Joe Grey is the perfect detective.
Naturally curious and light on his feet, he has a knack for blending in and laying low. From the alleys to the wharfs, the dumpsters to the diners, he knows every single nook of the small coastal community of Molena Point. No security clearance? No problem. When the case calls for a little inside information, Joe simply pitter-patters across the police chief’s laptop or takes a strategic nap under the right desk.
Joe Grey, you see, is a cat. A rather busy cat, in fact. The titular star of author Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s Joe Grey Mystery series, he has appeared in 19 books, the latest of which, Cat Shout For Joy, was released to enthusiastic reviews in February. The popular series, published by HarperCollins, has more than 1 million copies in print and has earned Rousseau the Cat Writers’ Association’s best novel nod 11 times.
“Cats have a lot of good qualities when it comes to sleuthing,” says Murphy, who based Joe’s larger-than-life personality on a neglected neighborhood cat she nursed back to health. “They can slip into a restaurant and eavesdrop under the table, they can sneak in through your bathroom window and go through your Visa bills. They can often find clues that human detectives wouldn’t.”
An unusual casting choice? Maybe. Then again, if you’ve met enough cats, maybe not.
When New York Times bestselling mystery author Diane Stuckart was approached to write a cat detective series, she found that the jump from penning novels about humans to felines wasn’t such a stretch. Like Joe Grey, Stuckart’s furry fictional gumshoe, Hamlet, enjoys a natural advantage over his two-legged competition—as well as any other animals that might cross his path in the popular Black Cat Bookshop series.
“Anyone who has ever spent quality time with a cat will tell you that felines are incredibly clever,” says Stuckart, who publishes the Black Cat series under her pen name, Ali Brandon. “With their keen night vision, patience in stalking, and acrobatic ability—not many human detectives enjoy scaling fences and walking along rooftops—cats are ideal for the sleuthing life. Dogs may be loyal, but most of them don’t have the persistence or the finesse to track down fictional bad guys. They’d rather chase a ball or search out a doggie treat.”
Patricia Fry had been writing for more than 40 years before she tried her hand at a cat detective novel. Although it was her first attempt at fiction, she found that her own cats provided her with plenty of material for her award-winning Klepto Cat Mystery series.
“Spend enough time with a cat and you’ll find it easy to believe that they think, they figure things out, they form opinions. They are manipulative, they feel emotions, and they know how to get what they want using their most obnoxious or their most endearing ways,” says Fry, whose mischievous star Rags can’t keep his sticky little paws to himself. “When you consider this, just look at all you have to work with in developing and maintaining a character.”
“Spend enough time with a cat and you’ll find it easy to believe that they think, they figure things out, they form opinions.”
Joe Grey, Hamlet and Rags aren’t alone. Far from it, in fact. A subset of the “cozy mysteries” genre—light-hearted whodunit tales that are relatively low in violence and set in small, tight-knit towns—cat detective novels are an established, in-demand niche product. Felines tend to dominate the market, but dogs make frequent appearances, as well.
“Both cat and dog detective novels are very, very popular,” says Tara Gavin, executive editor at Kensington Books. ”The cozy mystery is the perfect place to feature favorite pets. As all dog and cat lovers know, each animal is an individual with their own personality. I find myself often nodding my head, laughing and comparing the cats and dogs in books to my own pets.”
Kensington publishes a number of animal-centric cozies, including Laurien Berenson’s poodle-studded Melanie Travis series and Forget Me Knot, a new mystery from Mary Marks featuring the cozy trifecta: quilting, cats and dogs. From a publisher’s perspective, the genre is a solid investment that’s only going to get more profitable. ”The cozy audience is growing,” says Gavin. “It seems the majority of the audience is more mature women who enjoy a mystery without having to deal with all the blood and gore, but the younger audience is also getting into reading cozy mysteries.”
Fry, who is a publishing consultant in addition to a cozy author, has seen the demand first-hand. And although she’s pleased to be busy— motivated by brisk sales, she’s published a staggering 16 Klepto Cat books since 2012—she’s not necessarily surprised, considering what the quaint genre offers to modern readers.
“When we have time to read, we want relief from our busy life. Cozy mysteries are lovely fairytales for adults: intriguing and interesting without the gore, touching—maybe romantic—without the explicit sex, and often humorous,” she explains. “Adding a cat to a series, for me, provides an element that makes me smile. Maybe the fact that we get so much hard news—real life mysteries—in the news and on the Internet, we turn to the cozy.”
True to the ethos of the cozy genre, the claws rarely come out in cat detective novels. But behind the scenes? Well, that’s a different story.
Cat cozies recently landed on the mainstream radar for a debate causing a rift in the Cat Writers’ Association: Should fictional cats be able to speak?
In theory, it’s a simple question. But in practice, cat detectives have a range of communication skills, from knowing nods to cell phone plans. While some cat sleuths merely tag along with their human counterparts and knock over a telling stack of papers, others speak fluent, sassy English. Perhaps the most literate of the bunch, Sneaky Pie Brown is credited as a coauthor, along with human writer and genre superstar Rita Mae Brown, of the iconic Mrs. Murphy series.
Although Joe Grey doesn’t get a writing credit, he can certainly speak and is one of the more anthropomorphized cozy cats—he has a crime-solving girlfriend, Dulcie, with whom he welcomed a litter of kittens in the series’ latest installment (which, as one positive Amazon review notes, “is enjoyable if you can believe in talking cats”). For Murphy, verbose cats are simply the norm. In addition to Joe, she created a whole world of talking, shape-shifting animals in the 1992 cult-classic fantasy The Catswold Portal, and has also given voice to otters—a personal favorite of hers since moving to California—and a weimaraner.
“I know there’s been this big argument among cat writers,” she says. “Personally, I have to say, I’m all for talking cats. Cats already communicate with us in so many ways, why not?”
While Stuckart has, in the past, penned talking cats, Hamlet stays silent in the Black Cat series, a move that Publisher’s Weekly, for one, appreciates: “Those who like clever animals but draw the line at talking cats will feel right at home,” reads a review for Double Booked for Death.
“Lots of readers enjoy the cat’s-eye point of view that comes with a talking cat telling at least part of the story. But, in the end, I felt the books would best be served by having Hamlet be a real cat,” says Stuckart, who does, however, occasionally tweet in the voice of Hamlet. “There’s not much he does in my books that a real-life cat couldn’t do, though perhaps he’s a bit more prescient than most.”
For Fry, however, talking cats were a personal dealbreaker from the start—not that this holds Rags back. “I’ve found that cats are highly communicative, even chatty, using only their God-given abilities,” she says. “The story would lose a lot if we didn’t let Rags use his most catlike methods of communication to let everyone know which person in the lineup he most dislikes.”
“Of course,” adds Fry, “there’s room for all types and styles of stories.”
Although we couldn’t reach Joe Grey for comment, we suspect that he—as well as the many cozy mystery fans and eager publishers—would certainly agree.
- Illustration by Nan Lawson
- Book cover via Diane Stuckart http://www.dianestuckart.com
- Africa Studio via Shutterstock http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-307042727