“Jim Qwilleran slumped in a chair in the Press Club dining room, his six-feet-two frame telescoped into a picture of dejection and his morose expression intensified by the droop of his oversized moustache.”
Thus, after a hiatus of nearly twenty years, Lilian Jackson Braun (1913-2011) begins The Cat Who Saw Red, the fourth book in the beloved series and the first I ever read. Not long after starting to read Agatha Christie, I decided to branch out and read mysteries by other authors and chose this book—after browsing the shelves at my local B. Dalton’s—as one of my first forays. The book was newly available in paperback (the first Jove edition having been released in April 1986). The cover art with its bloody cat paws and rolling pin caught my eye and so I read the synopsis on the back.
“Something is amiss at Maus Haus. Not just the mystery of an unsolved ‘suicide’ which hangs over the old mansion, but something ominous in the present-day residence. When Qwilleran moves in to work on his new gastronomical assignment, strange things begin to happen …”
The idea of a newspaper reporter assisted by two Siamese felines appealed to me and so I read the story and thoroughly enjoyed it. I went on to read the first three books in quick succession and waited ever so impatiently for the next book.
Now, years later, I’ve revisited The Cat Who Saw Red.
Just as Qwill’s doctor has ordered him on a diet to lose 30 pounds, the newspaper reporter is given a new assignment … food critic. First on the agenda is a visit to Maus Haus, “a sort of weird boarding house,” and unique culinary experience. At dinner, Qwill meets ex-flame Joy, a potter now married and living at Maus Haus. During the dinner conversation, Joy casually mentions something she found in the attic, which may relate to rumors of a long ago suicide at the boarding house.
In Chapter Three, Qwill and his Siamese cats move into Maus Haus, and he learns that Joy, too, had a cat which recently disappeared. To say that Joy is unhappy is an understatement. “Sometimes I just want to jump in that horrid river!” she tells Qwill. Joy is “trying to play the good wife, trying not to surpass her husband.” “I’ve had better reviews and bigger sales–and without even trying very hard.” She mentions again document she’s found in the attic which could be useful for blackmail. “I’ve found some documents in the attic of the pottery that would embarrass a few people …”
When Joy subsequently disappears, Qwill isn’t alarmed at first. She had asked him for money and expressed a desire to leave her husband. Her husband, Dan Graham, claims she did indeed leave and went to Florida. Only Qwill knows that Joy hated living there.
There isn’t a lot here in terms of suspicious characters. The narrative—and Qwill’s suspicions—clearly steers readers in a very particular direction, becoming more of a Columbo-esque tale. The side story about the previous ‘suicide’ at Maus Haus isn’t quite tied to the present case and seems like more of a red herring.
Along the way, Qwill is assisted in his sleuthing by his adopted Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum. “The truth was that the precocious Siamese seemed to possess uncanny skills of detection.” As usual, it’s Koko—more so than Yum Yum—who drops curious clues that help solve the murder. Knocking a book off a shelf or tapping a few keys on the typewriter being examples.
Of all the Cat Who mysteries, this one stood out to me. Not just because it was the first one I read, but because of the gruesome discovery made at the end of the book. I thought it ingenious and original, at the time. Though now, I know it harkens back to a familiar tale about a certain barber.
The Cat Who Saw Red is a cozy read. There’s no gratuitous sex or violence, which was cited as a reason why Braun left off writing for 18 years in her New York Times obituary (read it here). The series has been perennially popular with readers, though the latter books are not as strongly written.