Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Cat Who... Series, books 1-4 by Lilian Jackson Braun

Over the weekend, I reread the first four books in the Cat Who... series by Lilian Jackson Braun: The Cat Who Could Read Backward, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, The Cat Who Turned On and Off, and The Cat Who Saw Red. I first discovered this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, read all of the books that had been published at that time, and then kept up with the series until the author's demise a few years ago. Unfortunately, the series really jumped the shark somewhere along the way. I decided that a reread was in order, to see which (if any) of the books were worth keeping. These first four books definitely are.

The series is about Jim Qwilleran, a middle-aged journalist. After some life lessons learned the hard way (divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy), he moves to an unnamed mid-western city and takes a job in the Features department of one of the city newspapers. His first assignment is the local art scene, despite the fact that he knows nothing about art. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he acquires Koko, a male Siamese cat of unusual mental capabilities. In the second book, Yum Yum, a female Siamese, joins the family. Qwill has a reporter's curiosity and a longstanding interest in crime, so when he notices something fishy, he's always keen to investigate -- and, as in most cozy mysteries, crime seems to follow Qwilleran around!

Of these four books, the weakest is probably the first -- particularly in terms of the mystery. The most critically acclaimed, and possibly the strongest book of the series, is The Cat Who Saw Red. My personal favorite of the four is The Cat Who Turned On and Off. I'm not sure if it's the antiques district setting, the fact that the action takes place around Christmas, or just some indefinable something in it that appeals to me, but it's always been a favorite.

I find it interesting that my teenage self connected so strongly with this series. I'm more of a dog person than a cat person, and I certainly didn't have much in common with a middle-aged curmudgeon at the time (now maybe slightly more so, but without the divorce, et cetera). But the strength of the series is in the characters -- a veritable parade of interesting, full-fledged secondary characters -- and, to a lesser extent, the setting. I recommend at least the first several books of this series to anyone who enjoys cozy mysteries. If you're a cat lover, that's an added bonus, but if not, don't let that keep you away. While there is a story arc to Qwill's life that you can follow by reading the series in order, it's also possible to enjoy the books out of sequence, so The Cat Who Saw Red is a fine starting place if you don't want to start with book one.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

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