The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, by Lillian Jackson Braun, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, 1990
There are definite mysteries in the world. How do stupid people succeed in the world? Why do women date assholes? What really are the lyrics to “Louie Louie”? How did such a banal series of shoddily written mysteries featuring a major feline character become bestsellers?
I decided to listen to the first book in the best selling, long running Cat Who mystery series to gauge if there was anything in it. These are the kind of books your grandmother reads. It is unlikely you have ever seen anyone under the age of fifty-something with one of these books in hand. And yet they sell millions of copies and the Braun is on to her twenty-sixth installment, this first book having been written almost forty years ago.
That’s one long-lived cat, you might say. Apparently, it’s cashing in on all nine lives to make it this far. It’s a good argument to make you wish cats got the one standard issue life like the rest of us.
In short, the first book introduces us to the cat Kao K'o-Kung, veteran reporter Jim Qwilleran who is a feature writer at a newspaper writing about the local art scene, and Qwilleran’s mustache. Qwilleran's mustache is the most anthropomorphized and lively character in the book, quivering, smiling, twitching, smirking, brushing hands as kisses, tingling, transmitting, bristling, the hairs standing on end when Qwilleran’s frightened, looking happy, virtually dancing, rebelling. You name it, this mustache can do it. Unfortunately for the tonsorial-minded, it is not the facial whiskers of Mr. Qwilleran that solves mysteries. That skill is beyond this bit of upper lip fluff.
It is not beyond the powers of the titular cat, however. Prior to reading this book, I considered myself, if not a cat lover, then at least a cat fancier. I’ve nursed a Maine Coon with diabetes for seven years with twice daily insulin shots, so no one would confuse me with an ailurophobe. Yet after listening to Kao K’o-Kung’s owner, the art critic George Bonifield Mountclemens, glow with repressed sexuality for his feline companion, I felt the strong inclination to begin kicking the little beasts.
It didn’t begin that way. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards starts off with a couple of interviews, one to introduce the main character, the other to introduce the man who leads us into the case. All fine and good. Standard operating procedures for a mystery. Detective fiction must be easy to begin writing, as you invariably start out with a client being interviewed by the gumshoe or some variant.
We are also introduced to the Press Club, a bar retreat akin to Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes club (but without the IQ power) or the smoky dive favored by other detectives. But it’s clean and homey and jovial enough. The two men who are the focus of the mystery have beautiful and neglected wives, of course. Which is in itself a classic mystery move.
It doesn’t take long for the book to veer off into a detour about cats.
We are introduced to Mountclemens, the art critic for the Daily Fluxion, the paper Qwilleran works for. He is a fastidious man, exact, precise, a savage critic of the local art scene, and possessed of a singularly intelligent Siamese cat Kao K’o-Kung, or Koko as Qwilleran comes to call him. Mountclemens may destroy reputations and careers left and right, but he is a devoted cat owner and goes all lyrical at great length on the intellectual powers and capacities of his cat. Halfway through the extended paean, I began to wonder if there was going to be a mystery novel hidden in this tribute to the feline world.
There is, but it’s not complex enough or important enough to really bother with. Someone dies, then someone else dies in an accident, then one more person dies. All in all, it’s not a very big deal because there are cats, cats, CATS in the world! Hurray for fluffy little itty bitty oh-so-clever kitten-wittens. Suffice to say that the author’s opinion of the intellectual powers of the human race only comes up to the dewclaw of most cats.
Perhaps it’s because the book was written in 1966 or perhaps Braun’s market all along were uptight little bluestockings, but the book is a terribly prim little affair. There are just enough gentle four-letter words (“hell” and “damn”) to feel gritty to the grandmother set but without offending tender sensibilities. Jim Qwilleran is a teetotaler, drinking only straight tomato juice. Two of the deaths in the book are from stabbings, but I’ve seen more blood in a commercial for Matlock.
To stay so squeaky clean, the book is euphemistic in the extreme, flirting with outright naughtiness but pulling back before it even gets close. After the second murder, that of her husband, the artist Zoe Lambreth tells Qwilleran that she and her husband were “no longer...close.” Wink wink. When discussing the female poured-metal sculptor, Butchie, Qwilleran tells a newspaper coworker that she had a crush on Zoe. “One of those,” is his response.
The various artists in the book come off as caricatures of modern art by someone with very little sympathy for it and very little understanding of it. That Qwilleran, who has no understanding of art at all, guides us through this world is either a low opinion of Braun’s readers or an indication of Braun’s low opinion of modern art. The junk sculptor character of Nino is used merely as a red herring, introduced but given no real depth and put on stage for one appearance before the scene in which he dies.
The book's closing wrap-up in which we find out whodunit contains an element of cheating, breaking at least one fundamental mystery rule. We are introduced to the murderer's accomplice in the last few pages of the book, the last few minutes of the CD, the accomplice being necessary to puzzle out the crime. While the murderer may have been on stage for most of the book, the introduction of an accomplice at the last minute is like introducing magic powers at the close. “And then he flew over their heads up up up away into the sky. The end.” It doesn't demonstrate much of a clever mind to cheat like that.
If old ladies are reading these books and finding them just spicy enough for a little thrill, they certainly aren’t reading them for clever mysteries. Most likely, they come for the sheer cat adulation and stay for the mystery. It doesn’t explain my grandmother-in-law’s love of the series, as she isn’t into art or cats. In fact, nothing can quite explain to me the appeal of these books. I like cats, I like mysteries, I like art, yet nothing in this book felt worth reading. It took me two days to finish listening to the book, and I had to immediately pop in an Agatha Christie to cleanse my palate.
The reader occasionally gives strange pronunciations to words like “grimace” as “grim-ayce.” The CD version is a transfer of the tape recording and there are moments when differing recordings step on top of each other, the end of one track obscuring the first syllable of the next. Also, the discs I borrowed from our library were rather seriously scratched in a number of places which doesn't reflect well on the little old lady mystery fans of this series.