Cats Mysterious and Contemplative
It’s no secret that I am a cat person. Although I grew up with dogs—and certainly like dogs well enough—I adopted my first cat within months of my college graduation and have never looked back. Most of my social media posts that don’t involve books I’ve read, interviews I’ve conducted about books, or novels I have written focus on my cats. And with three currently in the house, I freely admit to hovering on the edge of Crazy Cat Lady territory.
I also like to read stories that include cats, especially those that present life from a perspective that might plausibly be feline. So while the paragraphs that follow barely scratch the surface (obviously the world contains many others like me!), I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with the readers of this blog.
First up is Hiro Arikawa’s The Goodbye Cat, which came out in a wonderful English translation by Philip Gabriel last month and was my October pick for the Five Directions Press “Books We Loved” feature. A collection of short stories by the author of The Travelling Cat Chronicles, the book is simultaneously sweet, charming, beautiful, and heart-wrenching. Set in contemporary Japan, each of the seven tales follows the life of a kitten and the family that takes it in. Three reflect the cat’s point of view; the others explore family relationships that are revealed or resolved by the cat’s presence. If you love cats and search for novels that will make you cry, this is definitely a collection for you. In no more than 20 pages (the entire book runs to 150), Arikawa takes you from the perspective of an abandoned kitten to that cat’s final moments. It’s an impressive achievement, and although I wept buckets in places, I would definitely read these stories again.
One genre that attracts cat-loving authors is contemporary cozy mystery. I suppose the link between cats and curiosity makes them a natural pairing for amateur detectives with an interest in solving murders, and the role the cats play varies widely. Some of the series that I particularly enjoy include Vicki Delany’s Sherlock Holmes Bookstore novels, where the bookshop cat Moriarty plagues (and at times defends) his owner but the focus is entirely on Gemma Doyle, her nemesis Louise Estrada, Gemma’s sidekick Jayne Wilson (who runs Mrs. Hudson’s Teashop), and on-again/off-again boyfriend Detective Ryan Ashburton. Under the pen name Eva Gates, Delany also writes the Lighthouse Library series, where the Himalayan cat Charles (named after Dickens) supports Lucy the librarian as she solves a series of murders from her home/workplace, a refurbished lighthouse off the coast of North Carolina.
Distant locations, new arrivals, and self-appointed feline guardians appear in a whole range of series, many distinguished by titles that pun this or that cat-related word. I’ve had fun with Cate Conté’s Cat Café series, set on an island in Massachusetts Bay, which starts with Cat about Town; Eryn Scott’s Whiskers & Words (Button, WA; Littered with Trouble); Laurie Cass’s Bookmobile Cat (Chilson, Michigan; Lending a Paw); Sofie Ryan’s Second Chance Cat (North Harbor, ME; The Whole Cat and Caboodle); and Louise Clark’s Nine Lives (Vancouver, British Columbia; The Cat Came Back). Some of them feature heroines who place themselves in mortal danger without backup at the last minute—a particular peeve of mine, although it seems to be a staple of the genre—but otherwise they are all well told mysteries and good reads. Other series I’ve yet to start include Miranda James’s Cat in the Stacks (Murder Past Due), Margaret Loudon’s Open Book (Murder in the Margins), and Elizabeth Penney’s Cambridge Bookshop (Chapter and Curse). As you can see, bookshops and libraries are also recurring themes in these cat-related mysteries.
Then there is the small industry that Kathi Daley has created with her Holiday Bay mysteries. There are separate series for the Inn at Holiday Bay, the Bookstore at Holiday Bay, and the Bistro at Holiday Bay, all set in a fictional small town in Maine. Of Daley’s many books, I have so far read only Boxes in the Basement, Letters in the Library, and Message in the Mantel—the first three of the Inn at Holiday Bay novels. As someone who has spent years in a small town where the local newspaper publishes “crime” accounts of egged porches and dimes stolen from unlocked cars, I don’t for a minute buy that so many murders could occur in Holiday Bay or any other of these small towns without unleashing public hysteria, but the mysteries are nice, intriguing puzzles to soothe the brain after a hectic workday. I’m sure I’ll come back to the series, but at the moment I’m in the “so many novels, so little time” phase, so I’m not sure when I will fit in book 4.
The cats’ role in these novels varies. Some are companions (however reluctant, like Moriarty). Others play a role in solving the mysteries by pointing out clues. The cat in the Nine Lives mysteries can communicate telepathically in English, although it would be a spoiler to explain how that came about. My favorite among these cat detectives is Max, hero of the Mysteries of Max, the least plausible but also, in my view, the most charming of the feline detectives included here.
Max, a large and overweight marmalade cat (he insists that he is big-boned and blorange), is the main narrator, although his human Odelia and his sidekick, a small Ragamuffin known as Dooley, also get to express their points of view. The implausible part is that all the women in Odelia’s family have the ability to talk to cats, who in turn can and do talk to all other varieties of animals.
Max’s vocabulary and knowledge of the world also defy belief, but what makes the books fun is that his narrative is also bounded by all the concerns typical of cats: the quality and reliability of his kibble, his need for a ten-hour nap, the state of his litter box, and his relationships with others of his kind. Even his views of the neighborhood dogs ring true. Most of the books take place in the fictional town of Hampton Cove, on Long Island, NY, although Max has also traveled to the UK, the West Coast, France, and other places. The books begin with Purrfect Murder and come out approximately once a month. If you are a stickler for editing, they may not be for you, but if you can relax and enjoy the ride, they will bring you hours of enjoyment.
I had almost forgotten Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog when I sat down to type this post. Although there is a cat (and a very funny scene involving said cat), the real contribution of felines to this delightful tale of time-traveling historians searching for something called the Bishop’s Bird Stump is that their present is devoid of cats, one of the many differences that sets it apart from our own. A warm-up for the author’s better-known The Doomsday Book, this one is well worth seeking out.
Last but not least, for this particular post, is May Sarton’s classic The Fur Person. My all-time favorite story of a cat and his people, this tale (also very short—less than 100 pages) follows the adventures of a Gentleman Cat first known to his rather clueless family as “Alexander’s Furpiece.” (Alexander is the small boy who is the Gentleman Cat’s first human companion and likes to wrap the cat around his neck.) After six months or so of such indignities, our feline hero escapes from his home and takes up life on the street, where he develops his own code of conduct as a free spirit.
After two years as an alley cat, he decides it’s time to settle down. He goes shopping, in effect, for the perfect residence and on his third try settles on a pair of what were then known as spinsters who demonstrate the proper attitude toward such important topics as home-cooked food and respect for a cat’s dignity. Under his new name, Tom Jones, the Gentleman Cat gradually comes to understand love and acceptance and commitment, and although he narrates his entire story, he remains quintessentially a cat. If you don’t take a chance on any of the others, definitely read this one. At the moment of posting, it’s available only in print on Amazon.com but as an ebook through Apple Books (and perhaps other online sources). I’m sure you can also find it at local libraries and, if you still have them in your area, bookstores.
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Last but not, as they say, least, I have an announcement. A few years ago—too far back in time to be included in this new blog, although you can find mentions of the project on my old blog—I talked about a novel I had co-written with P.K. Adams, another historical novelist with a series set in 16th-century Poland. After a fruitless search for an agent in the middle of the COVID epidemic, we shelved the book and went on to other projects. This summer we revived it, and it is coming out next week from Five Directions Press. You can already pre-order the e-book version; it will be available in print at midnight GMT, which in the Americas is the evening of November 14. Read on to find out more.
Karl Scharping, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant from Danzig, has one thing on his mind—the beautiful bride awaiting him in Moscow. A careless leap from his horse derails his plans, confining him to a monastery near the White Sea. Hobbling to the window on crutches, Karl looks out on a vast expanse of water glistening in the dawn light and gasps at the sight of an English merchantman at anchor in the bay. He has no idea how much trouble that ship carries in its wake.
When Richard Chancellor departs his native London to serve the interests of his Tudor king by locating a new passage to the spice-rich Orient, he does not expect to wind up in Muscovy—ruled by Tsar Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible,” and his Romanov in-laws. The Russians welcome Chancellor and his sailors to the Kremlin, although the foreigners’ unfamiliar language poses problems and accidents delay their journey south. Then they reach Moscow, and their problems really begin.