Cats and Crime: An Eclectic Exploration of the Darker Side to Cats in Early Mystery Fiction

Nowadays, cats can regularly be found in mystery fiction, often in, but by no means limited to, what is now termed ‘cosy’ crime. There are felines who assist their owners in solving crimes, such as in the Mulgray Twins’ No Suspicious Circumstances (2007) and there are even cats who embody a much more anti-heroic role; namely in Suzette A Hill’s Reverend Oughterard series, where a cat spends most of its time attempting to keep its owner from jail and other unpleasant situations. However, cats in crime fiction is no modern phenomena. Throughout the history of the genre there have always been an array of cat themed titles, regardless of whether any cat featured in the novel itself: Cat and Mouse (1950) by Christianna Brand, Kyle Hunt’s Cruel as a Cat (1968) and Curiosity Killed a Cat (1941) by Anne Rowe, are but a few examples. Incidentally D. B. Olsen wrote a dozen novels between the 1930s and 50s whose quirky titles all reference cats, such as Cats Don’t Need Coffins (1946) and Cats Don’t Smile (1945). Technically there is an actual cat in the series, as the amateur sleuth Rachel Murdock does have such a pet.

Yet I think what is not always so widely considered though, is the darker history cats have had in the mystery genre and regardless of how their role in mystery fiction has changed and developed over time, that element of danger, of the unknown, is always lurking in the background. From the very beginning, in the criminal tales of Edgar Allan Poe, we find in the short story ‘The Black Cat,’ (1843) cats are not only subjects of abuse, but are also figures of retribution and impending doom. An increasing madness which comes upon the narrator causes him to gouge out an eye from his black cat, Pluto, and ultimately hang him. However, the roles of the persecutor and the persecuted are reversed when the narrator takes in another cat, who is also one-eyed. This second cat’s deliverance of guilt and judgement upon the narrator is encapsulated in how the splotch of white fur around its neck begins to represent to the narrator ‘the image of a hideous – of a ghastly thing – of the GALLOWS! – oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and Crime – of Agony and Death!’ (Poe, 1843: 254). Moreover, the narrator goes on to complicate the cat’s role further by implying that not only was it the cat’s fault that his murder of his wife was discovered, but that it was the ‘hideous beast [’s …] craft [which] seduced [him] into murder’ (Poe, 1843: 258) in the first place. This claim significantly alters how we view justice in the story, questioning its costs (i.e. the death of the wife) and wondering how far the cat is the responsible for what happened.

This story is no isolated case as the eerie and uncomfortable feeling cats can have in mystery fiction continued into the Golden Age of crime, such as in Todd Downing’s The Cat Screams (1934), where the cry of a cat can be heard before death strikes and in Mignon G. Eberhart’s The Patient in Room 18 (1929), the birth of three kittens and the death of one of them, is feared to mean a third tragedy will strike St Ann’s hospital. In particular though, I wish to focus on Agatha Christie’s short story, ‘The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael’ (1933), where Lady Carmichael’s attempts to use the death of her cat to enslave her stepson, are violently thwarted by the cat itself, or so we are urged to believe by the story’s narrator. The cat’s eldritch presence gives the house an ‘uncanny’ (Christie, 1933: 183) feeling and the ‘menacing’ (Christie, 1933: 188) cat cries leave everyone on edge. Yet as with Poe’s story, the menace is only intended for one person, the one whose guilt begins with an act of violence against the cat and again as with Poe only death will be deemed an appropriate reparation. This ability for cats to unnerve humans, aided by their stealthy and silent movements, is also explored in this story when such movements are found in Sir Arthur Carmichael. Ellery Queen also picked up on the feline capacity for producing fear, in their novel Cat of Many Tails (1949), where a serial killer who is terrorising New York, is nicknamed by the newspapers, ‘The Cat.’

Perhaps it is this ability to frighten us that has led mystery writers to include cats so frequently as fatalities in their stories, as the Golden Age of crime has quite a catalogue of feline deaths. In another Christie short story, ‘The Cretan Bull’ (1940), a man in a drugged state kills one and in ‘The Face of Helen,’ (1927) one unfortunate cat dies when entering a house filled with gas. Violent feline death also comes up in A. Fielding’s Black Cats are Lucky (1938); an ironic title given that whilst Sir Henry Bachelor was poisoned to death, his cat was bludgeoned. However, cats did sometimes fare better in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, such as in ‘The Cyprian Cat,’ (1933) where a man who intended to shoot a tabby cat at the inn he is staying at, ends up shooting the wife of a friend instead.

Two other roles can also be found for cats in Golden Age detective novels. The first is similarly shrouded in darkness and death as in such mysteries writers have often used cats in their murder methods. For instance, in a short story by Sayers, ‘Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz’ (1933), cats are used as a means of frightening someone to death, whilst Christie finds a deadly use for pus from a cat’s infected ear in one of her novels. However the second role for felines in Golden Age mystery fiction is a more positive one, transforming and brightening their role as harbourers of rough justice, by having them help the sleuths solve the crimes they are investigating. This can happen from a distance, such as in Robin Forsythe’s The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935), where the hairs from a ginger cat provide an important clue to the killer’s identity. Or alternatively, as in Christie’s A Murder is Announced (1950), the direct act of the vicar’s cat fusing the lights by knocking a glass of water over its’ frayed electrical cord, led to Miss Marple finding the last piece of the puzzle that she needed to solve the murders. This naturalistic mode of a cat aiding the sleuth is taken even further in Ellis Peters’ Christmas short story, ‘The Trinity Cat’ (1976), where a unintentional trail of catnip enabled a cat, who was described as an ‘avenging detective’ (Peters, 1976: 110), to reveal who the murderer was. Cats at a symbolic or pictorial level can also become crucial clues, such as in Sayers’ Cloud of Witnesses (1926), where a cat-shaped piece of jewellery significantly contributes to Wimsey solving the case.

Finally no history of cats in mystery fiction, however eclectic, would be complete without a brief look at how the predatory and dangerous aspect of felines has been transferred by mystery writers to their fictional sleuths. Due to this similarity in dispositions, it is not surprising, given the previous history of cats in this post, that detectives are not always the most popular of people. In her novel debut, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Christie’s Miss Marple is introduced to us, through the vicar’s wife Griselda as, ‘the worst cat in the village’ (Christie, 1930: 6). Why might we ask? Because ‘she always knows every single thing that happens – draws the worst inferences from it’ (Christie, 1930: 6) and of course, even worse, she is the ‘kind of old cat [who] is always right’ (Christie, 1930: 20). This feline imagery draws us back to Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’ with its sense of a cat’s ability to unobtrusively observe everything that is going on and use these observations for judicial ends. Whilst Miss Marple may appear innocent and harmless, further feline images hint at her predacious approach to sleuthing, such as when Sir Henry Clithering comments on Miss Marple’s desire to investigate the crimes: ‘Wouldn’t she like to get her nice ladylike teeth into this’ (Christie, 1950: 42). Hercule Poirot is similarly depicted with his eyes being likened to those of a cat in Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and during the investigation he is said to be ‘like a cat pouncing on a mouse’ (Christie, 1934: 177). Again this undermines the genteel exterior fictional sleuths from the Golden Age often exuded, revealing the tenacity and determination underneath to see justice done for the murders committed, which in those days meant execution. As with the cats mentioned earlier on, the price of reparation was death. However, I think with a sleuth such as Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, we also see the wonderfully feline quality of being enigmatic, a quality which leads to those around Mrs Bradley frequently feeling similar sensations of being unnerved and decidedly unsure of themselves. For instance in Tom Brown’s Body (1949) Mrs Bradley is declared to be a ‘sphinx’ (Mitchell, 1949: 110), whilst in The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop (1930), it is said that Felicity on looking upon ‘Mrs Bradley’s grin […] began to understand how Alice in Wonderland must have felt upon first beholding the Cheshire Cat’ (Mitchell, 1930: 174). Whether the sleuth is as innocuous looking as Miss Marple, as eccentric as Mrs Bradley or as individualist and lonely as a classic noir private detective, I think the ambiguous qualities we associate with cats can be found in all of them, giving them a tantalising and intriguing sense of the unknown, with a capacity to unfurl justice and not always in an orthodox manner.

Bibliography

Christie, Agatha (1930; 2016). The Murder at the Vicarage. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, Agatha. (1933; 2016). The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael. In: The Hound of Death. London: Harper Collins. pp. 175-201.

Christie, Agatha (1935; 2011). Murder on the Orient Express. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, Agatha (1950; 2016). A Murder is Announced. London: Harper Collins.

Mitchell, Gladys (1930; 2010). The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop. London: Vintage.

Mitchell, Gladys (1949; 2009). Tom Brown’s Body. London: Vintage.

Peters, Ellis. (1976; 2014). The Trinity Cat. In: Penzler, O. The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. London: Head of Zeus Ltd. pp. 103-113.

Poe, Edgar Allan. (1843; 1992). The Black Cat. In: Tales of Suspense. London: The Reader’s Digest Association Limited. pp. 249-258.

5 comments

  1. There is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat in Paul Halter’s La mort derrière les rideaux. Poe’s tale has a significance in Halter’s novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed the mentions of Robin Forsythe’s ‘Ginger Cat Mystery’ and Todd Downing’s ‘Cat Screams’ – so thanks for the analysis. 🙂 Though I should try to forget what I gleaned regarding ‘Ginger Cat’ before reading it! It’s one of the Forsythe novels I haven’t got round to.

    I enjoyed ‘Cat Screams’, and it’s just about the only mystery novel where the cat’s action proved crucial… Which caught me by surprise. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops! Sorry about the spoiler issue. I think my own memories of it all is so dim that it didn’t seem that much of a spoiler. There is a lot more to the case than the cat hairs so I don’t think I have given too much away … hopefully …

      Like

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