Reviewed by Jeanne
Many mysteries these days have a theme: a cooking mystery that features recipes on the side or a hobby mystery with tips on how to quilt or scrapbook. Possibly one of the earliest trends was to have a pet figure in the mystery, such as the cats in the “Mr. and Mrs. North” series by Richard and Frances Lockridge or the “Undercover Cat” books by The Gordons or Asta in Hammett’s The Thin Man. This trend is alive and well today in numerous mysteries: "The Cat Who" by Lilian Jackson Braun, "Midnight Louie" by Carole Nelson Douglas, "Chet and Bernie" by Spencer Quinn aka Peter Abrahams (Chet is a dog in this wonderful new series of mysteries; the second one is due out this year), Rita Mae Brown’s "Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker" series, and so forth. One series I tended to recommend to folks who liked animals and mystery was Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s "Joe Grey" series. Joe is a talking cat, the books are mysteries, so it should work, right?
Umm. . . only sometimes. I set out to read the series and perhaps figure out why the series didn’t work for everyone, even those who generally like talking cats and mysteries. Here are my conclusions:
Some of the books are almost evenly divided between fantasy and mystery. Even though I like both, I think there needs to be a tipping point where the story becomes more one or the other. Certain ones never do, which makes the book a bit unsatisfying. Others are a relatively comfortable mix. There are occasional scenes of violence against cats as well as scenes of the cats doing what cats do: hunting and eating prey. Those readers looking for a cozy read may find these parts disturbing while others will see it as a bit of realism.
For me, the attraction is the delightful characterization of the cats. These cats are adult beings and control their own lives, despite human attempts at coddling. Joe is one opinionated tomcat, while his lady friend, the serene Dulcie, is more grounded. Later on in the series, more talking cats are introduced, including Kit, the adorable wide-eyed little dreamer kitten and the dark and sinister Azarel who definitely has an agenda of his own and various members of the wild clowder.
The humans in the story are broadly drawn, but Murphy does allow the characters to change. They have romances, marry or split up, change jobs, try new things. Many authors tend to lock the characters into one form and keep them there. Murphy usually gives a quick recap so that new readers get the background, so you can start reading at any point.
There are often lovely descriptions of meals that made me wish I could order take-out from their deli or one of cafes. Murphy also has a gift for describing certain things, like antiques or a stage performance that made these things seem very real indeed. I could almost see the theatre or feel the wood of an old chest. She’s able to communicate the passion of a performer or an artist in a very real way, which I enjoyed.
If this sounds intriguing to you, by all means give the series a try! Here are the titles, in order of publication:
Cat on the Edge: Joe Grey is in the alley, minding his own business when he sees a man murdered. Seeing that Joe is a cat, most murderers wouldn't give him a second thought; but Joe has suddenly become able to understand and use human speech-- and the murderer seems to know that. (This is one of the books that totters between mystery and fantasy. Mystery fans may want to skip this one.)
Cat Under Fire: Everybody thinks Rob Lake murdered artist Janet Jennot-- everybody but Dulcie. But what can one small cat do when no one else believes her, not even fellow feline Joe Grey?
Cat Raise the Dead: Dulcie has taken to hanging out in an old folks' home and wants Joe Grey to join her as a therapy cat. Joe's having none of it-- until it looks as if there might be some shady dealings.
Cat in the Dark: There's robbery afoot, and murder, and a large black talking cat who does not like humans-- or Joe. Azarel, the cat from South America, introduces a dark new element.
Cat to the Dogs: Joe Grey hears the sound of a car crashing and goes to investigate. He didn't expect to find a dead man, a cut brake line, and two very large, very hungry half-grown dogs. This book introduces a mysterious feral kitten and is a good balance with mystery and fantasy. A pick of the litter!
Cat Spitting Mad: When two women with connections to Chief Harper are murdered and a child disappears, all the evidence points to Joe's favorite top cop as the perp.
Cat Laughing Last: Yard sale items are suddenly the target of thieves and overly aggressive antique collectors. Could the arrival of an author who specializes in local history have anything to do with it?
Cat Seeing Double: A bomb planted at the church nearly derails Charlie's wedding and Ryan is suspected of murdering her no-good cheatin' husband.
Cat Fear No Evil: When a number of break-ins begin occurring in Molena Point, there are signs that Joe Grey's old enemy, Azrael, may be back in town.
Cat Cross Their Graves: The bones of murdered children are unearthed and may provide a connection to the recent murder of a beloved senior citizen.
Cat Breaking Free: Someone is trapping the feral cats of Hellhag Hill-- apparently someone who knows about sentient cats. Meanwhile an old flirt of Clyde's has moved in next door about the same time as the break-ins start rocking the shops of Molena Point.
Cat Pay the Devil: One of Wilma's former parolees has escaped from prison and is bent on revenge just as that ol' ne'er do well Greeley turns up to retrieve something valuable-- except he's not sure where he is.
Cat Deck the Halls: Dulcie sees the dead body of a man in the square near an elaborate Christmas display, a child huddled in his arms. She calls the police but when they arrive, there's no child and no body.
Cat Playing Cupid: A skeleton turns up in Oregon which may finally solve a ten year old mystery of a bridegroom who went missing from Molena Point. The jilted bride returns in hopes of finding out what happened-- or else to cover her tracks.
Cat Striking Back: While out on a ramble, Joe finds human blood in an empty swimming pool by an abandoned house. Trouble is, there’s no body and someone is out to make it appear there never was.
To sum it up, I’m glad I persevered with this series, even though at times I found some of the plots contrived and repetitive. The felines made up for these weaknesses as they are wonderful, complex, charming, and winsome characters, without being overdone. There are lovely scenes in the books that I remember with great fondness. At times I put the book aside and reflected on my relationship with my own animals, which says a great deal for Murphy’s insights. I may or may not agree with her, but she does give me things to consider. I’ll also be ready to read the next installment whenever it appears.
Check for copies of these books at both Main and Avoca. Some titles are in large print (SSB F MUR) as well as in paperback.