The Cat Saw Murder (1939) by Dolores Hitchens

Back in 2017 I read a much later book in the Rachel Murdock series, Cats Don’t Need Coffins (1946), a series Hitchens wrote under the penname D. B. Olsen. This was a book I really liked and I hoped to read more from the series. Unfortunately, these books are not easy to get a hold of in the UK, so I was really excited to see that the American Mystery Classic series were going to reprint the first book in the series.

Synopsis

‘When Rachel Murdock and her sister Jennifer receive a call for help from their favourite niece, Lily, in Breakers Beach, CA, they quickly hop a train from Los Angeles to see her — but not before collecting their prized cat Samantha in a picnic basket and bringing her along for the ride. Samantha, it turns out, is an heiress, the inheritor of a fortune left by a wealthy relative, and so the attempt at the cat’s life, made right after they arrive, comes as a shock. The cat survives, but unfortunately, Lily, murdered soon thereafter, is not so lucky.

By the time the police arrive, the clues are already falling into place. The source of Lily’s trouble is revealed to be a gambling debt incurred during an attempt to cheat at bridge, and the suspects in her slaying quickly pile up. But then another corpse is discovered, buried in the nearby sand, and it becomes clear that the killing spree concerns more than just the young lady’s personal money trouble. With the authorities distracted by lurid details, it’s up to Rachel and her furry friend to uncover the subtleties containing the solution to the puzzle.’

Overall Thoughts

Before commenting on the story itself, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the introduction this reprint comes with, written by Joyce Carol Oates. She is not an author I am familiar with, something I have found with the other American Mystery Classic books I have read. This is not a problem per se, but it does make it harder to assess how well read they are in golden age detective fiction and as such I can only go upon what they write in their introductions. Based on this alone, Oates’ introduction is riddled with generalisations and backhanded compliments, neither of which fit comfortably with the genre she is writing about. Here are some examples:

‘Mystery/detective novels of the Golden Age (1920-1939) are more akin to magic than to mainstream literature in which an exploration of human personality in a recognisably “real” world is the point, as well as a cultivation of language as an end in itself….’

‘In genre crime literature nothing precedes the crime: there are no significant “back-stories,” no complex social circumstances.’ [Interestingly Charles Williams who reviewed detective fiction between 1930 and 1935 complained in one of his reviews in 1931 that there was too much backstory going on in detective fiction!]

‘The ideal Golden Age mystery is a “locked-room” mystery in which ingenuity is the point, demonstrated by the (unknown) murderer and the sleuth who tracks and eventually names him, at which point the fiction dissolves to the sort of ending characteristic of fairy tales: nothing beyond this naming of the “guilty”, no lingering consequences of murderous crimes, no permanently traumatised victims, no anxiety about whether criminal justice will be fairly meted out, or meted out at all.’

Now I am not saying that there are no crossovers between magic, sleight of hand and golden age detective fiction, nor do I deny the importance of solving the crime, but I disagree with the reductive way Oates puts it. Moreover, you don’t even have to look beyond the Queens of crime to find many novels which did not fit the pattern Oates lays out. I appreciate that an introduction cannot be exhaustive in its description of the genre, but I am not sure how effective it is to use such generalisations. I fear they only undermine the genre as a whole and reinforce stereotypes which novice readers of the genre may not look beyond. Moreover, Oates’ introduction seems so keen to say what these mysteries supposedly lack that it makes enjoying such books appear like a guilty or irrational pleasure. It almost surprised me when Oates concludes near the end of her introduction that: ‘The Cat Saw Murder is an entertaining and endlessly surprising whodunit…’

One point I found interesting is the way Oates refers to this book as ‘a prototypical early “cat mystery,” written before the subgenre became a staple of cozy mystery fiction.’ Hitchens’ book is far from cozy, with the murders being remarkably violent and Hitchens is not afraid to be more detailed in the kind of treatment Rachel needs after she has been drugged, referring to proctoclysis equipment. And yes, I was silly enough to google what a proctologist pertained to…

I should also mention at this stage that this book is not really a locked room mystery, as Oates purports it to be. For the central murder, whilst there is more than one possible way for a killer to have entered, and there is conflicting evidence over the window, it is never stated that the door to the bedroom was watched the entire time or was locked. This is a great read, but I thought it important that readers did not go into reading it with expectations of a proper locked room crime.

Problematic introductions aside, let’s take a look at the book…

The novel begins with a third person narrator referring to how Rachel Murdock and Detective Lieutenant Stephen Mayhew reacted to the case they become involved in. (Subsequently, the narration switches to focusing on particular characters or pairs of characters.) The opening few paragraphs sound like the type of voiceover you expect from a film, where it hints of the horrors which await the characters:

‘As for Rachel herself: there was shock and grief, and a time when the cold fingers of death had almost clutched her. There was the puzzle of the crime, which allured her mathematical mind as would a problem in algebra.’

Then of course the narrator remembers they are getting ahead of itself: ‘So the scene fades back and back until…’

The synopsis to this edition suggests that both Rachel and her sister Jennifer go to visit their adopted niece, however this is not the case. It is only Rachel and their black cat Samantha who go. When we are introduced to the pair, Jennifer is quickly shown to be the more unadventurous of the two, thinking that travelling an hour away is too dangerous. In hindsight, given what Rachel goes through, Jennifer might have a point! Again, foreshadowing things to come the narrator says:

‘Lieutenant Mayhew has wished that he might have had the gift of second sight at this point. He maintains that he would have sent Miss Rachel straight back home: cat, baggage and all. Today, he thinks, he could have had the pleasure of knowing that two thoroughly disagreeable people were in prison. Cruel and ruthless people who deserved much worse than they got. Miss Rachel made him let them go.’

This is from the first couple of chapters, so already the reader is trying to figure out which two people from the boarding house this paragraph is describing. This excerpt also reveals the power of the amateur sleuth and the way, in fiction at least, they can sway police investigations. Nor is Rachel shy about reprimanding Lieutenant Mayhew when he completely mucks up an interview Rachel is conducting, as his entry on to the scene causes the witness to clam up.

Hitchens does a good job at introducing Rachel Murdock to us in this first book and quickly gets us on side when we see the grotty living conditions that Rachel is faced with at the boarding house, conditions which are caused by Lily’s slatternly ways. You can easily make a case for Lily’s untidy habits being indicative of the rest of the mess in her life.

Rachel’s trajectory into the becoming a sleuth is not entirely typical but becomes more plausible as a consequence. Not only is the victim her niece, but she herself is nearly killed and it is not until around page 114 that she is well enough to properly take part in the investigation. Nevertheless, her motivations for joining with the detecting seem to be far from emotionally based: ‘I’ve been to see so many murder mysteries, in the movies, but I’ve never had a – er – chance at the real thing. It’s gruesome […] but fascinating. Fascinating.’

Rachel is not immune to fear though, when it comes down to self-preservation, and in the middle of the story she has to battle against the temptation to pack up her bags and leave:

‘With a sudden burst of nervous action she jumped from the bed and began throwing things into her suitcase. But Miss Rachel, besides being a little bit timid, is also as curious as Alice in Wonderland, and she began to wonder, as she packed her things, who it was who wished to come into her room in such a surreptitious manner. This puzzlement gradually took hold of her mind, so that her hands moved more and more slowly at their task and finally she stopped and looked long and absently at the window.’

Furthermore, Rachel is not presented as an infallible sleuth as some of her ideas concerning the case comically prove to be incorrect. She might be elderly, but she is not an inactive detective, and her sneaky searches of other people’s rooms are amusingly told, as naturally they do not go without any hitches. At one point it is said that: ‘Under her couch Miss Rachel started to tremble. There was a Saint-somebody-or-other who was supposed to look after thieves, she had read somewhere, and she considered that he might perhaps also be interested in people who were guilty of unlawful entry.’

Lily’s murder is concisely but effectively lead up to, with many unusual incidents occurring on the first evening Rachel arrives. This gives the reader time to pick up information about the various inhabitants of the boarding house, but Hitchens is smart enough to ensure that there is not too much overlap between this information and the facts Lieutenant Mayhew initially gathers just after the murder.

Lieutenant Mayhew certainly has his rough edges. He is no Inspector Alleyn or Sir John Appleby. He is the sort of cop who comes away from interviews with facial wounds, though that does also suggest that his suspects are not overly genteel. Nevertheless, he does not have the best effect on women, provoking somewhat violent responses:

‘Mayhew came closer to her, and he suddenly took her wrist in his hand. He cannot remember that he had any rude intentions. It is a gesture he uses to let his opponent feel his strength. But Sara Malloy was tense and angry, and when he touched her she flew at him like a cat.’

This scene has a hardboiled edge to it, yet the commentary which follows it attempts to undercut it I think:

‘There is a quality in Mayhew’s personality that makes women want to hurt him. Miss Rachel has studied it and labels it sex appeal. Which proves that Miss Jennifer is right when she maintains that Miss Rachel goes to too many moving pictures.’

Though you may argue that what it really does is reveal Rachel’s blind spots.

In terms of the solution, I think there is a possibility of the more experienced mystery reader picking up on a certain point. This will centre suspicion in a certain quarter, but I don’t think it unravels the entire solution. Some thriller elements are deployed at the denouement to bring about the unmasking of the guilty and we do have that annoying trope of the witness who doesn’t talk until the 11th hour. However, I don’t think this overly mars the book and I am eager to read more in the series. Fingers crossed American Mystery Classics will reprint more of them!

Rating: 4.5/5

9 comments

  1. Welcome back Kate. Despite the cliche about book judgements from their covers, I wrongly assumed this was an ultra cozy mystery given the cat in the title and in the cover art and had planned to avoid it. Instead I will look for this based on the strength of your review as I have never read anything by Hitchens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes this is definitely not cozy and is well worth a read. This series is one of her more traditionally plotted ones, but if you like psychological suspense then Stark House Press have reprinted a number of her titles. Her handling of familiar themes or tropes is invariably refreshingly executed, such as in Terror in the Darkness, which does something quite interesting with Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles concept.

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  2. I haven’t read this mystery (or the new introduction), and I know Oates only by reputation…but I’ll offer a generalization of my own (though I’ll qualify it with a “most” or an “often,” as is usually appropriate): Often when literary fiction people approach genre fiction like mysteries or erotica or SF, they seem to make sweeping and dismissive generalizations without necessarily having “condescended” to explore the genre in depth. Sometimes they even decide to write, and publish, a genre fiction work of their own, still without familiarizing themselves with the genre—with the result that they create something that reads like they’re doing it as a joke/stunt or like they’re smugly self-satisfied for “creatively” coming up with ideas that have actually been done countless times before.

    I also suspect that editors sometimes tap famous names for introductions because of the prestige, without necessarily ascertaining how well qualified the famous author is to do it. (And I’ve encountered introductions to multiauthor anthologies that were written in such a general way that I suspected the high-prestige author of the introduction didn’t feel obliged to read the contents at all.)

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  3. This is a great debut mystery for her longest running series character. I prefer her 1950s and 1960s crime novels, but her early ones with both Rachel Murdock and another brief series with Prof. Pennyfeather are excellent examples of traditional American mysteries of the Golden Age. She was so underrated and still is, I think. BUt it sure is nice to see so many of her books back in print! I loved the surprising elements in this one and was rather taken aback by the bloody ax murder. Hitchens loved ax murders, BTW — almost as much as Mary Robert Rinehart!

    When I saw that Oates had written the intro several moths ago when I was looking over the “Penzler American Mystery Classics” online catalog I thought, “Oh dear.” I’m not surprised it has loads of misinformation about the history of the genre, that she misuses genre catchwords and subgenre cataloging, and indulges in a kind of eggheady approach to what amounts to entertaining genre fiction. It’s not deep stuff here. If you hire a renowned literature and creative writing professor who has a few literary prizes on her mantel to write about murder mysteries this is what you’re bound to get. The portions that you quote couldn’t be more offbase. I can point Oates to a shelf-ful of books where there are lingering consequences of the crime. You know that Jean Potts wrote two of the best crime novels on this theme. One of my favorite Golden Age mysteries — Murder Among Friends by Lange Lewis (much deserved of being reprinted) — is *all* about the consequences of crime. Phooey on academics and their supposed expertise!

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    • Yes it is good to see more of Hitchens in print and I do hope more of these earlier/traditional series ones get reprinted, as they are the hardest for me to find. I have actually read more of her later work through Stark House Press and in those I like how creatively she uses familiar components (The Terror in the Darkness) and complicates notions of sleuthing (Beat Back the Tide).
      Lange Lewis is on my radar for authors I need to try but I have not managed to nab any of their books just yet. Aside from Murder Among Friends, what other titles would you recommend? Or which should I avoid, if any?

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