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.

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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!

The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

guests cover

Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

slippers

 

Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

Grove Prk Inn ball photo
Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
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 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

scottie
Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm

I’m not obsessive, I’m passionate (or, I’m stalking Thomas Wolfe)

Can you stalk someone who is no longer alive? I’ve become entranced/fascinated/obsessed with Thomas Wolfe since I brought him up in Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said. I go through crushes with writers. I’ll become intrigued, learn everything I can about said writer, read everything they wrote, watch every movie made about them or based on their books, until I’ve exhausted the possibilities. Then I move on to the next crush.

I now follow the Thomas Wolfe Society on Facebook. My queue on Audible.com contains whatever they have (and as much as I like the writer Tom Wolfe, it’s Thomas that’s the subject of my interest).

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)
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Tom Wolfe (born 1931)

I saw a post on the Thomas Wolfe Society Facebook page about the movie Genius (Don’t Believe the Haters: In Defense of ‘Genius’), starring Colin Firth as editor Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe. The post is a defense of the movie, which apparently had detractors. I had never heard of the movie (have I mentioned that rock I seem to live under?). I had to see it. Why? It’s about Thomas Wolfe, and it stars the amazing Colin Firth, handsome Jude Law, always good Laura Linney, and Ice Queen Nicole Kidman. I am not so crazy about Kidman, but in this movie her demeanor and style seem to fit the character, Aline Bernstein, a woman who succeeded in the then male-dominated world of theater set and costume design and could be said to have had a “tumultuous” relationship with Wolfe.

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I found an interesting post on History vs. Hollywood that compares the actors to the characters they played in the film. What is really interesting to me is that this is a predominantly English cast, in a movie filmed in England, about an iconic American writer from the South and the story is mostly set in New York. Dominic West, who I thought was American the whole time I watched The Wire, portrays Ernest Hemingway. Guy Pearce is a convincingly pained and troubled F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why do the Brits appreciate this literary heritage more than most Americans?

 

Fitzgerald was one of my crushes. I went through a fascination with Hemingway the man, but never got so much into his writing. Yes, I appreciate his style and way with words, but I’m not so much into his subject choices. Fitzgerald totally appeals to me: handsome and troubled with a beautiful, crazy Southern Belle wife.

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This was in my freshman year of college, and in my American Literature class with Professor Robert L. Casebeer (real name) in 1980 I wrote many a paper about Fitzgerald.

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My first attempt at college was in Ashland, Oregon, 1979-1981.

Before that, in high school, I went through a serious John Steinbeck phase. I still love his books. I admit to being a total wallflower nerd in high school. I spent a lot of time in my room, drawing and painting and reading and sewing my own weird clothes. No surprise I was never asked to the prom, much less on a date.

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John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

I’ve been through similar obsessive phases with the English writers Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisted) and John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga).

Lest you think it’s only male writers that I stalk, I’ve been through my Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) phase and an Agatha Christie (1890-1976) phase as well.

 

 

I first became fascinated with Thomas Wolfe back in the 1990s. I got to Wolfe through a desire to live in Asheville, North Carolina. Musically, I was in a David Wilcox phase, and he is (was?) based in Asheville. I was also in my museums career phase, and figured there would be a job for me at the Biltmore Estate. I applied for several jobs, but it’s hard to get an interview when you live 3,000 miles away!

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American folksinger and songwriter David Wilcox
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I’d be so much closer to family than I am in California.

 

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Is it so much to ask for to live in the library at the Biltmore Estate?

And it was my obsession with Asheville that got me to Thomas Wolfe, native son.

There are so many connections I could go into–Paris in the 1920s, where so many artists and writers (the so-called Lost Generation), including Wolfe, spent time. A good account of this is Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. And one day I will make a  pilgrimage to legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, central to that time and that generation.

feast

shakespeare-and-co-paris-bookstore

But meanwhile, I’ll be listening to the audiobook version of Look Homeward, Angel and dreaming of different times and places.

book-cover

 

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