5.10.14

Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts

The Cat Who books should not be good. The fact that two cats are associated with detective work should be just plain hokey. But anyone who has read these books will attest to their cleverness – and their addictiveness. In 2011, I wrote a post about The Cat Who Saw Red, an Edgar Award nominee. With Halloween approaching, I could not pass up the temptation to write about The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts.

Lilian Jackson Braun wrote 29 Cat Who novels before passing away in 2011. These books have remained incredibly popular. All of them are still in print, and all have been translated into 16 languages. When first published, many of them were on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Braun wrote all but three of the Cat Who novels after retiring from her post as feature writer for the Detroit Free Press. With the 1966 publication of her first novel – The Cat Who Could Read BackwardsThe New York Times labelled her “the new detective of the year.”

The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts opens with retired journalist Jim Qwilleran receiving a call from Iris Cobb, a woman who lives in and manages a historic farmhouse museum. She tells Qwilleran that she has been hearing eerie sounds lately, noises such as “knocking in the walls . . . rattling . . . moaning . . . and sometimes a scream” (4). Qwilleran initially thinks it is “October, and Moose County likes to celebrate Halloween for the entire month” (4). But then he hears Iris shriek and cry out, “Oh, my god! There it goes again! . . . There’s something outside the window!” (5). By the time Qwilleran arrives, Iris Cobb is lying dead on the kitchen floor.

Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats move into the museum until a replacement manager can be found for Iris. Strange sounds, flickering lights, a haunted house, ghosts, tales of past hauntings, and a second murder all contribute to a delightfully spooky atmosphere.

If you enjoy cozy detective novels, The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts is one of the best. It is set in Moose county, a fictional place “400 miles north of everywhere, a remote rockbound outpost comfortably distant from the crime, traffic, and pollution of densely populated urban areas to the south. The natives have a chauvinistic scorn for what they call Down Below” (1). When crime enters this idyllic world, people are truly shocked.

What makes this novel – and all the Cat Who novels – so enjoyable is the way Braun cleverly incorporates the Siamese cats into the investigation. Koko in particular seems to have a sixth sense when things are not right. He indicates his anxiety by doing such things as pacing on window ledges and gazing out windows at clues.

Writing was Braun’s lifelong passion: “I always wrote, she said, “first for fun, then for an advertising job, then for a newspaper, and then for The Cat Who readers.” Readers will recognize this passion in her skilfully written novels.

Braun, Lilian Jackson. The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts. New York: Jove Books, 1990.