Sunday, May 21, 2006

Not Too Corny

Cat Breaking Free, by Shirley Rosseau Murphy, Read by William Dufris, BBC Audiobooks America, 2005

Being overcome by the urge to listen to more of William Dufris’ wonderfully theatrical audiobook readings, I ordered everything the library had of his available on CD. The books came in dribs and drabs, most of them completely unknown to me in any fashion. Some were good, some not so, some should be packed onto a rocket and launched at the sun.

This particular volume, however, made me tremble the moment I read the back of it. A series of mysteries featuring a cat detective. Not bad enough that there’s already two, at least, featuring cats (one series actually attributed by the human nut part of the pair to the cat with equal credit), but here comes another one. Don’t get me wrong: I like cats; in fact, I consider myself a “cat person.” Not in that run out and buy a t-shirt covered in paw prints with the slogan “My cat walks all over me” manner; not in the slobbery worshipful way many, many “cat people” are, but just in the way that I prefer cats to dogs as pets every time.

And so it was with great, great reluctance I decided to finally listen to Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s eleventh Joe Grey mystery Cat Breaking Free. I renewed this audiobook four times before I listened to it (meaning it sat on my shelf for three months, filling me with dread), and the day I finally slipped into the old CD player was a day awash in suspense. How far would I manage to listen? Could I stand it? Regular readers will remember that I did not think too fondly of the last cat-based mystery.

I didn’t hate it. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I didn’t hate this novel and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of someday picking up another of Murphy’s books, though I wouldn’t put them high on my to-read list. Once you get past the highly absurd conceit of a race of talking cats (and hints are dropped throughout about how they came to learn to speak, though it is never stated outright), you notice that Murphy has a knack for intricate plotting, suspenseful writing, and amusing characterization.

But still, I hear you ask, talking cats? Joe Grey is the feline protagonist in this particular series, with a twist. The cat can speak. Not speak in special cat language. Not speak metaphorically. Not speak in particularly expressive meows. Actually speak in haughtily voiced English. He is regularly joined by two other speaking cats, Dulcie and Kit, and the three of them apparently find themselves caught up in the midst of criminal shenanigans. Being cats, they are perfect investigators, as they can lounge about eavesdropping or slink past the criminals’ hideout or sneak into a crime scene and no one’s the wiser.

The cats, interacting with the humans lucky enough to have speaking cats, are a mixed bunch, though surprisingly not one human has thought to cash in on their sentient felines. The main human is a man named Clyde, Joe’s owner, and he’s involved with a woman named Ryan. A friend of his who also owns a talking cat is a woman named Charlie and she’s married to Max, the Chief of Police. Two couples all four people with typically men’s names. It makes the book’s opening sections rather hard going if you pick up the series in the middle, as I did.

In fact, it is the sheer quantity of characters altogether that makes the book a confusing welter of names to keep straight — and being a genre book (or sub-sub-genre, the cat cozy) none of these characters are drawn particularly deeply or with enough distinction that you know immediately who you’re with. Essentially, it is a group of very bland, very similar white, upper middle class Californians and their cats, though there are no less than fifteen separate human characters to keep track of, not to mention all these speaking cats, all these normal cats and dogs, then all these secondary and tertiary characters.

There are two mysteries here, though they end up being essentially one and the same gang behind them. A group of seasoned criminals have moved to Talking Cat Heaven, also known as Molena Point, California, and are planning a huge heist of all the various stores in town from the jewelers to the knick knack art store. They are also trapping talking cats because they think they will prove lucrative to sell them to TV talk shows.

There are fun elements to the story, such as the Moriarty-styled Azrael, an evil speaking cat last seen falling down into a deep chasm with an emerald bracelet between his teeth, and how each cat simultaneously balances their urge to be domesticated and urge to heed the call of the wild. Typically, it is the youngest of the cats, Kit, who feels most strongly the pull of the great outdoors and all its adventure.

The greatest irritation of the book is the degree to which the cats are anthropomorphized and the level of acceptance that goes on around them.. For instance, they eat human style food like tamales, and I can let you know, from personal experience, cats do not generally care for onions and garlic. The cats are also a bit too sympathetic to Clyde euthanizing an old sick dog of his. The town also seems to be way too pet-friendly, unrealistically so. Dog friendly restaurants are a bit more of a European phenomenon, though I’ve drank at food serving dog-friendly bars in college, but I still find it hard to buy a diner allowing cats to eat off the table. The idea of a pet-friendly grocery store, however, staggers the imagination and credibility.

The mystery here is not particularly challenging, it’s hardly even a mystery, and the crime and all the criminals are written in a comforting sweet PG fashion. The book mostly focuses on all the lives of the human characters and their interactions while the cats are the ones doing all the legwork, putting everything together. Far too much time is spent gabbing at restaurants or around food laden tables for the book to really move, though it does have it’s amusing charm and it’s moments of well-wrought suspense. If you know someone who likes cats and mysteries, this is probably the best you’re likely to find.

William Dufris reads best in a book like Dashiell Hammett, novels with an overwhelming number of male characters. After a certain number of variations on his high-pitched female voice, they start to grate and come off similarly annoying. It’s a weakness most male readers are prone to, so it can’t be held entirely against him.

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