“Cat Raise the Dead” (Joe Grey #3) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy (1997)

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If you’re like most humans, when you think about feline protagonists, you think about creatures like these:

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Or, at best, these:

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But, my friends, this might be changing. What Tailchaser’s Song did for feline fantasy novels, Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s “Joe Grey” novels are doing for feline mystery novels, presenting intelligent, realistic feline characters who are less concerned with capering for human entertainment and more concerned with philosophy, justice and the arts. Also hunting, killing and eating small animals. Because, after all, they ARE cats.

With every passing day, we are seeing feline protagonists who more closely resemble these:

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This cat is apparently the inspiration for the cat on the cover…

Cat Raise the Dead was one of the first cat-lit books my human purchased for me back in November of 2014, one of the books which opened my mind to this brave new world of feline-centered literature. Of the two,[1] this is clearly the better novel; it is also the only one that actually features felines as true characters, let alone as the protagonists. And of the many cat-lit cozies I have read and reviewed this year, this is the first I would ever consider actual “literature!” Indeed, I don’t know that this can be properly considered anything resembling “cozy” and not simply because no cozy has ever been this good.

Pictured Above: "Cozy" tropes not appearing in this novel!

Pictured Above: “Cozy” tropes not appearing in this novel!

First, and foremost, there are multiple protagonists, the chief two being felines! The inimitable Joe Grey and his feline-lady-love Dulcie are the primary characters, cats of remarkably intellect and communicative capacity; but their supporting cast includes: their respective human servitors (both Clyde and Wilma are single, but they have no interest in one another), a precocious 12 year-old girl, a local policeman who suspects the cats’ involvement in recent criminal investigations, and an elderly resident of a local retirement facility. Indeed, the points-of-view are not even limited to the protagonists, as one of the criminals is even granted several tantalizing chapters in which we learn how she perceives herself and her victims…

Second, though it takes place in small-town California,[2] the book repeatedly references the larger and more populous surrounding cities,[3] and the town seems less like a quirky human fantasy of small-town life and more like a real small town in modern America. And the fact that neither I nor my human were annoyed by the fact that it was set in California speaks to how well-written and realistic the setting proved to be.[4]

Third, the protagonists are a committed (feline) couple, and romantic tension is never an issue in this novel. They disagree, they argue, but there is never a sense that this will cause them to break up – such conflicts are simply the outcome of a couple that has been together long enough that they are no longer afraid each disagreement will spell the end of their romance. This is extremely refreshing! If Murder Past Due delivered a protagonist free from romantic considerations, Cat Raise the Dead delivers two protagonists whose relationship has weathered sufficient storms that we never doubt its integrity and longevity. The 12 year-old has no romantic interests present in this book, nor does the elderly woman, Dulcie’s human, or the police officer; Clyde alone among the single characters seems to have an active social life, and it is simply mentioned in passing as a curious character trait which occasionally interferes in Joe’s far more pressing feline crime-solving undertakings.

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Fourth, the cats are far, far more than plot-devices or window-dressing. This is no crass marketing ploy, nor does it pander to the so-called “crazy cat-lady” demographic. Joe and Dulcie are cats, but they are “special” cats – a strange variety whispered to exist among those in the know, and their self-understanding and uniquely-feline attempts at crime-solving comprise the bulk of this novel. Their interactions with humans are given no more space than their interactions with each other and with other animals, and the scenes in which they revel in feline-specific activities were some of the richest, most engaging portions of the entire novel. One particular scene, for instance, in which they hunt for food and fun was positively invigorating! I nearly pounced on my human’s foot after finishing that bit.[5] Furthermore, with protagonists of both sexes, and with an overwhelming focus on crime, philosophy, and the natural world, this novel (and, I suspect, this series) will easily appeal to both sexes and turn away only those who feel no love for cat-kind.[6]

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The plot itself revolves around a series of mysterious disappearances at the local retirement home – or rather, rumors of mysterious disappearances, for when the various legal authorities look into them, they report that no-one has gone missing. Convinced that something is up, Dulcie joins the local “Pet-A-Pet” program which brings pets to the retirement facility to cheer up the elderly; she is convinced that she can use her feline wiles to get a first-paw look at the site of these reputed crimes, verifying whether they took place or not and then proceeding accordingly. Joe, however, refuses to join her investigation: first, because he has nothing but contempt for elderly humans; and, second, because he is hot on the trail of a nomadic burglar who has begun to prey on the people of Molena Point. You see, Joe feels personally offended by the burglar both for her predations on his territory and because she dares to use the excuse of searching for her “lost cat” when caught casing, entering or exiting a home. How he is eventually roped into the mystery I will leave to you, dear friends, to discover! But rest assured, it will be time well spent.

If I have any complaints, they are minor and a result of my jumping to conclusions based on the cover art and back-cover description. I anticipated a book series in which all cats were similarly sapient, maybe some insights into a fictional feline civilization and society, but that is not the case – in this book, the sapient felines seem to be anomalous mutations, aberrations totally unaware of the cause for their difference but willing to carry on with life in their own stoically feline fashion. While Joe represents the materialist philosophy, that branch of thought which holds that only the material world exists and therefore only the material world is worthy of consideration, Dulcie is more open to the spiritual and the metaphysical, given to meditations on what humans tend to consider the “Great Questions” about life, the universe and everything. So while Joe tends to be more focused on the here-and-now, and also tends to be almost pathologically amoral, Dulcie tends to be more of a big-picture thinker and more inclined to sympathize with the humans around her.[7] Joe and Dulcie are the only aberrant felines in this novel, though there is a hint at another now-deceased sapient cat having been encountered in one of the two preceding entries in the series. Likewise, only Joe and Dulcie seem capable of human speech, which manages to isolate them from felinity and humanity at the same time, increasing distances one would have thought it might have diminished. I am forever grateful that my human had already learned the speech of cats when he took me in – I shudder to think what my life could have been had he been entirely insensible to my quite reasonable requests and opinions.

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So the book is less light-hearted and more intellectual than I would have ever expected judging by that merry-looking cartoon cat on the cover, but that is not a bad thing. It simply took me some time to adjust my expectations and embrace the novel for what it truly is. And what it is is remarkable.

The mystery is well-paced, well-framed, and well-written. The prose is excellent, sometimes dream-like and sometimes almost clinically-precise. The characters are compelling, and the typical “cozy-mystery” clichés are thankfully absent. Really, I was engaged throughout and can recommend Cat Raise the Dead wholeheartedly. Do yourself and your cats a favor and purchase this book. I will certainly be prevailing upon my human to purchase for me the rest of the series (which is still on-going!).

Two paws up! Five mice! Or whatever cat-analogue of a human valuation scale you prefer.

 

 

 

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[1] The other, you will recall, was the execrable A Midwinter’s Tail.

[2] Specifically the fictional coastal town of Molena Point.

[3] San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, etc.

[4] Neither of us cares much for that land, frankly.

[5] Upon proof-reading this post, he thanked me retroactively for not acting on this impulse. He may never know how close he came to a punctured toe…

[6] And really, can we consider that any great loss?

[7] While I am more like Dulcie myself, I could not help but sympathize with Joe as he too was rescued by his human from a hardscrabble feral life as a kitten.

 

 

 

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