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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Cat Who Saw Red... by Lilian Jackson Braun


Okay, to repeat the drill, I'm an aspiring writer of cozy mysteries, dissecting and studying the books I read, to glean techniques to help myself improve in the craft. So while this will have some elements of a book review, I do it mainly because writing these entries makes me consider things I would otherwise miss.

The Cat Who Saw Red is the fourth book in the popular series featuring news reporter Jim Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.

I have to admit, I'm a late-comer to this series, and have been keeping myself from devouring them only by forcing myself to do a survey of all kinds of mysteries from a number of different authors. Otherwise I'd probably be half done with this series. And considering how many books there are, that would be quite an accomplishment.

But this is an essential cozy series. And it is one that I will keep coming back to every chance I get, even more so when I need a break from the rougher parts of real life. This light, easy-to-read series is like an old friend. You've heard of comfort food? This is a comfort read.

Now, since I'm reading these stories looking for lessons (good and bad) that I can use to improve my own writing, I have to say that these are pretty good. But they are not perfect. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

First, the good...

Reintroducing an old flame into Qwill's life was a stroke of genius. It gave more depth to the developing character. For him to evaluate and re-evaluate his feelings was helpful for the reader to understand him better. And Braun did it without resorting to long segments of backstory. The past events were woven seamlessly into the present-day narrative. I like that she resisted to urge to tell us everything about him in the first book. I have a feeling that there is still more to learn from Qwill's personality and past in the books to come--something that is necessary to keep a series from going stale.

I also like the way this mystery was constructed. This was a puzzle-piece mystery. I'm not sure if that is a valid term or not, but I'm going to use it. There were a number of seemingly non-connected clues that Qwill needed to discover and then put together to solve this one--with the help of his cats, of course. At one point Braun even listed them all for us in one sentence as a review. Did I solve it? Um, yeah. This wasn't that hard. I almost talked myself out of it because it seemed a little obvious. There was only one piece of the puzzle (the drowning of the child) that I couldn't get to fit. I was looking forward to seeing what that had to do with the two disappearances--and was rather surprised at the end to find out that it didn't! It seemed it was just there to make the mystery harder to solve.

One technique that I thought was rather interesting, was how Braun prepared the scene for the denouement. I'm not sure if the casual bed-time reader would have caught it, but when the cats turned Qwill's apartment into a giant piece of string art with a ball of yarn, I knew it was going to end up tripping up the killer in the end. I've been trying to do this in my own story--setting the stage casually throughout the book--so that the end will seem a logical conclusion. It was a nice job, but it is hard not to be obvious.

One complaint that I do have, and I know many will disagree, is that I still think that giving these super-intelligent, almost-human attributes to the cats is disturbing. Instead of God in the machinery, there are cats in the machinery. And I do still think that is a little hokey. It doesn't bother me enough to stop reading, and it is perhaps one of the things that has made this series so popular. Others have imitated it, with varying degrees of success, so that now some people separate mysteries into two categories--those with cats and those without. It has worked for Braun, but don't expect a cat to save the day in the end of my book. Maybe it's just that my cats are stupid.

My biggest complaint though, has to do with the chronology of the ending. Qwill figures it out, and smashes the book into the piece of pottery in anger. (Yes, and it bothers me that the reader is not privy at this point to what he figured out--I think it is cheesy when the writer withholds information known by the protagonist) What does he do then? I would have gone to the police. Any sane person would have gone to the police. What does Quill do? He takes a double dose of Nyquil and goes to sleep. Huh? Idiot plot. This only works if Qwill is an idiot. It was a bone-head ending to an otherwise enjoyable book.

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