I have begun a re-read of Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” mystery series. Having read them all before, but in no particular order; now, I now want to experience them in the order they were written and developed (although I have already messed up by starting with the 3rd title. After this, I will start with the first. Here is a Wikipedia link to the titles in publication order: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cat_Who…
So, here is the 1968 third offering of Jim Qwilleran with his feline sidekicks Koko and Yum Yum: The Cat Who Turned On and Off.
The first three books were written in the late 1960s, where Jim and the cats are just beginning to establish the structure of how these mysteries will flow; also, Jim’s previous life, recovery, and discovery of each cat is set up and explained in depth.
Each novel will give a brief subtle recap of Qwill and the cats’ habits and past. Like most good mysteries, the crime is much less important than the characters, and the characterization grows as it unfolds through each installment. As well, each novel has at least one cultural theme it will explore (usually with several other subtopics.)
This volume is all about the hidden side of the antique trade, located in Junktown, the seemingly seamy part of town, with all of its odd characters, petty jealousies, and undermining interactions. Of special interest to me were the Three Weird Sisters who owned the Three Weird Sisters antique store – very vibrant women and strangely alluring.
Braun ‘s books are rarely sketchy when covering side topics. That is their strengths for my reading tastes. At one point, the reader not only learns how varnishing techniques are done, but also how they can express a crime scene clue (page 210.)
In this particular novel, Braun gives a heart and depth to Junktown that would make Jane Jacobs smile. Here is an except regarding the developers who want to take over and raze this quite quaint district under the guise of gentrification, in reality just a real estate land grab:
“…You see, no one thinks of Junktown as a community of living people — merely a column of statistics. If they would ring doorbells, they would find respectable foreign families, old couples with no desire to move to the suburbs, small businessmen like Mr. Lombardo — all nationalities, all races, all ages, all types — including a certain trashy element that does no harm. That’s the way a city should be — one big hearty stew. But politicians have an á la carte mentality. They refuse to mix the onions and carrots with the tenderloin tips. (page 111)
We learn how Junktowns all over are the saviors and preservers of the past, despite their moral qualms. (While a lofty enterprise, how they acquire and how they sell is really just as opportunistic as the real estate developers’ machinations when all is said and done.)
Koko’s discovery and clues about the culprit in this crime is a bit too thin for me (or even if you think that it is Qwill, instead, who solves the crime here.) But this part of the series’ formula gets much better when Braun brings it back in the mid-80s and forward. In the first three outings, it seems too cute and too clever for believability.
Each installment is like candy to me; I just eat each one up. A Cat Who… mystery, an afghan, and a cup of coffee are just the offerings that can give me a warm, cozy feeling on a cold winter’s night. All that is physically missing are a cat, or two. I look forward to re-visiting my Moosewood county friends throughout the next five months.
After this volume, Braun took a hiatus until the 80s when the series really took off as Qwill inherited a fortune, moved with the cats to a quaint town 400 miles north if everywhere, and discovered that crimes occur everywhere: murders, swindles, cross-lovers.
How Qwill uses his funds as a philanthropist is as enduring as his off again, but mostly on again, relationship with the town librarian Polly.
And now, on to episode 1 of The Cat Who.. series, read in order from now on: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (1966) about the world of modern art… (although I am concurrently being distracted by several other titles, most notably Stephen King’s latest Doctor Sleep, a follow-up to The Shining — but more about that later…)