By Roberta


AUTHOR:  Lilian Jackson Braun
DATE:   2001
LENGTH:  293 pages in paperback
GENRE: mystery


“It was late October, and Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere, was in danger of being wiped off the map.  In the grip of a record-breaking drought, towns and farms and forests could be reduced to ashes overnight – given a single spark and a high wind.  Volunteer firefighters were on round-the-clock alert, and the congregations of fourteen churches prayed for snow.  Not rain.  Snow!”


So begins the latest James Qwilleran mystery novel.  Well, the latest in paperback – there’s already another out in hardcover. Lilian Jackson Braun is prolific and reliable. The “Cat Who …” books are all solid mysteries, charming, intriguing, readable, and entertaining. 


James Qwilleran – spelled with a W – is an ex-reporter from Down Below, now living in the town of Pickax City, county seat of Moose County.  Down Below, of course, is anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states.  Qwill inherited the vast Klingenschoen fortune almost as a fluke.  Using it to establish the charitable K Foundation, he endeared himself to the local populace.  He writes a regular column for the Moose County Something, called the Qwill Pen.  Depending upon the season, he either lives just outside town in a converted apple barn, or in a condominium in Indian Village, with his two Siamese cats, Yum Yum and Kao K’o Kung, known as Koko.  Being a crime investigator at heart, he solves mysteries, of which Moose County has far more than its fair share.  As the titles suggest, his cats, primarily Koko, help him in this task, and yet they never do anything other than act like Siamese cats.


This time around, things start with a rash of fires around local historic mine sites, which could be either arson or the result of subterranean fires deep within the interconnected mine tunnels.  The fires are more dangerous than ever due to the drought, and Qwill is one of the residents who join a volunteer fire watch.  Things get even more alarming when one of the volunteers is murdered investigating an apparent trespasser at one of the mine shafts.  Then a much loved local business, a used book store whose aged owner recently died, is destroyed in an explosion from which his cat, a long-hair named Winston Churchill, miraculously escapes.  As the tension grows, two respected senior citizens abruptly and suspiciously leave town, and then another man dies in a dubious ‘accident’.  Through all of this, there is an intriguing mayoral election campaign, the suggestion of corrupt business practices by the company that built the Indian Village condominiums, a rash of newcomers settling in Pickaxe, including a rare book dealer and an astrologist, and Qwill’s constant search for local stories to include in his collection of Moose County legends, to be entitled Short and Tall Tales.


Eventually, Qwill discovers that the murders and the explosion at the bookstore, as well as the disappearance of Dr. Zoller and Maggie Sprenkle, are all tied into the schemes of a crooked politician and his partner, a ne’er-do-well involved in a decades-old cheating scandal at the local high school.  In the climax, the columnist lures the guilty party to his condo and tricks him into admitting his guilt, with police listening in all the while.


The actual mystery isn’t that different from countless other mystery novels that are published every year.  James Qwilleran isn’t even that unique a fictional detective.  There are three things that set the “Cat Who…” books apart from the others.  First, the setting: Pickax City is a small town with its own personality, and Braun uses the community almost like another character  The residents have names like Wetherby Goode and Derek Cuttlebrink; there are details about the community’s history, like how the blacksmith shop turned into  a used bookstore that became a tourist attraction or how the Post Office came to have beautiful old murals showing actual old-time residents at work around the community:


“Two topics of conversation occupied downtown Pickax on Tuesday: the Citizen’s Fire Watch and the loss of Eddington Smith.  Townsfolk were filled with sorrow on the one hand and hope on the other as they shared their thoughts at the post office, a civic meeting place.  Built in Moose County’s heydey, when Pickax expected to become a northern Chicago, its interior walls had been covered with murals in the 1930s – a federal project to give work to unemployed artists during the Great Depression.  The post office and the bookstore were the city’s two tourist attractions.”


The next unique element is Qwilleran’s odd set of friends, and all their conversations, frequently over meals at the various restaurants in Moose County.  “Tipsy’s Tavern in nearby Kennebeck was a roadhouse in a sprawling log cabin that had been noted for good food since the 1930s.  The founder had named it after his cat, a white one with comical black markings, and her portrait hung in the main dining room.  At one time there had been a countywide controversy over her feet in the painting: should they be black or white? Customers were in complete agreement about the steak and fish, however.  It was the best!”  At Tipsy’s or at any other of the eating establishments, Qwill gathers with the editor of the Something, a childhood friend lured up from Chicago; Polly, the librarian who is also Qwill’s regular girlfriend – only don’t call her that in front of either of them; and many other often eccentric friends.


However, it’s the third element that really sets these books apart:  the cats.  First, there are cats everywhere.  The library has feline mascots, the most respected widow in town, Maggie Sprenkle, has five cats named after her favorite female authors, Polly has Brutus and Catta, and, of course, Qwill has Koko and Yum Yum.  Now, Koko doesn’t really do anything you wouldn’t see cats doing.  It’s just that his actions provide Qwill with essential clues. When he starts tearing up newspapers, he draws Qwill’s attention to particular stories just at the right time to make the right connections.  In “The Cat Who Smelled a Rat”, Koko’s obsession with a glove box leads to an important discovery:


“After Koko had finished his breakfast, he walked directly to the glove box as if it were his assignment for the day.  It was still open, and he jumped in, settling in a huddled position to fit the space: back humped, head and ears alert, tail drooping over the outside of the box.

“It was obvious to Qwilleran that the cat’s body seemed elevated as if on a cushion.  He brought a ruler from his desk and measured the height of the box and the depth of the interior.  It was six inches outside, four inches inside.

“A false bottom!” he said aloud.”


Inside the false bottom is a clue that reveals the true identity of the murderer.  The reader can decide for herself if the cat is really some kind of clairvoyant, as Qwill believes, or if Koko’s actions simply prompt the columnist to see things in a different light.  Either way, the cats never do anything except to BE CATS, which very much adds to the appeal of the books.


Readers can also have fun trying to pick out all the relevant information that Braun drops into the story; not all the conversations or historic details about Pickax and its residents are there solely for local color.  Put together, all these elements turn James Qwilleran’s adventures into some of the most fun-to-read mysteries around.  There are now more than 20 books in the “Cat Who…” series, and they each have their own charm.  They are written in a definite sequence, but it is not absolutely necessary to read them in order.  It is quite possible to fully enjoy reading one of the later books in the series without ever having read any of the earlier ones. Braun fits the essential information from Qwill’s past into each book, without it feeling awkward or forced, and as a result, each book is fully capable of standing on its own.

It would be easy to dismiss Lilian Jackson Braun as a ‘light’ author, until you think about how neatly and compactly everything fits into her stories, and realize how much planning had to go into them.  There are clues and important information woven very skillfully into every corner of the story, and yet it’s all done with humor and a quiet sense of the absurdities of everyday life.  “The Cat Who Smelled a Rat” is an admirable entry in the series, and if you are at all fond of mysteries, or of cats, or especially of mysteries AND cats, you will most likely find yourself intrigued enough to seek out the other books about Qwilleran, Koko, and Yum Yum.  Please let me know if you enjoy them as much as I do.


You can find a copy of "The Cat Who Smelled a Rat" at , your local book store or library

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