightful Qwill, who has a genuinely underdog feel about his character in this book.  You want him to succeed at the Flux and turn his life around, not just solve the crimes.  Establishing a likeable detective in a series is half the battle, and while no one would call the curmudgeonly Qwill of these early books loveable, he has many likeable qualities: he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s curious, and he’s adaptable.  He also knows just who’s responsible for his slide to the bottom of the barrel, and he doesn’t try to blame anyone but himself for his problems.

As a mystery, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards offers plenty of clues and red herrings, and if the solution is a bit of a “watch me pull this villain out of my hat” ending, it does make sense in an offbeat way.  Her second book, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern (1967) takes this successful formula—Qwill as a fish out of water reporter—and applies it to interior design.  One of the smartest things Braun did with Qwill is to assign him a role as a former crime reporter now riding a features desk—it allows her to change the backdrop easily enough, but gives him a reason to snoop into the crimes he’s uncovered because he’s still a newsman at heart.  So the interior design assignment works well—Qwill once again has to learn about a new area, he meets up with a new roster of suspects, and Qwill learns more about Koko and his needs; as a bonus, Braun is able to put 30 years of work as a lifestyle editor to good use.  If she’s not quite as scathing toward the designers as she is toward artists, she certainly makes more than a few pointed observations about their clientele.  For someone seen as a “fluffy” writer, she reveals a good deal of sharp wit lurking under the fluff.

The Cat Who Turned On and Off

The Cat Who Turned On and Off

And that’s one of the things I really like about these books in general—they’re funny.  Qwilleren’s obvious embarrassment over heading up a Sunday supplement grandiosely entitled Gracious Abodes, for example, is hilarious–it’s an affront to his love of words, to his newsman sensibilities, and to his manliness.  His foil in this book is one of the best secondary characters in the series –a press photographer whose name is Odd Bunsen.  Odd is a total cliché—he chomps on cigars, bitches about being assigned to shoot pictures of furniture when he could be climbing trees to take “real” pictures, drinks heavily, and gives Qwill hell about being enslaved by a 10 pound cat.

In the third book in the series, The Cat Who Turned On and Off (1968), Odd is replaced by a giant klutz named Tiny, and Braun goes whole hog with the quirky secondary characters when Qwill ends up on the antiques beat and moves to a section of the city known as Junktown, taking an apartment above an antique shop and getting to know the crazy people who live in that part of the city. By this book, though, Braun is beginning to find her stride as a plotter—there are no surprise villains pulled out of hats or obvious ones planted in plain sight—in this case, she confines her roster of suspects to the antique dealers, plants her clues amongst their junk, and continues to develop Qwill’s character—and the cats’ too, incidentally.  Yum Yum is now in residence, and Koko’s detective abilities are out in full force.  The amusingly named shops and the characters who own them all tie nicely into the plots and sub-plots, which are woven together more tightly than in the two previous books.  Plus Qwill takes up a Cause—Junktown itself, with its mom-and-pop shops and hardworking citizens, is sneered at and judged by its rundown appearance, ignored by the city or thwarted at every turn when the residents try to improve their area.  Qwill grows a lot in this book—he originally takes the Junktown beat thinking he could write a series about drug abuse, only to discover that there’s a big difference between a junker and a junkie.  Braun has grown too—her targets here aren’t the antique dealers, whose quirks are detailed with clear fondness—but those who would judge the value of something by its price tag and slick appearance.  Junktown may not have gloss, but it’s got, as Qwill’s managing editor would say, heart.

The Cat Who Saw Red

The Cat Who Saw Red

Braun wrote a 4th novel to follow Qwill’s antiquing adventures, but her publisher shut her down.  Even though her books sold very well, the publisher wanted to “upgrade” the image of the house and cozy mysteries about antiques and kitty cats weren’t part of that image.  So Braun continued her job at the Freep and mothballed her 4th book, thinking it had been fun while it lasted.  18 years later, her second husband found her manuscript, read it, and encouraged her to submit it.  That book, The Cat Who Saw Red, went on to earn Anthony and Edgar nominations and secure Qwill’s place in mystery fiction for the next 20 years.  The book was such a hit that Braun was encouraged to produce 4 more Cat Who books in the next 2 years.

The Cat Who Saw Red (1986) is the last book completely set in the city.  It is filled with truly memorable characters (some so memorable they would follow Qwill to Moose County eventually) and amusing moments, food porn, and pathos.  It also has one of the most ingenious solutions to a mystery ever, one of those solutions that makes you slap your head and say “D’uh” when you realize you should have figured it out a hundred pages earlier.  Qwill has been assigned as restaurant reviewer for the paper; for his first assignment, he attends a dinner club meeting at a local boarding house where all of the residents have some connection to the food business.  The house is a former pottery, and Qwill meets up with his ex-girlfriend, Joy, who is now an artist and married.  When Joy disappears, Qwill is determined to find out what happened to her.  It’s a chestnut of a plot device, but the setting and solution are unique.  And the food biz, and food snobs, are an absolutely ripe target for her gentle needling.

The Cat Who Saw Red launched Qwill, Koko, and Yum Yum into mystery fiction stardom, and all of Braun’s subsequent books would land on the best seller lists for the remainder of her career.  There are some things to keep in mind when reading these first four books, though—they were written nearly 50 years ago, and they sometimes lack the sensitivity we expect in contemporary novels with regard to race and weight, and the female characters who aggressively pursue Qwill romantically come across as maneaters.  None of these lapses are overtly or deliberately offensive, but they are there, a sign of the times the books were written in.

I think it’s also important to remember, though, that Braun practically invented the supranormal pet sub-genre of detective fiction—once Koko and Yum Yum re-entered the scene and proved popular, a slew of animal-related mysteries followed, and tracing the lineage from Koko and Yum Yum through Sneaky Pie Brown and up to current “detecting cats” is pretty easy.  But Koko and Yum Yum started it all.

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Words of Wisdom

"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara