This author has an interesting history. She died in 2011 at the age of 97, but back in the 1960’s, she published the first three of her The Cat Who… series to universal acclaim. In 1966 the New York Times called her latest offering ‘the new detective of the year’. And then nothing for eighteen years. But in 1986 her first book, The Cat Who Saw Red was republished and once more featured in the best-seller charts and this time, Lilian Jackson Braun followed it up with more in the series.
By her death, she had produced 29 books and three short story collections – The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts is the 10th in the series. So, after picking up the book convinced it was a fantasy whodunit – did I still enjoy this unusual crime novel?
Relaxing to the sound of Verdi’s ‘Ortello’ late one Sunday night, Jim Qwilleran is disturbed by the shrill demands of the telephone. His erstwhile landlady, Iris Cobb, now resident manager of the Goodwinter Farm Museum, is distraught. Knowing her frail state of health Qwilleran is concerned and becomes even more so when a piercing scream severs their connection. Arriving at the museum he finds Iris slumped on the kitchen floor, a glass of milk abandoned on the counter. But what at first looks like a natural, if sadly premature, demise from heart disease proves to be much more sinister. Once again the detective talents of Koko and Yum Yum, Qwilleran’s sleuthing Siamese companions, are in demand in sleepy Pickaxe.
And there you have it. A constantly curious man who is convinced his Siamese cats’ antics can help him uncover this nasty crime. I was immediately drawn in, despite very quickly realising that what I’d picked up wasn’t what I thought it was. The writing is slick and Jim Qwilleran’s character instantly appealed. He is slightly curmudgeonly and very comfortable with his own company – and those of his cats. He has a girlfriend, but I got the feeling that though they are fond of each other, passion doesn’t keep him awake at nights… A refreshing change after all the angst-ridden YA I tend to read. And the interlude where she acquires a Siamese kitten of her own had me laughing aloud. It isn’t often that a novelist is brave enough to poke fun at her hero and sleuth – but Jackson Braun does exactly that as Qwilleran fumes to himself over the ridiculous fuss Polly makes over her kitten. Because while he also calls his cats ‘sweetie’, he isn’t so irritatinglycloying or simpering – so he tells himself.
Meantime we also get a slice of daily life in amongst the darker goings-on in Pickaxe, with a generous array of characters who both entertain and provide plenty of suspects. While I was aware that there was a fairly substantial back story that I’d missed – Iris Cobb features in several of the earlier books, for instance, so that I think if I’d read those I would have been more upset at her death – at no time was I left floundering because I had come in at number 10 in this long-running series. And as for the plot that had poor Iris done to death – did it work? Absolutely. The denouement was highly satisfying and surprising. I won’t claim that I am particularly good at guessing who did what in this genre, but there were some genuine surprises at the conclusion that had me flipping back through the pages to see when the clues were first seeded throughout the book.
I can see exactly why this series first became popular – and was republished nearly twenty years later. Jackson Braun’s writing is both accomplished and different. If you come across The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts, don’t pass up the opportunity to read it. Even if – like me – you prefer dogs…