Lilian Jackson Braun, Part Two

Written by Donna

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January 8, 2013

The Cat Who Played Brahms

The Cat Who Played Brahms

When I left off with part one of my Lilian Jackson Braun overview, we had left Qwill, Koko, and Yum Yum living in a boarding house in a large unnamed city writing restaurant reviews and a food column for The Daily FluxionThe Cat Who Saw Red was a huge success for Braun, and her publisher encouraged her to continue producing books for the series.  For some reason, however, Braun clearly felt that stories stemming from Qwill’s oddball features beats on The Flux might be limited, so in the 5th book, The Cat Who Played Brahms, Qwill expresses some dissatisfaction with his current career prospects and takes off for a vacation to Moose County (“400 miles north of everywhere”), where he’s been offered a free lakeside cabin by his honorary aunt, Fanny Klingenshoen.  His idea is to rest, recharge, and work on a novel.  The cats, of course, go along.  And the novel never gets written.

The Cat Who Played Brahms was nominated for an Anthony Award; it also marked the end of Qwill’s career with The Flux and the beginning of his life in quirky Moose County, where the local paper is still typeset by hand and never reports anything negative.  In a lot of ways, this is still the fish-out-of-water trope she’d used so successfully in the first four books, but Qwill really IS out of his element in the country—born and raised in a city and having spent his entire life either working in a city or on foreign assignments, Moose County is completely alien to him—everyone drives the same colored pick-up truck, the restaurants are not exactly fine dining establishments, it’s so quiet at night that he can’t sleep, and no one locks their doors.

I adore Moose County: I love the names of the towns—Pickax City, Mooseville, Brrr, Chipmunk, Flapjack, Sawdust City—and the fact that there are no fast food outlets or shopping malls or big box stores or chain groceries.  Instead you buy your groceries at Toodles’ Market and you dine out at The Foo Diner (the D dropped off years earlier), Tipsy’s Tavern, or the Nasty Pasty.  Braun has a good time with the funny names, and seriously, if you’ve ever lived in a small town, it’s exactly like that.

I like The Cat Who Played Brahms a lot—it’s well-plotted, and it also has Braun’s trademark humor, although that humor is considerably more gentle than the sharper wit we see earlier in the series.  That seems appropriate for Qwill’s Moose County years, though, as does the somewhat slower pacing.  It’s almost as if her prose style slows down to match the slower pace of life in the country, and she takes the time to look around and enjoy the scenery.

The Cat Who Played Post Office

The Cat Who Played Post Office

If I tried to give a quick review of the rest of the books in this series we’d be here for days.  Instead, I think I’m going to just talk about some of my favorite entries after Qwill settles in Moose County.

One of my favorites is The Cat Who Played Post Office (1987).  Qwill, who is forced by the terms of Aunt Fanny’s will to live in Pickax City for five years in order to keep her fortune, settles into the enormous Klingenshoen estate by turning the house into a museum and moving into the carriage house apartment meant for servants.  He soon uncovers an old mystery connected to the house and begins snooping, which stirs up quite a bit of trouble in the area.  Iris Cobb, his landlady in The Cat Who Turned On and Off, moves to Pickax to work as Qwill’s housekeeper/cook, and Arch Riker, his childhood friend and the Fluxion’s Features Editor, comes for a visit when Qwill’s snooping endangers his life.  This is the first instance of one of the characters from Qwill’s past life moving to Pickax—Arch Riker eventually also relocates, as does Hixie Rice, one of Qwill’s boardinghouse buddies from The Cat Who Saw Red.  Qwill is still trying to adjust to life in Moose County, and Moose County is trying to adjust to him as well—this book has a number of truly entertaining scenes, and the mystery is extremely well-done, with the biggest and most obvious clue to the solution hidden, Agatha Christie-like, right in plain sight.

The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal

The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal

I also really enjoy reading 1991’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal—the local high school principal is shot to death in Qwill’s orchard, and since no one liked the guy, most of the town is a potential suspect.  Two things that make this particular entry worth reading are the peek it gives into how decisions are made in amateur theatres and the one-off appearance of John Bushland’s grandmother-in-law, “Grummy”, who is a terrific character and beautifully drawn.  It also marks the first appearance of Qwill’s converted apple barn, a house that I personally would dearly love to own.

Qwill rarely leaves Moose County after he arrives there—he returns to his unnamed city to help out with an architectural preservation cause in Junktown in The Cat Who Lived High (1990), and he also takes a mountain vacation in The Cat Who Moved a Mountain (1992).  It’s important to get him out of Moose County at this point to avoid the claustrophobia that can happen to long-running series—removing him from the limited sphere of Pickax and the people there allows Braun to keep the character fresh in a lot of ways, especially because Qwill always learns something about himself on these journeys.  The Cat Who Lived High gives Braun the chance to air out several of the characters she invented for Qwill’s Junktown adventures, but as a mystery, it’s a little lightweight in the clue department and a bit bloated otherwise.  The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, which involves an entirely new group of people, is much more successful, and Braun gets an opportunity to make some serious points about preserving the environment as well as she sharpens her knife for the greedy people who are more concerned about making a buck off the environment than taking care of it.

The Cat Who Wasn't There

The Cat Who Wasn’t There

Directly after Qwill’s hasty return from his mountain getaway, he embarks on an ill-fated tour of Scotland in The Cat Who Wasn’t There.  As a mystery, this book is top notch, but it also marks the beginning of a theme that would continue during the rest of the series, which is Qwill’s developing pride in his Scottish heritage and an interest in his family roots, which he actually knows little about.  It’s interesting that Braun waited until she was well into the series to start developing Qwill’s background to this extent, but it turned out to be a wise move—she gets a good deal of comic fodder out of it, and it allows her to develop the character in a new and interesting way–and to take her time doing so.  Qwill’s Scottish vacation also provides a chance for her to explore some of the burden of his wealth when his longtime companion is targeted for a kidnapping.

Many of the ideas initially brought up in these middle books are returned to frequently as the series goes on, especially the conservation theme and the problems associated with Qwilleren’s immense fortune.  Because he’s not particularly interested in dealing with his money, Qwill establishes a philanthropic organization designed to redistribute a good deal of his wealth within the county.  At first, this seems to be nothing but good, as facilities are improved, areas of land are purchased and put into conservation, and local artists can receive funding to support their endeavors.  But as the series progresses, it also becomes clear that there are drawbacks to his generosity: people become too reliant on the K-Fund to solve all of their problems, and the improved living and social conditions also begin to attract not only tourists, but criminals, from outside the county.  It’s an unusual path to pursue, especially since the independence and survivalist attitudes of the natives are stressed so heavily early on, but I think it’s an interesting one, even a rather brave one, to take.  Having gifted her hero with an enormous amount of money, she could have just let him sit back and enjoy it, but that wouldn’t really be true to Qwilleren’s character, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.  If you read the books in order, you can sense right about the time The Cat Who Came to Breakfast appeared that all of the money Qwill is flooding into Moose County is not necessarily changing it for the better.  This particular entry takes a very serious look at the consequences of over-development on a habitat and a local community, and that very sharp wit that was so in evidence in the earliest books makes a return in this one as Braun repeatedly makes it clear that more than money should be considered when developing an area.  Much more than money.

The Cat Who Came to Breakfast

The Cat Who Came to Breakfast

The money issue is also a problem where Qwill’s personal and professional relationships are concerned–early on, before librarian Polly Duncan becomes “the chief woman in his life”, Qwill has to be on guard for women more interested in his bank account than in him.  Several younger women show an interest in him during his early days in Moose County, and attractive as they are, he can’t help but wonder if they’d be pursuing him so arduously if he were still a working reporter walking a beat.  He gets involved in the restoration project in Junktown because old friends appeal to his generous nature–again, he knows they’ve called because he’s rich, not because they necessarily want his other talents to help them.  It gets to be very awkward later as a result.  I find all of this quite realistic–suddenly inheriting a ton of money (or winning the Powerball) surely would change your relationships with people, and even your relationship with yourself.  That Braun addresses the issue regularly in the series is a point in her favor.

The Cat Who Brought Down the House

The Cat Who Brought Down the House

The later books in the series are pretty hit-or-miss in terms of the mystery plots—some, like 2000’s The Cat Who Robbed a Bank, are very strong, with good, solid mystery plots, ample clues, and plenty of gentle humor.  Others—well, not so much.  The Cat Who Smelled a Rat from 2001 is probably the last decent mystery plot she constructed (and even then, it’s not too hard to figure out) and The Cat Who Brought Down the House (2003) , while not a great mystery, does feature another one-off elderly lady character who is magnificently drawn and nobody’s fool—the book is worth reading for Thelma Thackary’s character alone.  The quality of the last few books drops off sharply from there, though, and the final entry in the series, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers (2007), is but a shadow of even the more average books she wrote.

Rumors began circulating around the 2003 that the publisher was using a ghostwriter and that Braun wasn’t even writing the books anymore because of her advanced age.  Anyone who’s read the last few books would likely point out that if that were true, the publisher should have picked a better ghostwriter, and it’s especially true of that final book, which really is almost impossible to defend.  There’s no effort at all with description—just bald statements and jumpy transitions from scene to scene.  Several mainstays of the series are suddenly jettisoned—Polly, the woman in Qwill’s life, takes a vacation to Paris and is offered a job there and decides to stay, and, at the end, Qwill’s beloved barn burns down.  Those could be a sign that Braun knew she didn’t have many books left in her and wanted to bring some closure to the long-running series.  But.  But.  The book withdrawn by the publisher two years later, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke, suggests that Qwill’s next investigation might have been to look into who was responsible for the arson that cost him his home, and it’s possible that Braun was thinking about shaking things up to freshen the series up a bit.  By the end, it was definitely getting a bit stale.

By that point I imagine most fans, like me, really didn’t care.  I know I should have cared, but I really didn’t.  After 28 adventures with Qwill and his cats, I was in until the bitter end.  I don’t know about other people, but I can get to a point with a series of books where something like a mystery plot becomes secondary—the characters and their lives assume the most important role to me, and that’s how I felt about these books.  I like Qwill.  I like Koko and Yum Yum.  I like Qwill’s friends, and his efforts to improve the lives and surroundings of a population he’s grown to respect and admire.  I’d have happily kept reading about them all for another 20 books, even crappy ones.  There’s such comfort in familiar places and people in books—I was always happy to escape my regular life and spend a few hours in Moose County.  I have a lot of terrific memories of the time I spent there, eating pasties and walking the lakefront with Qwill, and marveling at Koko’s amazing exploits in detection.  And I’m really not ashamed to say so.

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2 Comments

  1. Barb in Maryland

    Though this was one series I never got into, I certainly understand why so many people loved it. There are several long-running mystery series that I read just to keep up with the characters. Fortunately, the mysteries are still pretty good, but I imagine I will continue reading them until they end or (heaven forbid) I burn out on the characters. (I am thinking primarily of Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series.)
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • donna

      I find that a lot of series characters either get tiresome or annoying as time goes on and thus I get bored with them. This series really is the exception to the rule for me–I have a few other series I will probably hang on with until the very end, like Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books and Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series, but there are plenty of others where I just didn’t feel like putting up with the characters’ demands. What I most liked about this series, though, was how undemanding the characters were.

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