I believe I have figured out the precise formula utilized by all authors in this “cozy mystery” sub-genre of cat-lit:
1) Take a single, middle-aged, white female human. Make sure her precise physical appearance is never explicitly described.
2) Have her move from a major metropolitan area to a small town (preferably in “fly-over country”).
3) Have her be quirkily-employed and wealthy enough to maintain that quirky employment.
4) Have her meet at least one unrealistically-hunky human male near her age who finds her absolutely captivating (no matter how dull she actually is). Make sure he is some form of authority figure.
5) Have her become involved in a murder investigation despite the fact that she has no background in criminal justice.
6) Have her somehow uncover the true culprit and, through some variety of deus ex machina, survive the discovery and inevitable confrontation.
7) Add cats to season.
1) Kathleen Paulson from A Midwinter’s Tail.
The fake-Nora Charles from Meow If It’s Murder.
Jillian Hart from this book.
2) From Boston, Massachusetts to Mayville Heights, Minnesota because her long-time boyfriend breaks up with her and marries someone else.
From Chicago, Illinois to Cruz, California because her mother died and she intends to take over her business.
From Austin, Texas to Mercy, North Carolina because her husband wanted to move there.
3) A former big-city librarian turned small-town library manager.
A former-crime reporter turned small-town gourmet sandwich-shop owner.
A widow living off her husband’s life insurance so she can keep making quilts for needy cats.
4) The local police officer.
The local police officer with a mysterious past.
The former local police officer with a mysterious past.
5) The mysterious death of a friend’s ex-wife.
The mysterious death of a local socialite.
The mysterious death of a local cat-napper.
6) I wouldn’t want to spoil these three books for you, but… Trust me on this one, friends. They’re nearly identical in this regard.
7) Owen & Hercules.
Chablis, Syrah and Merlot.
So there you are. I have handed you the keys to success as a cozy cat-lit mystery author. The formula is all that matters; cleave to that and you will be set for life! Or at least until the popularity of cozy-mystery cat-lit dies down.
But, as far as entries in this formulaic sub-genre go, you could do a lot worse than Ms. Sweeney’s. The setting is charming, the characters are charming, the plot is generally engaging, and the murder is relatively well done. If I did not predict who had committed the crime till a third of the way in, this was only because the murderer had not been introduced until then – yet I didn’t begrudge the book this late reveal. On the one paw, the more classical style of murder mystery draws its artistry from presenting all the potential culprits at the start and then letting the reader try to suss things out along with the detective; but on the other paw, there is something to be said for the secret criminal, the one lurking in the shadows whom you never see coming. Both types of criminal are extremely feline – the quietly-overlooked-in-plain-sight and the unseen-till-sought – and it really is just a matter of personal preference which of the two you prefer. Now, this week’s book isn’t perfect, but it does nearly everything better than the other two entries I have so far encountered.
First and foremost, the cats feature far more prominently in The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse than in the other two. This is no great surprise where A Midwinter’s Tail is concerned, but Ms. Sweeney’s book also manages to beat Meow If It’s Murder in that regard by having both more cats and making them integral to the plot of the novel as well as the protagonist’s life. The cats are not peripheral characters, quirky sidekicks or simple window-dressing – they are the reasons the various crimes in this novel are committed. And while I don’t mind a bit of magic in my fiction, both A Midwinter’s Tail and Meow If It’s Murder relied far too heavily upon the appeal of the supernatural while simultaneously failing to earn their executions of it. This book, on the other hand, neither contains nor requires a supernatural angle to keep it interesting. The cats of Ms. Sweeney’s book are real cats, lacking any magic beyond that which all felines naturally possess.
The setting also feels more genuinely “small town” than did the settings of the other two. A Midwinter’s Tail felt almost more like the titular setting of the film Westworld, a fake place inhabited by automata who served the author-surrogate protagonist’s ego stroking. Meow If It’s Murder did a bit better, but the town of Cruz still felt woefully underdeveloped and spare, like a vast new subdivision with only a few houses occupied. The Cat, The Quilt and the Corpse on the other paw really manages to give you a sense of what life in a small Southern town might feel like, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business and a shared history gumming up the works for locals while proving an impenetrable barrier for strangers.
But again, this book isn’t perfect. For example, I’ve picked up on yet another odd quirk of this sort of book which The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse likewise contained – such books showcase what appears to be the human female obsession with fashion and decoration. I already discussed this problem at length in my reviews of Meow If It’s Murder and Cat’s Claw, and it was also present in A Midwinter’s Tail. Ms. Sweeney seems to have sometimes mistaken references to clothing or housewares for literary richness of detail; halting the narrative to let us know a table is made from teak wood, for instance, contributes nothing when the table is only mentioned once and has no purpose within the narrative.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the book’s strange attitude towards technology. The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse was published in 2009, yet the characters seem bewildered by the internet and use non-smart “flip-phones” – both things which seem odd to me as a kitten born around 2010. I assumed the oddness of these moments was simply a result of my callow youth, or perhaps of the characters’ middle age. But my human is somewhat technophobic, and he too seemed confused by those particular elements. He had a “flip-phone” until October of last year, and he remembers quite clearly being mocked by both the middle-aged and the elderly as far back as 2008 for his refusal to upgrade.
I also found it somewhat jarring every time the protagonist’s cats’ names were mentioned, as all three had been named after wines. This quirk was immediately noticeable to me and I suspect it would be far more noticeable to its intended audience of middle-aged-to-elderly women, yet the author fails to address it until over halfway through the book. And when she did address it, it somehow felt even more jarring, as her previous consistent failure so to do had made me acutely aware of its absence. But I am a cat and I do not drink wine, so maybe I’m missing something?
Oh, and the romance! Hmm. How to address this? Friends, I hope this doesn’t come across as cold or excessively prudish, but I found the way Jillian Hart salivated over the hot young men in this town…well…unsettling. You see, Mrs. Hart is a recent widow and she assures readers over and over again at the start of the book how much she misses her dear, departed husband. But the moment a hunky guy crosses her path she IMMEDIATELY begins panting after him and then explains to us that her husband was never very physically attractive, and he couldn’t possibly compete with (for instance) the hot firefighter her friend is lusting after, and a widow SURELY can’t be blamed for lusting after all the hot country boys she’s been interacting with since they moved to Mercy, South Carolina given that she spent so many years saddled with a physically unappealing husband, etc. etc. etc. It’s also worth noting that once she starts lusting after these men, mentions of concern for her departed spouse seem to evaporate from the novel. As though every lamentation in the beginning were for show. As though she had been trying to convince us of a lie! Now, I don’t doubt for a second that there are such women out there, nor that many of the book’s intended readers will find it palliative to hear such views expressed as normal and natural, but I found it simply… icky. Honestly, for the entire novel I kept expecting the book’s final reveal to be that Jillian Hart had murdered her own husband! That’s the way her character came across, and if that is not something we discover later in the series, if that was not the author’s intention, then Ms. Sweeney needs to work on her characterization. Because I spent the whole novel assuming that the protagonist was a very shallow murderer, and that makes it hard to sympathize for or worry about her. Rather, with the introduction of her new former-cop love interest, I began worrying that if he didn’t prove handsome enough she might murder him as well!
So, The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse by Leann Sweeney is a bit of a mixed bag. If I cannot recommend this book wholeheartedly, I also cannot dismiss it as handily as I have A Midwinter’s Tail. It’s not bad! But it’s also not great. It’s an okay book, a fun, brainless read, with one or two unsettling (and perhaps unintentional) elements. If you’re going to read an entry in the “cozy” sub-genre of cat-lit, I would recommend this one. The title isn’t as fun as “Meow If It’s Murder,” but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a book whose title is!