The cat who created a subgenre
One of the things I kept talking about at LCC last week was the Wall Street Journal’s piece on 92-year-old Lilian Jackson Braun, who started the “Cat Who…” mysteries 40 years ago and has kept on ever since to massive bestsellerdom and critical scorn. And since I didn’t want to start breaking copyright and post the whole thing, I finagled a free link for all of you to peruse.
So how did she get started on the series? Chalk it up to EQMM:
It was Ms. Braun’s acquisition of a Siamese cat some
50 years ago that spurred her literary career. When the beloved
creature met its untimely death by defenestration at the hands of a
neighbor, Ms. Braun’s distress was such that "the only way I could get
over it was to write about it, to make up a story," she says. The
result: "The Sin of Madame Phloi," which appeared in Ellery Queen’s
Mystery Magazine and focused on a kitten shoved through a window.
Madame Phloi, the mother of the victim, and clearly the precursor of
the sagacious Koko, cunningly lured the murderer — talk about
feline-ious assault — to his own death.
"Well, then they asked for more stories with a cat
theme and I wrote half a dozen," says Ms. Braun, the former
interior-design writer for the Detroit Free Press. "Then somebody
wanted me to try a novel. I never thought in those terms. I don’t have
a long attention span, but you don’t overlook an invitation to try
writing a novel. I thought it would be just a one-shot thing," she says
of her first effort, "The Cat Who Could Read Backwards," which was
published in 1966. "But it caused a fever and I couldn’t stop."
The success is especially interesting in light of Braun’s aversion to touring, according to her longtime editor Natalie Rosenstein, and snickers about cat mysteries in general. “You can’t say anything bad about Braun; it’s like
kicking a kitten,” Otto Penzer says. “But I don’t read books with cats or
recipes unless a cat is in the recipe. There is no violence in her books, no sex, never a dirty word,” he continues. “The murders are clean.
It’s like watching the Hallmark Channel. I take crime fiction as
serious literature, and when there are cats solving the crime,
especially cats named Yum Yum and Koko…“
Now, I’m not about to suggest that the Cat Who books deserve serious critical dissertation — and lord knows I stopped reading them after about, oh, eleventh grade — but until Braun came along the cozy mystery was still tied to Agatha Christie and other British authors. Sure, the door opened up to a massive amount of kitsch (much of it published by Berkley Prime Crime) but it’s just a case of markets opening up — something that likely would not have happened had there been no Lilian Jackson Braun.
There’s been some talk of putting forward Braun’s name as a possible nominee for MWA’s Grandmaster award. And I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t happen, because when millions of readers gain so much enjoyment from the books — and when hundreds of authors spring forth with their own cat or cozy-niche books — isn’t that saying something?