Friday, March 20, 2015

Kittens Can Kill by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

When animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe makes a house call, she expects to take a new kitten for a wellness check and perhaps dole out advice on litter boxes and scratching posts.  She does not expect to find a man dead from undetermined causes.  David Canaday, the deceased, was not a known animal lover, so it strikes Pru as a bit odd that his middle daughter decided to fly in from California to gift him with a kitty. The three Canaday sisters aren’t exactly a warm and loving family, and suspicion heats up when it comes out that their lawyer father may have been planning to change his will. Still, a lawyer makes many enemies so it could be someone else had it in for dear ol’ dad.  Pru is willing to let them fight it out until the eldest daughter demands the kitten be put down. Then her interest becomes personal.

Pru has a few advantages when it comes to an investigation.  Even though Jim her cop boyfriend (of sorts) isn’t exactly forthcoming about the case, she has some of her own sources:  Pru is an animal psychic who hears what every bird and beast has to say.  Interpreting what they say is another matter entirely.  Animals have their own interests and preoccupations, and generally aren’t interested in the doings of humans if it doesn’t impact them directly.  The other part is that Pru generally tries to understand their answers from a human point of view, which can lead to misunderstandings.
The other problem is turning conversations off, which Pru can’t do.  She hears courting sparrows and disgruntled dogs, hungry predators and frightened prey.  Doctor Doolittle, it ain’t.  That’s part of the reason that Pru tends to hit the bottle a bit more than she should, and is more than a little reluctant to let her boyfriend get too close.  She’s terrified of others discovering her secret; after all, the first time she realized she was hearing animals talk, she checked herself into a mental hospital.

The result is an interesting mix of hardboiled noir mystery and supernatural cozy.  It’s definitely grittier than your average cozy.  Pru’s life was difficult enough before; this odd ability only complicates things further.  She still has a self-destructive streak and a prickly personality.  She drinks too much, she tries to push away those who, like Jim, care about her—except for Wallis, her opinionated tabby cat who never pulls her punches and who never sugarcoats anything. Wallis and Pru communicate on a much higher level, though there are still things neither understands about the other.  On the other hand, Simon doesn’t wallow in explicit details of death, sex, or gastrointestinal disorders as some darker mysteries feel compelled to do.  I was heartened to see in this installment that Pru is starting to come to terms with some of her problems; it’s a first step, a crack in the character’s hard exterior.  

As with the earlier entries in the series, some of the most interesting characters are non-human.  Wallis the tabby is as imperious as her namesake the Duchess of Windsor and has very definite views on things.  She’s also not amused when Pru brings the upset kitten home with her; Ernesto is very much a toddler still, obsessed with play and looking for Mama.  Bitsy the Bichon who prefers to be known as Growler is another who has very firm views but who is kept in check by an owner to whom the little dog is just another possession. This time readers are introduced to a sheltie who is seeking her purpose in life now that her person is gone.  Biscuit, like most working breeds, needs something to do with her time, but her present owners are oblivious. However, I want to point out that the mysteries are solved via non-psychic means:  no animals name the murderer or give Pru clues.  What they do is remind Pru that most crimes come from the most primal of impulses, from competition for a mate, defense of territory or from a perceived threat, desire for resources, or the like. We are all animals after all.

As with most of the best books, Simon gives the reader more than just a mystery.  It’s an exploration of the relationships between people and animals, both domestic and wild, and how one can impact the other in unexpected ways and sometimes unhappy ways.  Food for thought! 

Kittens Can Kill can be read as a standalone book, but if you enjoy character development you’ll want to start with an earlier book in the series.  The titles are:

Full disclosure:  I was sent a copy of the book by the author but that did not influence my review. It did, however, give me an idea for a photo op with blue eyed Bonnie who was not in a cooperative mood.

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