Literary Pets (Cats Who Write Murder Mysteries)

There is a real cat credited as a writer of murder mysteries–Sneaky Pie Brown, who pens the Mrs. Murphy mysteries with her human, Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is a crime-solving cat who works with a Corgi partner, in case you thought she was a human Miss Marple type.

Rita Mae Brown
Sneaky Pie Brown with Rita Mae Brown.

I think cats would make natural murder mystery writers. There always seems to be an implied “I could kill you but I won’t” message underlying the looks many cats give us humans, and sometimes dogs, and sometimes other cats.

You know this cat is not thinking good thoughts about you.

There is a book about this, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

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Maybe that’s what started me on playing the game, what author would that animal be? Or maybe it was that time I went to a reading and book signing by the author T. C. Boyle and thought he looked like a Borzoi. It turns out that Boyle, author of one of my favorite books, The Tortilla Curtain, is actually partial to the dreadlocked Puli, which is pretty cool.

 

Puli dogs
Puli dogs

Tortilla

 

I’ve only done this with dogs and cats so far, but I am sure you can play it with any type of animal if you can match up their personality, looks, and likely literary style with a human author.

My own companion animals were pretty easy to match up.

Sara, my 19-year old brown tabby cat, would clearly be one of the classic older ladies of the English murder mystery genre. Perhaps Agatha Christie, but I think really of a writer who had a bit more edge, like Ruth Rendell. Much darker things happen in Rendell’s books than Christie’s, and even thought Sara is an affectionate cat, she is a cat, and was also quite a hunter in her day.

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Dame Agatha Christie, creator of the aforementioned Miss Marple.
Ruth Rendell
Dame Ruth Rendell, author of dark mysteries under her own name, and psychological thrillers under the name Barbara Vine.

Misty, our 6-year old Turkish Angora who was rescued from kitty death row, where she was placed for having a personality disorder that made her “unadoptable”, would be a perfect Gillian Flynn,  author of the disturbing books Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects. Misty is beautiful, but beware what lurks in that brain. I call her the Ferocious Beauty for good reason!

Scary, each and every one of them.

Marble, the new kid on the block, is hip and eccentric and a little wild, so I am picking Dave Eggers for him. Maybe Eggers, perhaps best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is a dog guy. I don’t know, but Marble would be a good hipster author who can be funny and profound and will always do things a little differently. And sometimes follows you around like a dog.

And then there is Einstein. Einstein is not named for his staggering genius, but for his unruly fur. I think he should be a humorist, and I know Dave Barry likes dogs because he has written about them frequently. And his bangs hang in his face, like Einstein’s.

Of course, I have to delve into memories of pets past as well. Our dearly beloved Ben, the classic orange tabby with a heart of gold, would be Calvin Trillin, winner of the 2013 Thurber Prize for American Humor. He’s a classic himself.

Then there is the dynamic dog duo, Bingo and Sadie. Bingo was a ham, always taking credit for Sadie’s work. She was a lovable free-spirit.  If we took them to the beach and threw sticks in the water, Sadie would swim out to retrieve them, but as soon as she got to shore, Bingo would grab them from her and run over all proud for having supposedly retrieved them himself. Obviously, to me, they are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Bingo, left, with Sadie.
F. Scott with Zelda.

I can go on like this for hours. Now I’ve started matching up animals at the shelter with their literary doppelgängers.

When I first saw Mordecai the mastiff, his stateliness made me think of Charles Dickens, the venerable author of so many icons of English literature. But I have revised my opinion lately to thinking he is really John Steinbeck, the venerable author of so many icons of American literature. Steinbeck, by the way, wrote a lovely book about his Standard Poodle Charley.

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Mordecai

When I saw scrappy little dachshund mix Facebook, I immediately thought of Alexander McCall Smith, prolific author of the series The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, The Sunday Philosophy Club, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and Scotland Street. He has an infectious personality and his books are light and fun.

Facebook

 

I picked David Foster Wallace for Joey, mostly because for some reason he just looks like he’d write some of my favorite essays like Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Joey will not follow in DFW’s footsteps in terms of early, self-inflicted death. Joey will live to be a grumpy old man cat with a sense of humor.

Joey

 

 

 

I’ll just do one more. Like I said, I could do this for hours. I read a lot, and I see a lot of animals in the course of my day.

Another of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I don’t know why it took me a little while to realize she would be my recent foster cat Merida. There is a sweetness to Tyler’s books, along with a faint melancholy, and always a theme of family and relationships. Merida is a sweetheart, had a rough start in life, is looking for her forever family, and could easily be the central character in a Tyler book if Tyler wrote books about cats.

Maybe some day I’ll actually write and publish a book. I hope so. I have a great author photo ready to go–I look serious and moody.

And then maybe someone will pair me up with my animal doppelgänger. I’m hoping for a sleek, dignified beauty, like an Irish Setter.

But I won’t be surprised if it is a roly poly kitten, either.

Meow!

Having a heart can be expensive, or, I’ve decided not to be thick-skinned about the homeless who ask me for money

Living in the Bay Area had the effect for a while of hardening me and my usual soft heart against the homeless. According to the San Francisco Homeless Project, SF has the second highest rate of homelessness in the United States. And for the Bay Area, it has double the rate of Oakland, and three times that of San Jose.

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During the 11+ years I worked in Berkeley, there were times I swore Berkeley had the highest rate of homelessness in the US. Granted, if I were homeless I’d rather be in Berkeley than a lot of other places, but I got to where I hated leaving my office to walk down Durant Avenue toward Telegraph Avenue.

Homeless in Berkeley
Mike Harris has been homeless for years and often plays music on a boombox while panhandling outside of Asian Ghetto (Durant Food Court). He takes heart medication. He asked me for money everyday for more than 10 years. I rarely gave him any, and didn’t know his name until today when I found this image.
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The streets of Berkeley.

Not that I had to leave work to be confronted with my discomfort. The old location of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) was a natural place for people living on the streets to go in to use the restroom facilities. Anyone who is out and about and has to use a bathroom faces a hard time finding places without the “restrooms are for customers only sign”.

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I much prefer this sign:

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My initial annoyance at having to share the facilities with the woman who came in regularly and cried while taking a sink bath became empathy and a realization of “There but for the grace of God go I” (or the equalivalent since I’m not into the God thing).

Benita Guzman, 40, washes her hair in the sink of a public restroom after dropping her children at school in Port Hueneme
Benita Guzman, 40, washes her hair in the sink of a public restroom after dropping her children at school in Port Hueneme, some 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California February 28, 2012. Benita Guzman, 40, and her niece Angelica Cervantes, 36, are homeless but stick together in an effort to keep seven of their eleven children together as a family. One in 45 children, totalling 1.6 million, is homeless, the highest number in United States’ history, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. California is ranked the fifth highest state in the nation for its percentage of homeless children. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES)

My attitude first underwent a shift when I was working on my Masters in Library and Information Science a few years ago. For a class on Libraries and Society, I decided to write a paper about the use of public library facilities by the homeless. The research was so difficult to read; such heartbreaking stories and real despair. Libraries are meant for everyone, I do believe, but as a wanna-be librarian I was worried about having to be a social worker on top of everything else. But just as the museum restroom off of the Durant Avenue entrance to BAMPFA made sense when I thought about it, so did libraries. They are  quiet, warm in winter, cool in summer, relatively safe places to get off of the streets.

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At the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
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It’s hard to navigate life without access to a computer these days. Libraries provide them for the public.

Most of the people I know say they never give money to panhandlers and the homeless. If I admitted that I did give money now and then, I felt kind of stupid. I used to believe that if someone couldn’t take care of themself, they had no business having a companion animal. But companion animals are one of the most important joys of life to me, and I’ve changed my mind. This was brought home fully to me after hearing Karen Hamza of Angel Hanz for the Homeless speak on her own experience of being homeless and the services she now provides for the homeless to be able to keep their pets with them. I’ve been through some tough times emotionally in my life, and having the cats and dogs to comfort me and to take care of kept me going. I get it now.

At about the same time, my inspring and beautiful friend Molly posted on Facebook about how the homeless aren’t treated like humans and her experiences talking to people on the street, asking their names, and doing what she could. She and I went to lunch together one day not long after, and she really brought it home for me. We were walking back to our cars with our leftover boxes after lunch, when we started to pass two older guys who appeared to be homeless, or at least really down on their luck. I was going to keep going, but Molly stopped. I reluctantly stopped too, and then as I listened to her talk with them and ask their stories, and watched her give them her lunch (which was going to be her dinner), I couldn’t just stand there. I handed over my box, and was so touched to get a hug in return. Hugs are good.

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Ken Nwadike, founder of the Free Hugs project. He’s got the right idea.

I learned a lot from this encounter about myself and about compassion. When I was recently working at a mobile adoption event for Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation outside of the Pet Food Express in Lafayette, I had the chance to practice my empathy and compassion.

Lafayette is not a poor community, and one does not expect to encounter the homeless there. Back in 2012, the median household income in Lafayette was $150,000, more than double the statewide average and nearly triple the national average. The real estate overview I looked at lists the median home price in Lafayette at $1,320,000 and the median rent per month as $5,000. That’s a lot of money. A lot. It’s like Monopoly money to me when talking about these unimaginable sums.

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Lafayette, California.
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The only way I’d ever have that amount of money.

When the 40ish-looking man came over with his dog, I didn’t even stop to think about him being homeless. He was very proud of his dog, a mixed breed with an adorable underbite, appropriately named Smiley. He mentioned he got the dog through Pets for Vets about 5 years ago, and how important the dog has become in his life.

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He then talked about his traumatic brain injury and cognitive difficulties and how much Smiley helps him with his post-traumatic stress disorder. By that time, it was clear to me that he was lonely, a bit confused, and in need. I channeled Molly and opened my ears and my heart. He finally said he was”kind of homeless” and quietly asked me for $3 for a coffee at the cafe across the street. I admit to very brief inner struggle and thought of fibbing and saying I didn’t have any cash. But my better nature won the struggle. I gave him a $20. Not the Monopoly kind, a real one. That’s not a small amount of money for me. Animal shelter and animal rescue jobs don’t pay a lot of money. But I can give up a few visits to Peet’s coffee and make up the $20. And I got my hug.

Then I heard from the people I know that I shouldn’t have given him money. You know what? It was my money and my choice. He was a nice guy, taking good care of Smiley, not aggressive, wearing clean clothes, and didn’t smell of alcohol. He is a man who has fallen through the cracks of  veterans’ services after suffering serious injuries in serving his country.

I didn’t take his picture; I have more respect than that. Most of these images are from Google Images searches, not my phone.

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Homeless veteran with dog, name and location unknown.
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Homeless veteran and dog at a hearing for increasing housing programs for veterans.

My naysayers make me think of the lines spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

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I am not trying to make anyone feel bad. I am not fishing for compliments or validation. I am asking you to think twice next time you turn away from someone on the street. And do not take the good things in your life for granted. We are taught the Golden Rule as children. Let’s follow it as adults.

golden-rule

Peace, love, and hugs.

Recommended reading: 3 Ways to Respond Responsibly and Compassionately to Panhandlers

Awesome Audio

I spend way too much time in my car.

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I love my car, as far as cars go, but I don’t really like to drive. For the past 6 months (my, how time flies!), I have been commuting 69.8 miles from door to door (but who’s counting?) EACH WAY to work. Luckily I don’t hit too much traffic, but it takes a while nonetheless. I’ve listened to audiobooks on and off over the years, but now is most definitely an “on” time. If I get sucked into a really good book with a great match of narrator to material, I can get so absorbed that I miss my exit or sit in my parked car just to listen a few more minutes.

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My daily commute, 5 days a week.

Here are a few of my favorite narrator/book choices from recent memory. In no particular order, but starting with the most recent, which I finished after 36 hours and 11 minutes of enthralled listening (got me few a few trips back and forth!) just tonight:

  • Lonesome Dove, book by Larry McMurtry, read by Lee Horsley

This is an addition to my top 10 favorite books. The list changes, of course, but as of now, this is on it. I’ve read Larry McMurtry before–The Last Picture Show, Some Can Whistle, The Evening Star, The Desert Rose, The Late Child–but never one of his Westerns. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so I’m not sure why I assumed I wouldn’t like it. I was also intimidated by its length of 842 pages.

Loved it! And the actor Lee Horsley, who I know from the early 1980s as television’s Matt Houston, was perfect. From Texas himself, he captures the characters speeech patterns and is able to convey each one’s idiosynchrasies. He shines as Captain Augustus McCrae.

Now I have to listen to the other books in the series if they are available as audiobooks as well. I had no idea it was the first of 4 books in a series. And I must watch the beloved television series with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

Lonesome Dove series

 

  • Any book ever read by Simon Prebble; seriously, ANY book

 

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Simon Prebble

 

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English actor Simon Prebble has one of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever heard. I first heard him read the odd and mysterious Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a wonderful book by Susanna Clarke made more wonderful by Prebble’s narration. In case you didn’t figure it out, I am a Prebble fan. (Note: I also just saw him act for the first time that I am aware of, as Jamie’s mean father on the STARZ adaptation of Outlander, the Diana Gabaldon book series also available as audiobooks read by the popular narrator Davina Porter.)

 

This is a rare case in which I can say that the TV series, shown recently on BBC America, does justice to the book and was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen on television.

Jonathan Strange tv series

Some of my other favorite Prebble readings include Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, by William Kuhn;

 

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro;

 

and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Prebble does the best Scrooge ever.

 

  • Again, pretty much anything ever read by Jim Dale

Jim Dale is a versatile English actor, singer, and songwriter (going back to the song “Georgy Girl” from 1966, nominated for an academy award). Americans of my generation know him from the 1977 children’s movie “Pete’s Dragon”. Now many know him as the narrator of the J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter books. I haven’t read the books, only listened to them. By book 7, I was pretty sick of the whole thing, but I kept listening mostly due to Jim Dale.

 

  • Yet again, pretty much anything read by Lorelei King
Lorelei reading
Lorelei King

King is an American actress living in the United Kingdom, and I first saw her in the British comedy series “Chef!” (1993-1996) with comedian Lenny Henry. She played American chef Savannah, a sous chef and possible love interest to the temperamental executive chef Gareth Blackstock. I highly reccomend the series.

She is probably most popular with the Stephanie Plum mystery novels by Janet Evanovich. She is adept at creating and maintaining voices for each recurring character, and her Grandma Mazur and Lula voices are hilarious.

 

  • Following Atticus, written and read by Tom Ryan

I loved this book. My heart  warms just at the thought. And I loved Tom Ryan’s reading. It’s not often that an author makes a good narrator. And it’s a book about a dog, hello! I am sad to report that Atticus recently passed away, but you can read about Tom’s just-starting adventures with  new rescue pup Samwise on the “Following Atticus” Facebook page. You’ll love Tom Ryan. And Samwise.

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Rest in Peace, Atticus

 

  • In the same spirit, Travels with Charley in Search of America, written by John Steinbeck and read by Gary Sinise

I’ve read this Steinbeck travel memoir a few times, and still love it as much now as I did in high school. Yes, I was the nerd in high school who liked American Literature and was happy to read Steinbeck for class. Steinbeck was a great writer. And I am still a nerd.

 

  • Gone Girl, written by Gillian Flynn, read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne

I first heard about this book on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast before it was the big hit it became or a movie adaptation. Creepy! The inside of Gillian Flynn’s mind is a scary place. And the whole unreliable narrator motif was a unique concept to me. Who to believe?! These two readers, actress Julia Whelan and actor/comedian/singer/songwriter Kirby Keyborne, are perfect in the she said/he said/who do you believe back and forth format.

 

It was a pretty good movie to, I have to admit.

Gone-Girl1.jpg

 

  • Speaking of weird and creepy, Room, written by Emma Donaghue, read by multiple narrators

Donaghue is an Irish writer who lives in Canada. Room is the story of a young woman who is abducted and kept in a shed (the room) for several years, where she gives birth to and raises a son. Spoiler alert; they escape the room and adjusting to life in the outside world proves challenging. What really stands out about the audiobook is the performance of the late actress Michal Friedman in the chapters told from the voice of 5-year old Jack.

Michal Friedman
Michal Friedman (1967-2011)

Tragically, Friedman died unexpectedly and we will never know what successes her carrer might have held for her.

Oh, and another movie adaptation to mention, but I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t give you an opinion.

room movie

 

  • The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak and read by Allan Corduner

Zusak is a young writer (born 1975), and I hope he keeps writing! Of German and Austrian heritage, he lives in Sydney, Australia. This story of a young firl and her foster family in a small town outside of Munich during World War II is heartbreaking yet still has moments of humor.

 

Actor Allan Corduner, born in Sweden to German and Russo-Finnish father but raised in London, has a sonorous voice you can imagine on the Shakespearean stage. As the novel is told by the overworked Grim Reaper, it’s a good fit. My Googling tells me that he was in 5 episodes of the television series Homeland last year.

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Allan Corduner

No, I haven’t seen the movie adaptation. It’s on my list.

Book Thief movie

 

  • Summerland, written and read by Michael Chabon

I’ve had friends tell me they don’t particularly care for Chabon’s readings of his books, but this is the one book where he is absolutely perfect, in my opinion. It made me feel like I was a kid being read to by my dad. The story is a modern fairy tale about baseball and a flying station wagon. Trust me, it’s delightful.

 

  • I could keep going, but I will end on a humorous selection with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), written and read by Jenny Lawson.

Laugh out loud funny. Also check out her blog, aptly titled The Bloggess, “Like Mother Teresa, Only Better”.

The Bloggess

Go forth and listen!