Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Cats on the Block: How to Wash a Cat & Murder Past Due

Reviewed by Jeanne

I’m not sure when cats became mystery series stars.  It may have been when Lilian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” series took off, although the Gordons (a husband and wife writing team) produced books with DC the cat earlier.  (DC's name was edited by  Disney to be That Darn Cat in the movie version.)  Then we saw the advent of Carole Nelson Douglas’ “Midnight Louie,” Lydia Adams’ Cat Sitter series, Garrison Allen’s “Big Mike,” Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s “Joe Grey,” and several others.  Not long after, some dog mysteries began to appear, such as Susan Conant’s Dog Sitter series, the wonderful Virginia Lanier Bloodhound series, Carol Lea Benjamin’s “Alexandra and Dash” mysteries, Lauren Berenson’s Melanie Travis books and, more recently, the Chet and Bernie books by Spencer Quinn.  Some authors, like Rita Mae Brown, even included both dogs and cats.  

Since I was planning a trip involving airplanes, I started looking at the new paperback mysteries and discovered a new litter of cat mystery stars.  There are no fewer than four series starring felines, and probably more.   So I picked out a couple and took them with me.  There’s nothing like being a captive audience to get me into a book.  (I'll admit I did a bit of judging a book by its cover:  both these have wonderful cover art!)

How to Wash a Cat by Rebecca Hale is the first in the “Cats and Curios” series.  Our heroine gets the sad news that her beloved Uncle Oscar has died suddenly of a stroke.  As his only heir, she inherits his antique shop in San Francisco.  At first, she isn’t sure if she wants to take over the store; she already has a full time job as an accountant and she really doesn’t know much about antiques and curios. Her abrupt termination at her job makes the prospect of the shop much more appealing, so she moves in with Rupert and Isabelle, her two cats. It turns out the neighborhood is full of interesting characters—some annoying and some dangerous.  It isn’t long before some suspicious circumstances have her questioning what she’s been told about her uncle’s death.  Hale packs a lot of information about the history of San Francisco in the story, from its rough and tumble past to the present, and her descriptions of the city are vivid.  It's also obvious that she’s very fond of the cats. 

I have to say I wasn’t exactly enthralled by this book.  The writing was competent enough, but there were a number of odd flashbacks in which the heroine imagined herself back in early San Francisco, to the point that another character even asks her about it. (And by the way, the lead character is unnamed for a good part of the book. I think her name turns out to be the same as the author’s but I honestly can’t quite remember.)  I found Monty the neighbor-comic-relief character to be a bit too over the top for my taste, and much though I hate to say it, the cats weren’t very catlike to me.  It was little things, like an odd tail thump--not a twitch--when stalking and not being freaked at the idea of being dressed up and walking a runway.  Maybe I just have the wrong cats.  (Melon does occasionally don accouterments but not for very long, and definitely not in front of an audience in a strange place.)

The ending left me a bit befuddled:  the story had started to become increasingly implausible, and not just because she was talking about someone owning a Siamese cat mix years before Siamese were imported to the US.  While I do enjoy a book with fantastical elements, this one gave very little hint of any such leanings until near the end.  I also wondered quite a bit about the heroine and her lack of curiosity about some things, such as the exact circumstances of her uncle’s death and her failure to follow up on some fairly important questions.  Still, I’ve read worse books and I’ll give the sequel a chance. I’ve had other authors make a false start or two before hitting his or her stride.
If you like books about San Francisco, especially ones that deal with the early history, a plucky heroine, antiques, and cats, give How To Wash A Cat a try and let me know what you think.

Murder Past Due by Miranda James also has an atypical cat, but Diesel the Maine Coon is closer to the cats I’ve known. (He looks a bit like my Elmer, but Diesel is MUCH brighter.) He doesn’t solve any mysteries but he does walk on a leash and seems a perfectly amiable sort. Diesel’s human is Charlie Harris, a good-natured librarian who works in the archives of a local college in sleepy Athena, Mississippi and volunteers at his local library.  Charlie’s beloved wife has died, as has his elderly aunt, and his children are grown and living out of state.  Justin, the 18 year old son of a friend of Charlie’s, has moved in as a boarder.  Justin’s a good kid, but there’s obviously something on his mind lately. 

This relatively tranquil scene is upset by the appearance of Godfrey Priest, a former classmate of Charlie’s who has become a best-selling author of thrillers.  Charlie remembers Godfrey as being arrogant, condescending and obnoxious, and it becomes obvious that success hasn’t really changed him.   Still, it’s a bit of a surprise when Godfrey turns up dead.  Things get even worse when it appears Justin may be a suspect, and Charlie feels he needs to do a bit of sleuthing on his own to get to the truth.

I found Murder Past Due to be much more enjoyable and not just because the author apparently does know her way around a library.  I liked Charlie.  He seems the sort of solid, dependable person who is the backbone of most small towns.  Some reviewers found him to be too staid, too set in his ways;  I didn’t agree, but that may be because I am too staid and set in my ways. The setting was gently Southern:  recognizable, but the author didn’t feel the need to have someone whip up a pot of grits or have a possum amble by every second page or so. It was also rather refreshing to have a cozy mystery with a male protagonist.   I have to say, though, that the part which impressed me most was the way Charlie and the deputy worked—or didn’t work—together.  In most amateur sleuth series, if the police and the sleuth aren’t friends, then the police are portrayed as idiots.  In this book, while the deputy was a bit stiff and impatient, she was open to help within reason and she was careful to explain to Charlie why some of his good intentions went awry:  things like chain of evidence, for example.  For me, this was a satisfying mystery with companionable characters and a comfortable setting.   I’ll be looking forward to the sequel.

There are some other new cat mystery series I'll be reviewing as soon as I complete a few steps. Step one:  Find where I put the books.  Step two:  Read books.  Step one will probably take longer than step two...

Elmer practices posing, just in case.
 There are copies of both books available in our system.  If you need help locating or reserving them, please check with the folks at Reference.

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