The Late-Blooming Writer and The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

The Late-Blooming Writer and The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

Why do we love a feline gumshoe?

Britt Petersen at Slate cites a literary tradition of mystical cats, “from the witchly cat Grimalkin of the 16th-century anti-Catholic satire Beware the Cat, to Poe’s ‘Black Cat,’ the demonic Behemoth in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cats of Ulthar, and Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat.”

But Jake Hinkson at Criminal Element states the obvious:

Cats…are mysterious little bastards. You have to give them that. They disappear for hours or days at a time. They like the night. (Hell, they have night-vision.) They stare at most humans with the same mix of condescension and malice.

Serendipitously, Lilian Jackson Braun, the most famous creator of a feline detective, is also a late bloomer. Starting at age 53, she wrote 29 books about a reporter who regularly stumbles over bodies and the Siamese cat who intuits clues.

She passed away at age 98, having enjoyed a phenomenal 45-year second act.

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards and Beyond

The Late Bloomer and the Cat Who Could Read Backwards at Lilian Jackson Braun started publishing this series at age 53!Lilian Jackson Braun was born on June 20, 1913 in Willimansett, a tiny Massachusetts village. She began reading and writing at age three, but she turned 16 just as the Depression began, so college was out of the question.

Lilian worked as an copywriter and public-relations executive before signing on as a lifestyle writer at The Detroit Free Press.

She published The Cat Who Could Read Backwards at age 53. The book debuted in 1966 and evokes the golden era of cocktails, abstract art, and daily newspapers.

Jim Qwilleran, the book’s human protagonist, was once a prize-winning investigative journalist, until his wife left him and he turned to scotch-on-the-rocks. (It’s unclear which came first.)

Finally sober but sporting a large resume gap, he lands a job covering the art scene in an unnamed town a few hours from New York City:

…he noticed a copyboy feeding yellow pencils into a small moaning contraption. Qwilleran stared at the thing. An electric pencil sharpener! He had never thought it would come to this. It reminded him how long he had been out of touch.

The Late Bloomer and the Cat Who Could Read Backwards at Lilian Jackson Braun started publishing this series at age 53!Although Qwill “doesn’t know the Venus de Milo from the Statue of Liberty,” his employer, The Daily Fluxion, seems unconcerned.

They just need some human interest stories to balance the vitriolic fervor of their reclusive art critic, George Bonifield Montclemens III.

With few exceptions, the whole art community loathes Montclemens. But his scathing column attracts a huge number of readers who can’t resist the carnage. As one of Qwilleran’s colleagues puts it:

All the artists in this town hate each other, and all the art-lovers take sides. Then everybody plays rough. It’s like football only dirtier. Name-calling, back-biting, double-crossing—

Montclemens summons Qwilleran to his subdivided Victorian in a once-fashionable neighborhood. Most of the stately homes have become cheap rooming houses or quarters for odd business enterprises.

Qwilleran pegs the mender of antique porcelain as a bookie and the manufacturer of burlesque costumes as, well, take a guess.

But Montclemens proves to be a genteel Noel Coward-type who cooks like a French chef and offers Qwilleran one of his flats on the cheap. Qwilleran, desperate to leave his ratty hotel, accepts without realizing the catch.

The Late Bloomer and the Cat Who Could Read Backwards at Lilian Jackson Braun started publishing this series at age 53!Or rather, the cat. Enter our real hero, a Siamese named Kao K’o-Kung after a 13th century Chinese artist. Koko, as he’s known, loves the smell of fresh ink and reads newspaper headlines from right to left, of course.

When Montclemens visits New York to acquire art, Qwilleran’s job is to feed Koko raw beef warmed in broth with a sprinkle of sage. The bodies don’t pile up until the midpoint, but there’s no shortage of eccentricity in the early pages.

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards proved an instant success. Koko isn’t a silly or supernatural cat who talks. He just does what cats do (like sniffing out a musty hidden staircase or bloody murder weapon) and leaves the rest to Qwilleran.

They make an entertaining team. Lilian considered Koko her Sherlock Holmes and Qwill her Watson.

Lilian wrote two more successful novels in the series, but her publisher rejected the fourth because the market had changed. “They wanted sex and violence, not kitty-cat stories,” she recalls.

A Sixteen Year Hiatus from Writing

After several more publishers passed on it, Lilian stopped writing. She threw herself into her day job at The Detroit Free Press and climbed the ranks. Sixteen years passed. Her first husband died and she retired from the newspaper.

The Late Bloomer and the Cat Who Could Read Backwards at Lilian Jackson Braun started publishing this series at age 53!Lilian eventually remarried former actor Earl Bettinger, an old family friend. He encouraged her to resubmit the abandoned manuscript.

In 1986, the Berkley Publishing Group published The Cat Who Saw Red. It was nominated for an Edgar Award, ending Lilian’s quiet retirement.

Lilian produced one or two books a year until 2007. Writing came easy for her “after working from nine to five for fifty years.”

She eschewed rigid hours or word count goals. She preferred to draft in longhand on legal pads, then edit on a typewriter. (Although the method seems arduous now, James Michener wrote the same way.)

When asked how much of her work was inspired by her own cats, Lilian replied

Everything! I don’t believe I could write the books without my cats. Every day they do something that gives me an idea. They are very creative, and what they do starts me off on a new idea…

Lilian Jackson Braun died in 2011 from a lung infection, just shy of her 98th birthday. She wasn’t able to complete her thirtieth novel, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke.

“She regretted it most of all because so many fans wanted another book,” Earl Bettinger said.

I find it sad that Lilian stopped writing for sixteen years because sex and violence became the norm. But I like to think she incubated her time at the newspaper and spun it into her fiction later.

From her debut as a novelist at age 53, beyond rejection and that dry spell, Lilian Jackson Braun “ultimately created a whole new chapter in the American mystery,” her editor at Berkley observed.

Do you have a four-legged muse?


21 Responses

  1. lindsay edmunds
    | Reply

    “They wanted sex and violence, not kitty-cat stories,” she recalls.”

    More evidence publishers can be clueless about what readers want.

    Another inspiring story. Thank you.

    • Florence Fois

      Yes, yes, yes … Lindsay … I think that no matter what era we search … publishers have always been the last to know what readers truly want 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      You’re so very welcome, Lindsay. I’ve researched so many writers’ lives where publishing ignorance has been egregious, Lindsay. (Madeleine L’Engle is another. NO ONE wanted A Wrinkle in Time, can you imagine?) Personally, I could do without sex and violence in my reading matter and I know tons of readers who feel the same.

  2. Kathryn Chastain Treat
    | Reply

    I have read many of these books and have loved them all.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks for stopping by, Kathryn! I enjoyed the first book so much, and look forward to going on in the series.

  3. Laura Best
    | Reply

    Loved this story, Debra! Love that she was writing right up until the time she passed. 98. That’s truly amazing.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I know, right? Sometimes when I feel a little creeky in the morning, I think about that and what I will be doing at that age (if I’m so lucky). Puts a whole new perspective on the day. Thanks for stopping by, Laura!

  4. Kassandra Lamb
    | Reply

    I love Quill and Koko. So sad that there will be no more books in the series. Thanks for the great post, Debra. I didn’t know most of this about Lilian Jackson Braun.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      If I didn’t have a life and a blog to attend to, Kassandra, I would have spent the whole weekend going through these books! In fact, this was such a delightful read it made me a little nostalgic for the days when I could do that (*sigh*). But the great thing — 28 more books that will never go away (hopefully). Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Florence Fois
    | Reply

    Debra, you know my secret love is the mystery … in any form … I love them to distraction. Now I will not rest until I’ve read all of Braum’s cat stories. I know I will love them because she elevates the cat to its rightful thrown. I am also glad she didn’t cozy it up by having the animal talk or narrate for the humans in the stories.

    Rita Mae Brown has her animals talking and running the show. Others have done the same. This series sounds a bit more to my liking. So thanks 🙂

    It may be that my comment is about your blog in general and not this one in particular … but I hone in on this one because it is not the story of a failed or lost person who finds themselves late in life. It is about a vital woman who worked for her entire life with passion and shows us once again … it is never too late to do anything 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Florence. I’m aware of the Rita Mae Brown mysteries, but haven’t picked one up because I don’t like talking animals either. I think you’ll enjoy these, however. The cats are just cats. Even their human isn’t sure if they know things or if they simply hone his intuition. And very true, even though Lilian returned to newspaper writing for sixteen years, she apparently loved her job as a lifestyle editor and incorporated much of her experience into later books!

  6. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    How wonderful that after 16 years, she returned to writing! I do have my black cat Monkey who helps me write my Amanda stories, although she has not appeared in any of them (yet). I love your posts Debra!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Amanda. What a great name for a black cat, Darlene! And you never know, she may find her way into your books yet!

  7. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    I just had a cat wander into my WIP and totally change the plot. Then I was told there’s a category for “cat mysteries” on Amazon. How cool is that? But definitely Lillian Jackson Braun invented the genre in its current form. I didn’t know she did it after age 50. I always learn something here!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I remember seeing her books lining the shelves of the mystery section back in the day, Anne, but I read my first last week for this piece., Absolutely delightful. I’ve become a great fan of “cozies,” especially through you and your mom. Can’t wait to hear more about your WIP!

  8. Patricia
    | Reply

    As usual, a very funny post. I am not really a cat person but I loved the stories you shared. Animals are just great, no matter how you look at it. And some writers are so freaking creative.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks for stopping by, Patricia. Truly, how does one decide “I’m going to write a series about a sleuthing Siamese cat”? So glad Lilian didn’t let the naysayers get her down!

  9. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Debra, thank you so much for writing about Lillian Jackson Braun. I had never heard of her or her cat series. Yes, I live under a rock. I love the idea of a cat involved in the solving of a mystery. Cats are so sleuthy. Her idea was genius and different. So what if there wasn’t enough violence and sex. What does that have to do with telling a good story??? *Hits head on wall*

    The woman was an inspiration Debra! Thanks for sharing her story. 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Karen! I was only vaguely aware of Lilian’s stories myself. Quite honestly, I do remember seeing them lining the Mystery section back in the 1980s and ’90s when I read more mystery. I remember thinking, “How silly.” Boy, was I wrong! I loved the first book, because it had what I like best in a story — great characters and an engaging plot.

  10. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I had no idea she continued writing into her 90s — I know my mother definitely used to like her books, which as a kid I would call “those cat mysteries” — now perhaps I will pick one up to atone for making fun of my mother a little bit for how much she liked them.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I thought they sounded silly when I was browsing for mysteries back in the day (of actual bookstores). But I really enjoyed the first book. Part of the appeal is that “Mad Men” retro feel, which is completely genuine since it was written in 1966. Thanks so much for stopping by, Chris!

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