A few weeks ago, in the mad rush to prepare for Christmas and visiting family, I took it upon myself to (gasp) reorganize my bookshelves and (double gasp) rehome many of the books I did not love. This, plus the removal of a dust-collecting shelf of otherwise beautiful National Geographic’s, made a remarkable amount of space available for fresh inventory.
But rather than running out to fill that space up with something new (and boy, do I have a wish list!), I headed down to my basement. There was a box down there that I needed to find. In short order, said box was on the floor, and I was blissfully breathing in the rich, aged-paper scent that wafted up from the tightly packed collection of colorful books inside.
Among these were seventeen Cat Who novels that I’d loved as a teen but that became ‘unintellectual’ when I hit my college years, and therefore ‘unworthy’ of a place on my limited shelving. Yet to discard them entirely was unthinkable—these books were dear friends—so instead they sat patiently, hidden away in that box, waiting for me to come to my senses.
That moment had finally come! And with it now comes the need to tell you about this series, and about why it’s still worth finding, keeping, and cozying down with over and over again.
An Unusual History
For a moment, let me take you back to 1966. Lilian Jackson Braun, then in her fifties and a long-time editor with the Detroit Free Press, had just released her first novel, a cozy mystery titled The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. It was an instant hit, and she followed it with two more equally acclaimed books over the next two years. Critics loved her. Braun was a rising star.
And then…she disappeared from the publishing world for 18 years! The changing market of the day was craving ever more sex or violence, and Braun preferred to keep her stories (albeit murder mysteries) relatively clean.
But with the 1980s came a renewed interest in the gentler or more playful stories. Braun was now in her seventies, retired from editing, and her time to write stories had finally come.
She churned novels out in rapid procession (handwritten then copied with a typewriter, no less!). In only 21 years, Braun published an additional 26 novels and three short story collections. The first two books of the revamped series, The Cat Who Saw Red and The Cat Who Played Brahms, were nominated for awards, and the series itself remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two decades.
Her final book was published in 2007, four years before she died, and a full 41 years after the publication of the first story. A 30th book she had nearly completed (at 97 years old!) remains unpublished.
An Unlikely Set of Protagonists
Every title begins with the phrase ‘The Cat Who’. The reason is simple: A cat is the crime-solver. His devoted human is merely the tool he uses to impart justice, and the actions described in the title are a clue for readers to use as they try to solve the mystery for themselves.
Braun avoids the fantasy-like leaning of this idea by placing her characters squarely in the mid-20th century. Jim Qwilleran, the thickly mustached human protagonist, is a one-time big-city crime reporter, who, at the beginning of the series, has hit bottom and must now somehow scrape a living as a smaller-city columnist. In the first story, he manages to inherit two (slightly spoiled) Siamese cats.
Koko is the male cat: smart, vocal, inquisitive, and ultimately the leader of the party. His sister Yum Yum is the quiet compatriot, snuggler, and sometime sneak thief. Braun goes to endearing lengths to describe their feline features and sensitivities, offering details of the cat world that feline aficionados can appreciate. These two animals often leave or create clues for Qwilleran to then puzzle out.
Other characters appear regularly in the series as well, even as Qwilleran moves around to other locations: a best friend, a lawyer, a housekeeper, a lady friend, and others. These serve to build out the world around the three main characters, offering stability amidst the longer storyline that might otherwise begin to feel disjointed.
A Varied Setting with a Simple Theme
The first several of The Cat Who books follow Qwilleran as he moves about his new city, slowly rebuilding his life from the shambles of his backstory. Like any good mystery series, murderous events seem to follow him, and his instincts as a former crime reporter take him by the nose to investigate, even when it’s not remotely his business. The cats save his life more than once.
A few books in, Qwilleran comes into a windfall inheritance. He settles down in a quiet, author-invented little area called Moose County, where he remains for the rest of the series. But that quiet county seems to get more than its fair share of murders. This could quickly turn a series stale, so Braun wisely mixes it up by sending Qwilleran out on excursions—and of course, he always takes the cats!
Inevitably in each story, Koko has solved the crime before the book is half over. The challenge then lies in how he can communicate this to the less astute sensibilities of Qwilleran, who, despite being fairly quick (for a human), and despite his awareness of Koko’s ability, still is naturally prone to see a cat for a cat, and not for a full-fledged investigator.
The misunderstandings that arise are the sort that most cat owners can relate to and laugh with. Koko and Yum Yum often do normal cat things: playing with string, destroying linens, fishing trash out of bins, or knocking books off shelves, for example. But in many cases, and especially when there’s a murder to solve, each action is a clue that Qwilleran just doesn’t get.
So they try again. And then again, until finally his mustache starts to tingle with suspicion and he begins to act on the hunches he thinks the cats have given him. Eventually, he gets it right.
Each book is a lighthearted, quick read: Easy to pick up and hard to put down, but short enough that you won’t stay up too late. The earlier books tend to have stronger plot lines than those that come later, but the characters and world Braun created are strong enough to hold their own even when the plot runs a bit flatter. It’s best to read them in order to better appreciate this and the longer storyline of the series.
They are, one and all, classic mysteries that don’t require high vocabulary or refined senses but do offer such a plethora of clues that what at first seems to be an obvious choice may not end up so obvious after all. And they will keep you smiling and puzzling throughout.
Where to Find Them for Yourself
Because this is a somewhat older series, you should have good luck hunting in used bookstores, thrift stores, or even (if your area has them) Little Libraries. There are also online thrift stores. Thriftbooks is a great place to find gently used material, including grouped collections, for reasonable prices.
If you want to buy new, the series is still in print and can be found in most bookstores. If you’d rather avoid the big-box stores, you might try Anderson’s Books, which has many, and also carries a companion guide of the full series for the dedicated reader. Bookshop.org also has a good number of titles, and purchases through them will directly benefit various local bookstores.
And, if your bookshelf space is as tragically limited as mine but you’re eager to try these light reads, your local library is almost certain to have copies on hand!
And now…you’ll have to excuse me, but my old paperback friend is calling to me. It’s time to curl up on my couch, turn on a lamp, and dive into another relaxing mystery.
Looking for more books to read? Check out these other reviews from MockingOwls.
Tandy Malinak was engrossed in visual art, stage performance, and storytelling before she knew what the words meant. A second-generation homeschooler with a BA in Elementary Ed, she also knows kids and homelife; set her down with a cup of tea, and she’ll go until you stop her. She loves fantasy, sci-fi, Nintendo, board games, studying the Word, the smell of a campfire, the sound of ocean waves, and all things feline—to name a few! Originally from Seattle, Tandy now lives in Chicago’s northside with her husband, 2 dragon-loving kids, and 4 cats.
Tandy recently perched herself on Twitter’s branch. She’s still figuring it out, but will make noise there eventually.