“Something about not having to shovel snow and being surrounded by sunshine and tropical foliage 365 days of the year causes a lot of people to feel so guilty that they compensate by scaring themselves with thoughts of imminent crime. They go out and buy themselves a gun and sort of hope they’ll get to shoot somebody with it…”
This almost sounds like an observation Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum would make, but it comes from pet sitter Dixie Hemingway—no realtion to the famous author—in her debut crime solving caper. Only this isn’t a caper—or madcap adventure ala Plum—but rather a soft-boiled mystery with darker tones.
After leaving a client’s dog home alone, Dixie observes, “I felt guilty leaving him alone, but everybody has to come to the realization sooner or later that we’re all alone in this world.”
If you think that’s harsh… well, Dixie has her reasons for thinking such thoughts. Her husband and little girl were killed in a senseless accident three years prior to the story’s start. Dixie’s still having trouble getting over it. She’s managed to crawl out of the year-long funk she’d been in to get her life back to some semblence of actually living, by becoming a pet sitter, but she’s not ready to love anyone or anything just yet.
The novel begins with Dixie retrieving a new set of keys from Marilee Doerring. Dixie will be looking after Marilee’s cat, Ghost, once again. We learn that Dixie “never saw Marilee again, at least not alive.” The next day, Dixie discovers Marilee’s bedroom has been ransacked and a dead body is face down in the cat’s water bowl! The body isn’t Marilee, but that of a man who will turn out to have a surprising connection to Marilee’s past.
Dixie duly reports the crime to the police. They don’t immediately fixate on her as a suspect because she was once a sheriff’s deputy herself—before her husband and daughter’s death derailed her.
Jesse Morgan is the first deputy to arrive on the scene. He wasn’t anybody Dixie knew, but he gets an introductory paragraph description of his features and clothing. Could he be a possible love interest? No, that likely role will fall to the investigating officer, Detective Guidry, introduced a couple chapters later.
Some readers may find the character descriptions—and what they’re wearing—a distraction, especially earlier on in the story. It seems every character—major and minor—gets one. There’s also several descriptions of Dixie changing from one outfit to another. The Florida Keys climate justifies the wardrobe changes, but the narration needn’t go into such detail in every instance.
As for the murder, Dixie doesn’t appear to want to get involved, and her brother and his lover certainly don’t want her getting involved, but she’s drawn into the case nonetheless. To protect the crime scene, she takes Marilee’s cat next door to the neighbor’s house. Unfortunately, it’s the residence of radio personality Carl Winnick, his wife, Olga, and their troubled son.
Winnick is described as a psychologist with a grudge against single mothers, minorities, and homosexuals, and he rants about public schools teaching sex, about illegal immigrants, and “how working women were causing children to become drug addicts. Dixie explains, “three years ago, he had added me to the list of people he considered a threat to the definition of a family.” To bad he doesn’t seem to care that his wife’s an alcoholic and his son is gay.
Since she is responsible for the welfare of Marilee’s cat, Dixie talks to Marilee’s friend, Shuga Reasnor, and to Marilee’s mother, Cora, hoping they know how to get in contact with Marilee. In so doing, she gets drawn further into the murder investigation and secrets Marilee had kept hidden.
When a potential witness is beaten up and another body is found, Dixie is the one on the scene, putting herself in the glare of suspicion. It doesn’t help that Carl Winnick uses his radio show’s platform to question why the police aren’t taking a closer look at the cat sitter, either.
Then there’s the heart surgeon, Dr. Coffey. He dated Marilee and supposedly was engaged to her. He’s also performed several heart bypass surgeries on residents at the retirement home where Marilee’s mother lives. Presumably the surgeries were unnecessary and the patients died. When Dixie questions him, he blows up and claims, “I know nothing about this!” Dixie hadn’t even mentioned Marilee’s name.
Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter is a richly written story, though its title isn’t apt. Dixie is the cat sitter and she’s not killed. She’s the detective. Late in the story though, she does consider her circumstance and imagines the “newspaper headlines screaming “Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter!” This title suggest a fluffier cozy mystery, but it’s a more serious affair touching on social issues.
As a debut novel, Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter sets up an intriguing cast of characters in a setting that might be considered paradise, but for the murders. Though some characters are a given, I do wonder who all will continue to appear in the series. I quite liked Marilee’s mother, Cora, and would look forward to her reappearing. Also, the Florida Keys setting is an appealing one worth revisiting and learning more about.
I enjoyed many of Dixie’s insights, particularly the one about people leaving night lights burning so the criminals can see better and the one quoted at the start of this review. However, I thought some of her comments about the differences between cats and dogs too generalized. A prime example of this occurs in Chapter Two when describing the gourmand tastes and habits of dogs and cats.
Ultimately, this is one series I would invest more time in. And the appeal here is not just for cat and dog lovers. Fans of character-driven, well-written mysteries will enjoy it, too.
Blaize Clement passed away in July 2011 (view the obit here), but her son, John Clement, has been contracted to continue the Dixie Hemmingway Cat Sitter series. For more details, visit the website here.