I’m a stickler for books set in smaller towns with a large cast of fun and quirky characters, if you couldn’t tell by the stories I share on here for Fiction Friday.
I mention The Cat Who books by Lilian Jackson Braun from time to time and when I do I write that I am reading one as “comfort reading.” I consider them comfort reading because I used to read them when I was a teenager. For me, reading about James Mackintosh Qwilleran and his Siamese cats, Koko and Yum-Yum, and the cast of characters around them, feels oddly like coming home.
I call them The Cat Who . . . books because all of the book titles start with The Cat Who . . . followed by something the cat did.
Examples include The Cat Who Played Brahms, The Cat Who Sang for the Birds, The Cat Who Lived High, and The Cat Who Sniffed Glue. There were 29 books written between 1966 and 2007. There were 18 years between the third and fourth book and after reading that in an article while researching for this post, I started to wonder what the delay was all about. What did Braun do in between and what made her pick up the series again? I did some digging and learned there were a few reasons for the break, including the death of her husband and the fact that she was working at The Detroit Free Press as the “Good Living” editor during that time, and for 30-years, retiring in the late 70s. The other, bigger, reason for the break, though, was that when she turned in the manuscript for the fourth book, the publisher said they were interested in books with more sex and violence.
Luckily Braun was able to find a publisher in the future who recognized that not every reader wants books full of sex and violence.
As a writer who has started writing fiction fairly “late in life,” I found it interesting that Braun published her first fiction book at the age of 53. She was 97 when she passed away and her husband told a newspaper that her biggest regret was dying before she could finish her 30th book, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke.
When she did release a new book in 1986, after that 18 year break, it was called The Cat Who Saw Red. It was published under a new publisher and nominated for an Anthony Award and an Edgar Award in the best original paperback category. The new publisher also re-released her other three books.
The books always offer a mystery, of course, usually in the form of a murder or two, but woven within the mystery are hilarious anecdotes about the people of Pixax, the town James Qwilleran, a retired crime beat journalist and columnist, has settled into.
The series started out with Qwilleran working “Down Below”, as the country folk call the city of Chicago. After inheriting some money from an eccentric distant relative (who, if I remember correctly he wasn’t even biologically related to), he ends up moving to the tiny town where many of his mysteries occur, which makes me ask, “how many criminals live in this one tiny town?” That thought always makes me a bit paranoid, since I also live in a small town. After reading one of these books (or watching an episode of Murder She Wrote) I start looking at my neighbors in a different light.
“Do you think Mrs. Smith down the road is capable of murder?” I might ask my husband, but I don’t actually since there isn’t a Mrs. Smith down the road.
Or sometimes I think, “What does Mr. So-and-So have in those containers in his back yard? Compost or . . . bodies?!”
Anyhow, back to the books. Not all of them aren’t all winners, a couple of them are stinkers, only saved by the cats and quirky characters. Still, I keep reading them, enjoying the feeling of coming home, in a way, much like I do when I read and re-read the Mitford books.
It isn’t only the quirky characters and pets that captures my interest in the books. Being a veteran of the journalism world, I also find myself drawn to the parts of the stories that involve reporting and the newspaper office. The characters of the small town newspaper are about as odd as some of the people I used to work with, but not quite.
When the subject of reporters and journalists come up in a conversation, I often comment that a newspaper’s newsroom is full of people who are two clicks away from being certifiably crazy. Then I remember I was once one of those people and wonder what that means about me. I guess it means I was the only sane person in the four newsrooms I worked in over my 15-year career.
Braun’s own career in journalism helped her to become a prolific novelist, releasing one or two books a year. She said she was used to continously writing after doing it for 50 years. I can relate to the idea of being used to writing often and a lot, since that’s what I did when I worked at newspapers, but of course I only did it for 15 years, not 50!
When I picture Qwill in my mind he’s a cross between Sam Elliott and a former boss of mine (who incidentally no longer has the mustache he used to have). Qwill is an old school newshound with a passion for digging up the answers to mysteries, even after he stops working as an investigative reporter and knows it isn’t his place.
Getting to the bottom of something was my favorite part of being a reporter. I loved to dig for the news, but I was nowhere near as good at is as my husband is. He’s like a dog with a bone. When he gets a tip, he’ll dig that thing out of the ground and bring it in the light no matter who tries to stop him.
He isn’t as obsessed with it as I am, though. I remember laying awake at night wondering what the local school board or district attorney was hiding from me while he comes home, drops the mystery at the door, picks up a book and doesn’t pick up work things again until the next morning. Usually anyhow. Some nights he does lay there worrying about work things, but not necessarily a story he is working on.
Throughout the books, Qwill ages from his late 40s to his mid-50s. He is a divorced, slightly overweight, former alocholic who now declines offers to drink any alcohol when the books first start. He loses the extra pounds as the series progresses.
Women find him irrestible, Braun writes, and one reason they do is because of his “luxurious mustache.” He also has salt-and-pepper hair, but it is the mustache that is the most intriguing, not only because of it’s appearance.
An excerpt from an article on Wikipedia describes the role of the mustache perfectly.
Whenever Qwilleran gets a suspicion that something is wrong or his instincts are right, he will get “a tingling sensation on his upper lip.” Depending upon the strength of the sensation, he may be seen “stroking it with his fingertips” to “pounding [his mustache] with his knuckles”.
Characters in the books (especially women) are also drawn to Qwill because of his willingness to listen, a skill he picked up in his job as a reporter. It’s a skill I picked up as well. I found that the more I let a person talk, the more they would tell me, without even realizing they were telling me it. Idle chitchat also helped relax the subject of a story or the person I was interviewing. I never felt like I was manipulating the person. I was simply reminding them that I was human too and helping them to feel comfortable with talking to me.
Qwill uses this tactic in his reporting, but also in his sleuthing. It may appear to the reader that the character is simply telling Qwilleran about the new decor in their homes, but Qwilleran might hear something quite different, including the fact that the person who designed the new look for their home new the victim in a recent crime.
Now, I would be very remiss if I did not mention that Q’s cat Koko helps him solve his crimes in unusual and distinct ways. Koko sometimes yowls at the guilty person, flips a book to a page that offers a clue, or leads Q to a clue when they go on their walks, with Koko on a harness and leash.
Koko’s full name is Kao K’o-Kung and he is named after a 13th-century Chinese artist of the same name. He was once owned by an art critic who Qwill used to work with at the Fluxion, a newspaper Down Under. His first owner fed Koko a gourmet diet of lobster, chicken, and other fancy meals, which means he won’t eat normal cat food.
Qwilleran later adopts Yum-Yum, another Siamese, and ends up having to feed both cats expensive food on his sometimes meager salary, which of course expands when he inherhits a fortune and mansion later in the series.
While locals often credit Qwill when he solves a crime, there are some who know Koko is the real brains in the operation, as shown by this exerpt from The Cat Who Played Brahms:
“Qwilleran’s Siamese cat was a celebrity at the Press Club. Koko’s portrait hung in the lobby along with Pulitzer Prize winners, and he was probably the only cat in the history of journalism who had his own press card signed by the chief of police. Although Qwilleran’s suspicious nature and inquisitive mind had brought a few criminals to justice, it was commonly understood at the Press Club that the brains behind his success belonged to a feline of outstanding intelligence and sensory perception. Koko always seemed to sniff or scratch in the right place at the right time.”
In addition to the newspaper angle, I, of course, like the way the books nail the personality of cats, especially Siamese, right on the head. I had a cat that our vet said was part Siamese and he was a very interesting cat, so I relate to the way Braun writes about cats as well as the mysteries.
Being a cat lover, and the owner of two Siamese herself, Braun certainly had first-hand experience about the behavior of cats.
The good thing about these books is that they are fairly simple and straight forward. They aren’t raunchy, have very little to no swearing, and don’t feature grotesque or detailed descriptions of violence. They are almost completely void of romance, other than a very tame, chaste storyline involving Qwill and town librarian Polly Duncan.
I have been having fun snatching books from the series up at book sales but have also purchased a few through my Kindle. I don’t know why, but I prefer reading The Cat Who books as hard copies, maybe because that’s how I started reading them when I would sign them out at the local library.
So, how about you? Do you have a series of books that are like “comfort reading” to you? I would love to hear about the series.