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!

I see doppelgängers

Fictional characters aren’t meant to be role models. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and if they didn’t have some sort of Achilles heel, they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. At least for me, when I read a book, if I don’t empathisize with a character, I am not as drawn in. Except for books by Gillian Flynn. Those suck me in even though almost all of the characters are despicable!

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Gillian Flynn; behind this pretty face lurks a dark imagination.
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I read them all, each in about a day one after the other. No doppelgängers for me here!

 

Sometimes I get lucky and really identify with a character, feeling like I know them or am them. The first time I can remember this really hitting me deeply was reading Wind in the Willows as a child and imaging myself as Mole. Not the jaunty Ratty or crazed Toad or wise Badger, but the loyal and kind-natured Mole, who shyly longed for adventures and didn’t always make the best choices but always meant well.

wind-in-the-willows

Then there was Harriet the Spy. Again, there were of course differences. I was no more a “tom boy” living in Manhattan with a nanny than I was a talking mole wearing a suit. But I was still her in my mind, clever (but not quite clever enough; things backfire) and misunderstood and nosy and I loved tomato sandwiches. I wouldn’t eat anything else for lunch during my Harriet phase.

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I read and read Daddy Long-Legs over so many times, I could recite long bits by heart when I was a teenager. I still feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about curling up in a chair with this book and losing myself in the letters Judy writes to her unknown guardian. She’s small and perky and sometimes unsure of herself. Her adventures in college were probably what inspired me to want to go to Mount Holyoke, which I didn’t get to do, but I had images of myself being a 1980s Judy Abbott there. By the way, don’t bother with the movie version. It bears no resemblence to the book. Do read the sequel, Dear Enemy.

daddy

dear-enemy

I heard on an NPR story once that part of the appeal in fictional characters and seeing ourselves in them is that they can do the things we can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. Like spying on people (Harriet) or having lovely romances (Judy, who I lived vicariously through during my lonely teen years) or hating everything (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye) or saying smart-ass things to others or some of the horrible things Gillian Flynn’s characters do (just read the books).

I am going through this magical experience of losing myself in a character with Shelby Richmond, the central character in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. I am a big Alice Hoffman fan. Bingeing on her books got me through a dark and cold Massachussetts winter (long story, but I hightailed it back to California after that one winter).

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Alice Hoffman, one of my favorite authors.
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My current read. Can’t stop reading but don’t want it to end. What’s a girl to do?!

 

On the surface, Shelby and I don’t have a lot in common. She’s young and beautiful. I picture a Natalie Portman type in the lead role should it become a movie.

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Natalie Portman in Closer.
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Natalie Portman can also get away with the shaved head look; Shelby keeps her head shaved through the first half of the book.

 

I’ve never shaved my head or deliberately cut myself. Shelby is very dark and moody. Not quite Gillian Flynn dark and moody, but still dark and moody. She’s brutally honest and sometimes reckless. She loves New York City, having grown up in the suburbs on Long Island. I tend to smiles and hugs and although I’ve visited New York, I feel no need to spend a lot of time there. She mostly eats Chinese takeout; not my thing.

So, why do I see myself in her? Early on in the story, she thinks about how much she prefers sad songs that dwell on lost loves and lost lives. That’s me! Okay, not enough evidence. That’s lots of people.

I never contemplated suicide, but I spent a few years not really living, hiding in my darkened den and drinking too much while watching The Food Network. Shelby spends 2 years isolating herself in her parent’s basement, smoking weed and watching American Idol. And how does she begin to rescue herself? By rescuing animals. Bingo!

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Oddly enough, my first rescue dog’s name was Bingo.

 

She eventually volunteers at an animal shelter (see, what did I tell you?), knowing she needs to be with animals. She even applies to veterinary school, something I would be too scared to do but daydreamed about at some point (NPR may be on to something). She’s not a vegan, but I think Ms. Hoffman could’ve easily made Shelby a vegetarian, given her love for animals.

When people talk about doppelgängers, they usually mean a look-alike, an evil twin, or an almost ghostly apparition.

evil-twins

But doppelgänger can also refer to a person who is behaviorally like another person. When Shelby, feeling vengeful and bitter, wishes bad luck to her former boyfriend and is glad when it snows on his April wedding day to someone else, it reminds me of me wishing bad things on people who I’ve felt wronged by.  Shelby loves animals and claims to hate people, but she takes soup to the homeless girl (who seems to be her doppelgänger) she often sees on the streets. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she is faithful to the ones she has. She learns to care for others and for herself. I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say how I will feel about the ending or what path Shelby takes. But I am on the path with her.

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