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.
faithful
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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Awesome Audio

I spend way too much time in my car.

coop

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.

Atticus
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.

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  • 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!