Final Rating: 2 cups of whiskery tea.
I appear to have stumbled onto a bit of a legacy with my whimsical, spur-of-the-moment choice in the Mystery aisle of my local library. No sooner had I gotten home and shared a picture of my bookish haul on Twitter than my friends started chiming in: “Oh, The Cat Who… books! My favorite!” or “I loved reading those when I was growing up!” And a great deal of “They’re ridiculous, but they’re a fun read.”
Once again, I had been on the hunt for a murder mystery that would be engaging, but lighthearted; as soon as I saw the title of the series, I thought This has got to be it. A retired detective who solves mysteries with his cat? My imagination was already whirling with the possibilities for whimsy and mischief. Does the cat talk? Maybe paw at crime-scene photos? Will the protagonist wander around with the cat trailing behind him, watching his flexible little tail for signs of vibration to indicate that someone’s lying?
And then I noticed the copyright date. 1967. Everyone I’d talked to remembered the series from the early 90’s, so you can imagine how far my eyebrow shot up into my forehead. I began wondering just what I was in for, a wonder which increased dramatically as the book starts off with a close-up view of how crappy 45-year-old Jim Qwilleran’s life is: Moth-eaten ties, lumpy instant coffee, eviction notices, and–in his own gag-worthy words–“no woman to call my own”. Being a dude, he of course does absolutely nothing to address any of these issues: He simply wishes fervently for things to change, then goes to work and hopes for the best.
Of course, since he’s a dude and it’s the 60’s, Qwill’s wishing comes true: His boss decides to give him, a man with zero experience in the field, run of a magazine all about interior decorating. (Oh, the spambots I attracted when I tweeted that phrase…) There’s a lengthy conversation about how a woman would be “naturally better suited to this” before Qwill finally decides hey, maybe this is an interesting field and gosh-darnit if I don’t want to show up Fran Unger (who was originally slated to be the editor, I think?) because she’s just like my ex-wife and, quote, “I’ve had all the bossy females I want!” Because god forbid, I guess, that a woman be both an executive and want to have The Sex with someone. Horrifying!
We then experience an entire chapter where Qwill avoids his favorite dive-bar and bellyaches with his co-workers about how “clingy” Fran is since he made the mistake of kissing her once at a Christmas party. Why does he feel she’s clingy? Because she’s well connected in decorating circles and has the audacity to make a few phone calls trying to help him get the magazine started. You know, his new job. At this point, my face looks something like this:
Surely, though, this is the worst of it. Things can’t get any worse, right? Right???
Oh, sweet, innocent past-Mandaray.
In lieu of actually solving any mysteries or anyone getting murdered, we’re treated to another chapter full of Qwill’s adventures as a first-time magazine editor, which means he has to go talk to a bunch of people who are “in the business” so he can figure out how exactly it is he’s supposed to do his job. His right-hand man on this assignment is one Odd Bunsen (yes, that’s his actual name) who has six kids, is constantly broke, and in his own words wants the decorating magazine to fail because he feels like it’s beneath him. Mind you, Qwill went on several internal rants about how much he hates impolite, pushy women–but Odd, a man who literally never stops complaining, who never stops being rude to both Qwill and his clients, and who literally never stops talking shit about his kids is apparently A-OK. Qwill is actually fond of the guy, and even a bit jealous! Ah, sexism.
And thus we meet David Lyke, an interior decorator dude who is described as handsome, charming, and charismatic–even though every time we see him, he’s literally talking about how much he despises his clients. Continuing the earlier trend, David is especially hard on the women in his circles. Frequently words used are “frightful”, “horrible”, and “I apologize for her”. Mind you, these are people we haven’t even met yet. The shittiness reaches a crescendo, however, when we are introduced to Mrs. Tait, a disabled Danish woman who has the misfortune to be married to a rich jade collector and Qwill’s first interview for the magazine. She gets exactly one scene, after which everyone (mostly Odd) talks about how awful she was. (She wanted her cat in one of the photographs. Clearly, she’s pure evil.) Later on, she–spoiler warning, I guess?–dies from a heart attack after Mr. Tait’s jade figurines are stolen. This news is met with, and I kid you not, actual happiness from a lot of the characters. Odd in particular seems pleased that she’s kicked it, because in his words, she was a horrible, burdensome old woman and he’d have hated to have her as his wife.
The Taits are also our first rancid taste of the repeated threads of casual racism that are woven throughout this tiny tale. There’s a lot of talk about Paolo, the “eager young servant” of the Taits, who is inevitably framed when the jade figures go missing, since he comes from one of those–and I quote: “poor, under-developed countries”. As Qwill starts attending numerous parties to rub shoulders with more decorators and collectors for his magazine, we’re also treated to caterers and wait staff being referred to solely as “an Oriental”. No gender, no description, and certainly no names: Just “an Oriental”. What few lines these characters are given are, of course, in broken English.
These, by the way, are just a few examples. There are too many to list without making this blog post into an essay.
At this point, you might feel your fingers itching to leave me a comment: “But Mandaray! This book was written in the 60’s! What did you expect!?” And indeed, I was tempted to leave the commentary about this book’s racism and sexism out, because I suspected folks would say it’s just a “product of its time”. But you know what? Screw that. This is a book–and indeed, an entire series–that’s touted as being fun and family friendly. But its content begs the question: Whose families? It sure as hell isn’t black, Latino or Asian families. It sure isn’t career women and their families. I’m not even sure if it’s friendly to cats, since Qwill insists on feeding Koko things which would kill most animals. So who is this series really for?
You and I both know the answer to that question.
If you’re one of those people who only cares about the plot–well, for one thing, I’m judging you. (See above gif for an accurate representation) For another thing, this book doesn’t have one. 90% of it is about Qwill’s social life: Going to parties, meeting men he finds charismatic and attractive, then meeting women he finds dull or annoying. (Aside, of course, from Alacoque “Cokey” Wright, who has shapely legs and is significantly younger than him, therefore making her the obvious love interest) Occasionally he’ll get a “quiver in his moustache” and try to connect a few dots, but his results are mediocre at best. In fact, Qwill makes little to no headway in solving the case until the very last few pages, and then we get everything laid out for us in the form of dry exposition as he brags to his co-workers about the experience. Mind you, I figured out Whodunnit on page 44 of a 224 page book. To make matters worse, one of the “culprits” is a woman who takes her own life after committing the crime, and this news is met with a sort of general shrug from the characters and a feeling of, “Well, what else did you expect from a woman?”
I’m not even sure why we bothered calling it a mystery, because there wasn’t one.
I might, on a whim, try out one of the more recent The Cat Who… books in the hopes that the author eventually laid aside her legacy of racism and internalized hatred of women. But honestly? It’s going to be pretty far down on my To Do list. And hey, if you’re someone who has fond memories of The Cat Who… books, I totally understand. We all bond with things for different reasons, and liking a problematic thing doesn’t make YOU inherently bad. For me, though, there just isn’t enough here to justify a dedicated return to the series.