“Meow If It’s Murder” by T.C. Lo Tempio (2014)

Zoophilia.

Now that I’ve got Google’s attention, this is a book about zoophilia!

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No, really.

I mean, it’d have to be, considering the protagonist is named “Nora Charles” and she names her pet cat “Nick” – after her famous literary/film namesake’s HUSBAND.

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This, after she is told by a friend that the cat is a fulfillment of that friend’s “psychic” prediction that she would be visited by a “dark, handsome stranger.”

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A prediction which both of them affirm as part of a long-running series of predictions her friend has made about the protagonist’s LOVE LIFE.

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“It ain’t fiction / Just a natural fact…”

So, yes. Zoophilia.

This disgusting take on interspecies romance is set in a small California seaside-town[1] called “Cruz”, the hometown of the protagonist[2] to which she has returned after her mother’s death. She was apparently a successful crime reporter or investigative journalist in Chicago, but has now begun to take up her mother’s legacy and pursue the delicate art of sandwichcraft. In Cruz she stumbles across a local cold case which she is determined to solve, and makes the acquaintance of an unnaturally communicative cat and a suspiciously perfect police officer.

If any of that sounds vaguely familiar, then you may also have read A Midwinter’s Tail; the two books seem to follow the same basic pattern and I’m told that this is a staple of the new “cozy” mystery genre  – again we have a successful middle-aged career woman leaving behind her successful career in a major metropolitan center (in A Midwinter’s Tail, Boston; in this book, Chicago) so she can move to a small town in another State and run a small, local business. In that small town she encounters a cat with supernatural capabilities and begins a romance with a tall, gorgeous law enforcement officer who is inexplicably attracted to her. None of this is new, and it almost reads like a paint-by-numbers approach to mystery novels aimed at 21st century female readers. Zoophilic undertones aside.

But perhaps the most insufferable part of the book is that, all things considered, it’s actually not that bad!

For one thing, neither the cover image nor the title is a lie. At least, not entirely!

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It is indeed the first in a new series; there are characters named Nick and Nora who form the novel’s central dramaturgical dyad; the case does appear to be “open and shut” until they scratch the surface; and much of the book takes place in a sandwich shop. There is indeed a black-and-white cat and that cat does spell things out using other objects (though not, as in the illustration, using bread). Meowing occurs and the meowing is even intended to communicate that a murder has been committed!

After some of the previous books I have read — books whose titles and cover art appear as little more than calculated deceptions — this development is almost too beautiful to believe.

As I said, there are several familiar elements, but they are done far, far better here than in Sofie Kelly’s book. The protagonist is less blandly obnoxious than the protagonist of A Midwinter’s Tail and she is far from the Mary Sue beloved by all other characters in Kelly’s novel. The protagonist of Meow If It’s Murder is snarky, snippy, stubborn, and those same traits are shown to have real consequences for her interpersonal relationships; many of the other characters actually become indifferent or hostile towards her as the narrative progresses. Characters in general seem more like actual individuals and human beings (albeit thinly sketched) and the protagonist’s circle of allies consists solely of her childhood best-friend and the partner of Nick’s previous human. The mystery itself occupies most of the protagonist and author’s attention and is remarkably well thought out! I didn’t have it solved right off the bat, I cared about its unraveling, and it seemed integral to the narrative rather than a half-hearted element only grudgingly introduced into a story primarily dedicated to shopping, gossip and party-planning. Most importantly, Nick the cat is introduced in the first chapter, is consistently and frequently present throughout, is invaluable in solving the mystery, and is presented as a properly uncanny feline, cunning, resourceful and ravenous.

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Make no mistake: Ms. Lo Tempio is in desperate need of an editor and some more critical pre-publication readers. Some of the plot beats are telegraphed so obviously in advance that it’s actually offensive; some of the clues (such as the first word which the cat spells out using Scrabble tiles) are agonizingly obvious to the reader yet apparently impenetrable to the heroine; and some of the characters are… off. Ms. Lo Tempio seems to share a weakness I have noticed among many female human authors – giving long, Long, LONG descriptions of character’s sartorial choices but only vague and unmemorable references to their actual physical appearances. I could tell you the brand of pants and socks an incidental character wears, but not the color of the protagonist’s hair! Vague references are made to the appearances of some characters, like her best friend, another detective, and an executive’s assistant, but they don’t stick and they are rarely if ever mentioned again. The characters are personalities and accents in lovingly-described outfits while their actual physical realities remain in question. Given that I have noticed this in the writings of many modern human female authors, I am beginning to suspect that many of your kind share a sort of expanded face-blindness, perceiving fellow humans as little more than accents and personalities swathed in very specific articles of clothing.

The cat is described fairly well on the other hand. Nick is a handsome, sturdy feline of the “tuxedo” variety, with a smooth, rolling gait and an air of untroubled confidence. He understands the case, the clues and the stakes better than any of the human characters, and without his expert aid the murder undoubtedly would have gone unsolved. One can readily understand why the protagonist would fancy him, but humans must learn to confine their romantic aspirations to their own species! What cat could ever be content with one of you blundering, ungainly primates? I suspect that, as the series continues the protagonist’s struggle between her love for the cat and her lust for the police officer will form a key part of her internal conflict. Given how much they set up the zoophilic romance at the novel’s start only to shift attention to her yearning for the human male lead, that’s really the only way I can see it turning out.

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As for the human romantic interest, he is suffocatingly obnoxious in how perfect he comes across – and honestly, given everything she says about him physically, financially, etc. one cannot help but feel that he deserves much better than the protagonist! He doesn’t appear to have some fetish she satisfies; he doesn’t appear to find it thrilling when women worship him; he doesn’t seem to enjoy feeling superior; he’s not even especially fond of her sandwiches. So why on Bast’s green EARTH would this living god want to be involved with a bumbling, irritable, would-be-detective like her? My human’s fondness for William Shatner’s musical stylings makes more sense than this romance! Indeed, Twilight makes more sense!

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You may never hear me say something like this again, but the attraction of Edward to Bella in Twilight is comparatively well-written; she smelled addictively delicious, so it makes sense that he would pursue her.[3] If I met a female cat who smelled like fresh tuna day and night, I doubt I would ever leave her side! But we are never given enough information to explain why the male lead of Meow If It’s Murder might be interested in the book’s protagonist. She is smart, but not very; witty, but not very; successful, but not very; and her appearance is… um… er… Well, that’s where the author’s apparent aversion to physical descriptions of humans works against her yet again. We know the basic outline of the love interest – that he is a glorious, chiseled, muscular, tanned, blonde Adonis with expensive designer clothing, etc. – but we know nothing of the protagonist’s appearance. She too might be a living goddess, a regular Bast or Ishtar, but the reader remains ignorant of this; and judging by how bewilderedly dumbfounded his appearance leaves her, one can safely assume that she is not on his level physically. Is this to better allow the reader to imagine herself[4]  in the place of the protagonist? I think Lloyd Alexander did something rather similar with the protagonist of his “Prydain” novels, but there it worked – the first and only being who ever pointed out to me that element of Alexander’s novels was my human. And good for him! Even I hadn’t picked up on it! Yet whereas Alexander’s use of this is so subtle it escapes most readers’ notices, Lo Tempio inadvertently calls attention to the protagonist’s gaping lack of appearance by calling so much attention to the love interest’s idealized appearance.

By comparison Nick the cat is down-to-earth, rugged and striking. He’s a cat with whom you’d like to share a plate of bacon. So the choice between the police officer and Nick is rather like giving a human the choice between Azathoth and Nodens:

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If they know what’s good for them, the human will choose the latter. But humans never do.

So while, again, this book is not without its flaws, Ms. Lo Tempio actually shows a lot of promise; and as this is her first real novel, one suspects that many of its flaws can be written off as simple first-time-author errors. She wrote herself into a corner with the romantic leads, needs to work on more artfully dropping clues, and needs to learn to describe human beings instead of simply the outfits they are wearing. But after reading A Midwinter’s Tail, I can hardly work up the visceral hatred necessary to condemn or dismiss this novel. I wouldn’t say it’s good, not exactly, but… Well, it isn’t bad. You could definitely do worse. I certainly have in the past!

Are there better reads? Better romances? Better mysteries? Better examples of cat-lit? Absolutely. But it’s a first novel; this could be the start of something great, and I wish Ms. Lo Tempio all the best!

 

 

 

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[1] In film and literature, there is apparently no other kind.

[2] I will only refer to her as “the protagonist” and other similar phrases because I refuse to acknowledge that she has anything in common with Dashiell Hammett’s immortal character or the character portrayed on the silver-screen by the divine Ms. Myrna Loy.

[3] There. I did it. I said something kind about Twilight and compared it to something favorably. I feel so dirty, but stand by my analysis.

[4] Because this book, like most mystery novels of the “cozy” variety, is unquestionably intended for a female readership.

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