That Ain’t No Ghost

The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts
Lillian Jackson Braun

Last winter, as I grappled with my seasonal, but no less unwelcome, sense of despair I compensated as I often do: by making things worse. The cure for not being able to finish anything, evidently, is to start a whole lot of things.

And yet somehow, I did manage to finish the book I’m talking about today. I suppose that incongruities, like interest, compound. A better interpretative cue, though, might be the 4-month lag between finishing and writing. Everything about this book embarrasses me, including the fact that it was all I was capable of reading for a while.

That statement will be found unwelcome by fans and the publisher. There are, after all, 29 volumes in the series. Clearly, there’s a readership for these feline-scented mysteries set somewhere in the semi-rural Midwest.  It just isn’t me.

I say that not on the basis of this volume alone, but because I’ve also read other titles in the line and there isn’t terribly much variation. You may, upon hearing that statement, wonder why, having already formed an opinion, I even turned back the cover of this installment. To which I refer you to my state of mind in darkest January, touched upon at the outset.

Siamese cats have blue eyes and are widely believed to have superior intelligence.

The cat in the title of this book (and every book in the series) is Kao K’o-Kung, referred to as Koko in everyday life. Koko has a companion, another Siamese, named Yum Yum.

For some reason, in America Siamese cats often seem to be given Asian sounding names, a distinction reserved for them alone among Asian breeds. There are two Burmese running around The Stone Cottage, one named Millie and the other named after a Mexican appetizer. Neither seems perturbed with their moniker. In truth, neither seems perturbed by much, but we are talking about cats here.

These Siamese are in the care of Jim Qwilleran, a man with a surname that nicely dismisses the whole problem of Qs, Us and pronunciation in one consonant-laden burst. (I am familiar with this problem, also bearing a 9-letter surname–one sporting fewer vowels than Mr. Q’s–that people outside my family struggle with, but I digress.) Qwill, as his friends call him, is a seasoned big-city newspaper reporter with an investigative bent.

Braun’s gimmick is to portray feline behaviors as necessary adjuncts to human speculation, observation and interrogation. Something, an open window, a patch of turned over dirt in a sub-basement, catches the cat’s curiosity and leads–often with a delay–to questions and more questions. We know who the detective is here and he doesn’t have four feet.

Disney’s Siamese duo from Lady and the Tramp, Si and Am. (C) Disney, no infringement intended

One conceit of these stories is that small cities have the same problems and crimes as big cities. Qwill now lives in Pickax, which may be the county seat of Moose County, a place described as being “400 miles north of everywhere.” On those rare occasions when a trip to the big city can’t be avoided, residents go “down below” the way Nantucketers go off-island.

While Qwill pens a column for the local paper, edited by an old friend, his primary focus is running the Klingenschoen Foundation, built around a fortune he unexpectedly inherited and the terms of which required him to live in the county for five years. Like Cicely, Alaska, Moose County is populated with an entertaining population of near-eccentrics and attracts just enough outsiders to mix things up.

That’s the situation and there’s more backstory on Qwill available if you care As for the crime in this volume, it begins with a phone call. Iris Cobb, now the live-in manager of a local farm museum, and Qwill’s former landlady, calls him in a panic. There’s something supernatural in the house, can he come? He makes the drive and finds Iris dead.

Bad Axe, MI
Some say it’s the model for Pickax. It’s safe to say I envisioned an area much like this.

I’ve no concerns about giving too much of the plot away because I can’t remember it. Instead, I remember snippets. A teen couple caught(?) canoodling. A child wandering around a barnyard. A sometime love interest who has managed to find the one way to turn down the pilot light. And a bristling mustache. So much for revealing who did it in a whodunit.

In a way, I can understand the appeal of these books. They demand nothing of you. The crimes, such as they are, have almost banal motivations. There’s no depth to the criminals, the detective or his sidekicks. You needn’t get involved with these people. It’s perfectly alright, in fact, to stop by for a visit, have a cup of coffee and hear about the most recent local goings-on.

No one will hold it against you if you don’t keep it all straight or even remember much more than to say, “Poor Iris.”


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