People who enjoy having animals appear as characters in books fall broadly into two camps: those who like having the animal add his or her two cents’ worth and those who want the animal to behave realistically. I’ve known people to pick up a book with a nice cat on the cover and ask suspiciously, “Does the cat talk in this one?” If the answer is yes, then back the book goes onto the shelf. If the book was by Clea Simon, it’d be checked out because, as charming as Musetta is, she never oversteps her bounds and remains true to her species—which means no talking, no solving mysteries and no commentary on human foibles.
Simon’s detective is Theda Krakow, a free-lance reporter/critic for a Boston newspaper. Theda specializes in the rock music scene but often has to take on other assignments to pay the bills. She’s thirty-something when we first meet her and adjusting to some drastic changes: giving up a secure but dull job as a copy editor for a chance to do what she really loves, getting over a break-up with a long time boyfriend, and mourning the loss of her cat, James. She’s taking stock of her life and doing some second guessing. Should she have maintained the status quo? Are the professional risks in pursuit of a dream worth it or should she have opted for being sure of being able to pay the rent on time? Or is it time to simplify, uncomplicate and settle? Her friends are making their choices; but these may not be the right choices for Theda.
The first book also introduces Musetta, a tuxedo cat who becomes the one constant in Theda’s life. The feline offers comfort, companionship and distraction. Pet lovers will smile in recognition at some of her antics and enjoy the interspecies comraderie.
Theda’s job naturally draws her into most of the mysteries, though she isn’t one of those pushy, intrusive, obnoxious reporters. She tries to be fair, even when she feels some of her subjects are trying to use her to further their own aims. The supporting cast offers a great deal of diversity, from Bunny the Wiccan to Bill the cop to Violet the punk rocker. Animal welfare themes are frequently a part of the plot, but Simon generally practices an even-handed approach, with discussion over tirades. Simon is topical without being dated; she deals obliquely with the pet food poisoning and pet diets, the controversy concerning pet vaccinations, no-kill shelters and the implosion of local papers in enough detail to make readers aware, but she doesn’t use the novels as a soapbox. She also manages to describe the music scene Theda loves in a way that makes the music interesting and appealing, even if blues or rock isn’t your cup of tea.
The setting is used to good advantage as well. Simon gives the reader a good feel for Cambridge’s people and neighborhoods, the vibrant music scene and the creative side of the city, reflective of many a college town.
This series doesn’t have to be read in order, but I enjoyed watching some of the character growth. The books also get better as they go along, with a dab more polish each time. All are solidly plotted and well-written mysteries which play fair with the reader. If you appreciate a good clean puzzle with some real-world connections, by all means give Simon’s books a try.
Mew is for Murder: A number of life-changing events have left Theda reeling. A chance meeting with an elderly lady who may be either a cat rescuing saint or a deranged hoarder gives her an idea for a possible feature story, but her subject dies before the interview can take place. It appears accidental, but why does someone keep breaking into the house?
Cattery Row: Someone is stealing show cats, in what would seem to be a senseless crime. Without papers, the cats and any offspring wouldn’t be valuable and it would be easier to obtain cats from the street. Additionally, an up and coming new musician is in town and Theda has a chance for an interview but there’s just something a little “off” about the situation. It isn’t long before murder and extortion give Theda’s investigations a more dangerous aspect.
Cries and Whiskers: When a local animal activist is killed in an apparent hit and run, Theda finds herself on a rescue mission to find the feral cats the woman had been trapping. Her life is further complicated by a rush assignment to profile an up and coming band whom everyone knows but nobody seems to have heard play, the emergence of some new recreational drug that's marring the club scene, some possible real estate hanky panky involving the bottling plant and the growing evidence that the activist’s death was no accident but a case of murder.
Probable Claws: After a donated bag of cat food sickens some of Violet's cats, Theda offers to help her trace the source. The search leads to a local vet, but dead-ends—literally—when Theda finds the body and becomes a suspect in the murder.
Clea Simon is the author of both fiction and non-fiction books. She lives in Cambridge with her writer husband and their cat, the ever inspirational Musetta. She’s started on a new series of mysteries with a supernatural touch—and possibly a ghost cat. Or not. You’ll have to decide when you read Shades of Grey, due out in September 2009.
Reviewed by Jeanne