Friday, November 4, 2011

National Cat Week: Read a Mystery

Barclay lives and sleeps on the Cutting Edge
The First Week in November is National Cat Week. If you like cats and you read this blog, you probably know that the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal focuses on Animals in Mysteries. There are many different animals represented in the ninety pages of reviews and author essays, but as one would expect there are a lot of cats. The following article by Shirley Rousseau appeared in this issue. Mystery Readers Journal: Animals in Mysteries (Volume 27:3) is available as a PDF and in hardcopy. To order, go here. In the meantime, read this article and pet your cat. Celebrate National Cat Week.

The Tell-Tale Cat by Shirley Rousseau

Cat Telling Tales (Wm. Morrow, 2011), the newest Joe Grey mystery, is a tangle of land swindles and murder as seen through the eyes of the sentient, cop-friendly tomcat. With the eco-nomic downturn, the small coastal village has witnessed a dramatic rise in foreclosures and consequently in real estate scams. As Molena Point PD works the cases, Joe and his tabby lady, with their keen hearing and night vision and their added gift of speech, run their own investi-gation, passing information on to the law.

They are incredibly skilled at remaining anonymous, the cops haven’t a clue to the true nature of their most reliable snitches, the voice on the phone could be anyone. Meantime, the cats’ human friends take on the plight of the many animals abandoned when then-jobless families move away, the pets left behind to fend for themselves or starve; the villagers set up a cat rescue pro-gram in the trap-neuter tradition that has been successful across the US, feeding and sheltering these strays who aren’t as fortunate in shaping their own fate as are the speaking cats.

Joe Grey’s real life model was a bold young cat with a lordly sense of himself, given to wick-edly teasing his canine and human housemates. With his tendency to meddle in other folks’ business, of course Joe inspired my fictional sleuth. While the prototype for tortoiseshell Kit was my own headstrong and impetuous com-panion; she had only to wait for the right story to fit her irascible, joyous, and sometimes oth-erworldly nature. That came in the fifth book, Cat to the Dogs (HarperCollins, 1999), where a touch of Celtic myth beckoned her in with her own unfolding history.

Joe’s lady, Dulcie, on the other hand, was modeled after a number of cats who’ve shared my life, her quieter nature belied only by her passion to steal silk teddies and soft sweaters from her human neighbors. These cats, whom I have given human speech, can eavesdrop from under a perp’s bed—or from under a restaurant table as the calamari and beer are served up. They can slip in through an open window or roof vent, and make off with a con artist’s Visa bills and personal letters: they can raid your trash can for evidence. and no one the wiser: just another stray, into the garbage.

Both our tortie and the real Joe Grey are gone now, as are the feline ladies who inspired tabby Dulcie, but yet they are all still with me, they are my muses, directing the scenes, keeping in char-acter their feline dialogue, reminding me what the cat in the story would do and would say (to paraphrase Eudora Welty). My muses shape each tale to their own unique natures, and they remind me, as well, of the very basics of writing fiction.

In shaping story, the mystery writer must match a cat’s cunning, must hold some of the facts at bay, just as does the cat stalking an un-wary mouse. In the shadows, the waiting paw is unseen until that sudden strike. And then to the kill, with muscular authority.

But, too, the mouse’s own moves dictate to the cat. Mouse darts in a different direction, cat corrects his rhythm. Just so does story make its own surprising moves, and the alert writer will follow.
And just so, too, do the conflicts of feline na-ture mirror the conflicts of story: One moment the cozy warmth of the cuddling cat. Next mo-ment, your cat might be all hisses and claws and bared teeth. He reveals dozens of moods, from sleek insouciance, to alarm or fear, to wide-eyed curiosity. How satisfying, while observing the nature of your feline companion, to see the full possibilities of story.

But most of all, perhaps it is the cat’s joy that inspires the author, his passion for living, his right here, right now attitude, embracing each moment with his whole being. (A dog gets ex-cited at everything, too. But a cat, as Joe Grey would tell you, is more selective in his tastes, and far more mysterious.) The cat, with his lithe and bright-eyed passion for the world, seems not only to embrace each enchanting moment, but to magnify its very significance.

It is thus I approach the Joe Grey books, with the cat’s same involvement. In the words of author Dwight Swain, “The first real rule of suc-cessful story writing is… Get excited! Hunt un-til you uncover something or other to which you react… feeling is the place every story starts… . [The writer’s] task is to bring this heart-bound feeling to the surface in your reader… . ” And what better way to absorb such enthusiasm than from a little cat, his being throbbing with so many emotions. If the writer can find within himself the same passion of being, how can he help but shape a strong story?

Both the real Joe Grey, and the prototype for Kit, came to us as strays, bearing gifts I didn’t then imagine. In the case of our tortie, she was a half grown, skinny throw-away when my hus-band found her on a late winter evening at our local airport, the deserted grounds and runways cold and windy. He had tied down his Cessna and was approaching his truck when, on the deep porch of the airport office, a demanding yowl startled him.

The thin kitten peered out between the banis-ter rails, her pink mouth open with frantic cries: she had been dumped, she was hungry, she was cold, she was scared and, most of all, she was demanding. She wanted someone to help her, and she wasn’t going to let him get away.

He fed her a leftover sandwich from his lunch. He filled a used paper cup with water, and found an empty cardboard box, which he lined with his own warm jacket. Settling her in the bed, beside the purring Coke machine, he left her

Three times she beat him to the truck, leaping in when he opened the door. A fourth try, and he gave up. Retrieving his jacket, he headed home, the purring tortie curled up against his leg. Even before they got home, he had named her. An ELT is an airplane’s Emergency Locator Transmitter, emitting a loud demanding radio signal in case of a crash or forced landing. ELT had had a forced landing, all right, and she was just as loud in announcing her own emergency.

The original Joe Grey, too, was an unwanted cat. A neighbor’s daughter, having picked the abandoned kitten up on the highway, deposited him with her folks and went on back to college. This was a dog family, with no sense of a cat’s needs. They fed the eight-month old kitten on the garage floor with three big dogs, he never got a bite of his supper. For days he prowled our neighborhood stealthy and unseen and nearly starving. When he discovered our calico’s cat door and slipped inside, he inhaled her kibble. Thus began his many visits. Quickly he fattened up, though Mousse barely tolerated the pushy little tomcat as he came and went.

We learned where he belonged, we waited and watched and fed him—until he met some disas-ter from which he emerged with a broken tail. He came to us sick with infection. His own fam-ily showed no interest or concern. When we asked if we could have him, they hardly paused, they were happy to be rid of him. With the sick cat in my arms, we headed for the vet.

Most of Joe’s tail was amputated, and with treatment he soon recovered. But our calico still wasn’t happy, Mousse still didn’t like this pushy kitten, she didn’t want him in the house and she didn’t plan to change her mind. We deferred at last, and found Joe a home with a young bache-lor who had sense enough to feed him atop the refrigerator, above the reach of his golden re-trievers. Joe thrived. All three dogs were soon obedient to the little cat’s stronger will and his sly ways. Goldens are often tricksters, but Joe, beating them at their game, was soon uncontested king of the pack.

Once Joe moved out, Mousse settled in again as my only muse. Joe’s turn as a fictional hero would come later, now it was Mousse’s time, she sparked my first visions of a world where cats are far more than they seem, she became Melissa in my fantasy, The Catswold Portal (Roc, 1992), before I ever imagined Joe as a feline detective.

How long it’s been since our little cats left us. But yet their ghosts are here around me, very alive in the stories, where the crimes and the human players are based in fact, while the speak-ing cats are born of myth. That is my pleasure in writing the series, to bring a touch of magic to a world that can too often be tedious or alarm-ing—the cats, in their straightforward inno-cence, bringing a simple joy to a sometimes world-weary reader.

Shirley Rousseau Murphy ( is the author of the award-winning Joe Grey cat mystery series, which so far includes sixteen novels; the seventeenth, Cat Telling Tales, will be published by Morrow in November. She has also written a fantasy novel, The Catswold Portal, plus two fantasy series for teens and many children's books.