Five Favorite Fictional Feline Sleuths
Diane A.S. Stuckart, author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series and the Tarot Cat Mysteries series (featuring her latest, Fool's Moon, available now!) discusses her favorite fictional cats and their influence on her work.
My informal research has led me to the theory that Crazy Cat Ladies ™ invariably start out as crazy cat kids. I know I did. Any number of my childhood photos show me carrying, petting, or otherwise engaging with a feline of some sort. The corollary to the CCL theory is that one’s leisure pursuits also tended from a young age to be cat-centric. Bookworm that I was from a young age, I read anything I could find that featured a cat on the cover.
I continued that trend into adulthood, which likely is why I’ve written two cat-themed mystery series: the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries featuring Hamlet the Cat, and the Tarot Cats Mysteries starring Brandon Bobtail and Ophelia. The kitties in both these series were influenced by the actual cats I’ve been privileged to know over the years, and by those cats found within the pages of my books. And so, here are Five Favorite Fictional Feline Sleuths who influenced my own cat characters…
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.”
I was introduced to Poe in grade school via a recording (genuine 33 1/3 LP) of “The Tell Tale Heart” (what the teachers were thinking, I have no clue!). From there, I read more of Poe’s works…of course, including “The Black Cat.” The titular inky feline isn’t exactly a sleuth, but he brings a murderer to justice.The story concerns a spiteful narrator who kills his wife’s cat in a drunken rage. Enter an almost identical black cat that mysteriously takes its predecessor’s place. So guilty does the narrator feel that he sets off with an ax to eliminate that second cat…but ends up killing his wife, instead. Determined to get away with murder, he conceals her body behind a brick wall in the cellar. The instigating feline, meanwhile, has vanished.
Our narrator thinks he’s home free when a police search of his place yields nothing to implicate him in the woman’s disappearance. That is, until an unearthly howling from behind the cellar wall leads the investigators to discover, not just the dead wife’s body, but the live cat that had been accidentally entombed with her. A classic tale of righteousness and revenge, with a clever feline pointing a paw at the guilty party.
The Cheshire Cat.
I first read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when I was a tween (lots of “Alice” references in 60s pop culture made that novel a must). This saucy brown feline isn’t technically a sleuth, either, though he possesses some keen kitty skills that every cat detective needs. He disappears and reappears at will, often at inconvenient times, and usually with a pithy comment or bit of snark. He even confounds an executioner sent to dispatch him by appearing as a disembodied head. One of his most appealing talents is leaving his patented Cheshire Cat grin hanging behind.
I didn’t realize until I did a little research for this post that literary references to a Cheshire Cat predate Carroll’s depiction by many decades. (We won’t talk about the Disney cartoon version of the Cheshire Puss, which for some reason always creeped me out as a kid.) And apparently there’s a link between Cheshire county in England and fugitives. That led to a slang Old French term, caitiff, applied to outlaws and bad actors, and often shortened to “cat”.
That Darn Cat.
Darn Cat, a/k/a DC, sprang from the pages of a fun novel called Undercover Cat by Gordon and Mildred Gordon. It wasn’t until the Disney movie that the story was retitled That Darn Cat. DC (which actually stands for “Damn Cat” in the book—gotta clean it up for the kiddie sensibilities!) is an ordinary feline. But he finds himself embroiled in a bank robbery-turned-kidnapping when his nocturnal roaming puts him in the apartment building where the abducted bank teller is being held.
The desperate woman replaces the cat’s collar with her wristwatch with the word “help” scratched on it, and sets him loose again. Upon his return home, DC’s teenage owners discover the watch and call the FBI. The investigating agent tails the feline on his subsequent nightly rounds, hoping DC will eventually lead him to the kidnapped woman before her captors kill her. Of course, DC does and saves the day! I loved both the book and movie as a teen (and still do).
Koko and Yum Yum.
This pair of feisty Siamese cats star in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… mystery series. Consisting of more than 30 volumes (novels and miscellaneous collections), these “tails” also feature a newspaper reporter named Jim Qwilleran who stumbles over murder victims on a regular basis. But none of these crimes are ever solved without Koko and Yum Yum’s help.
While sweet Yum Yum is something of a klepto-kitty, Koko is the real investigator of the pair. He digs clues from the trash and bristles at the appearance of baddies. His specific talent, however, lies in his habit of using an unabridged dictionary as a scratching post. Qwill eventually notices that the clever cat will claw at a word that has a bearing on whatever murder case he’s investigating.
I started reading these fun and good-hearted mysteries as a teen. Unfortunately, with time and the author’s advanced age, the quality went downhill at the series end. But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Koko and Yum Yum. In fact, I pay unofficial homage to the former in my Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series with my sleuthing cat, Hamlet, who routinely “snags” off the shop shelves books which turn out to be clues.
A cross between Koko and Bogey’s version of Sam Spade, this tough-talking black cat stars in Carole Nelson Douglas’ alphabetized and color-coded Cat in a… series. He shares narration and investigating duties with his human, Temple Barr, out on the mean-ish streets of Las Vegas.
Louie has no supernatural powers, but he has the feline skills of stealth and persistence that make him a crack investigator. And while he talks tough, he has a soft spot for Temple and will risk life and paw for her. Louie was one of the first felines to narrate his own mystery series. I started reading him back in the 90s and promptly fell in love with him. I haven’t made it through the entire colorized alphabet of novels yet, but intend to eventually rectify that.