“Wish You Were Here” (Mrs. Murphy #1) by Rita Mae Brown (1990)

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Goodness! Evidently the cozy cat-lit sub-genre is older than I had suspected. 1990? That’s two decades before I was born! That’s nearly as old as Tailchaser’s Song! And this was apparently written by a cat, one “Sneaky-Pie Brown”!

sneaky pie brown, co-author with rita mae brown
A role model at last! It’s good to know that felines have been openly contributing our own unique voices to the world of literature for decades. This is the first volume in a very popular and still-ongoing series, though one wonders why more of us haven’t achieved similar prominence and success, and why more books by cats haven’t been brought to my attention. Curious. Now, I have to be honest. This book is not…good. It’s unfocused, jumping from character to character and perspective to perspective, throwing so much clumsy exposition and random events/details at the reader that after the first chapter I was thoroughly confused.[1] What is more, there are too many characters, nearly all of them hurriedly introduced in the first two chapters, none of them terribly interesting. I even had a hard time distinguishing the primary cat character (“Mrs. Murphy”) from the primary dog character (“Tee Tucker”)! You read that right: I had difficulty distinguishing a feline from a canine. THIS SHOULD NOT BE!

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Pictured Above: How to tell cats apart from dogs…

And the animal characters themselves are a strange lot. For instance, they can understand the humans but the humans can’t understand them; they have a tendency towards oddly and uncharacteristically foul language[2]– fouler even than the human characters; and their speech-patterns more closely resemble those of 8 or 9 year-old human children. Most galling of all, the animals seem to have little or nothing to do with the plot (or anything else), effectively making them unnecessary distractions and more padding than anything else.

What is more, the structure of the book is odd. The chapters are so short and end so abruptly, so randomly, that it feels like a Dan Brown novel. Most of it is actually taken up with drama relating to grudges held by various characters and the looming divorce of the protagonist from her husband – the mystery is a perfunctory addition, leading one to suspect that Sneaky-Pie couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a novel about small-town drama or a murder mystery, causing both to suffer as a result. It also seems to follow many of the most tiresome “cat-cozy” clichés: it takes place in a small town;[3] the protagonist is a middle-aged human female who is recently single; the protagonist has a quirky small-town-appropriate job which provides her with unrealistic funds (and her impending divorce will likely enhance that income even further); the protagonist is remarkably uninteresting (aside from being a bitter divorcee) yet is evidently pursued by interesting men in positions of authority; the characters are virtually indistinct from one another; the animal characters are largely just there for window-dressing and comic relief; the mystery is remarkably pedestrian…

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Now, I don’t know if those things were clichés in 1990, and this IS Sneaky-Pie’s first novel, so I feel like I should cut her some slack. I WANT to cut her some slack. But Sneaky-Pie’s human was already an established author, her first book having been published in 1973, so you’d think she could have helped her feline mistress refine her technique before publishing!

One also wonders what on Earth men and Christians did to this Ms. Sneaky-Pie Brown, because goodness! This book seems to hold the two groups in blind and utter contempt. Honestly, I haven’t read such antipathy towards so many people since my human loaned me his copy of Robert Harris’ Fatherland. The signature Christian character, for instance, is repeatedly presented and described as an intolerant, closed-minded, elderly buffoon whom the audience is clearly intended to regard with a sort of superior smirk or benign contempt. She is a character the author has written with the express purpose of using as a philosophical punching bag, someone the whole town mocks and derides and whom we are supposed to likewise snicker at – even though it’s really the townspeople who come across as the intolerant and cruel ones for the ways in which they talk about and treat her. The few kind things ever said about the Christian character amount to the sort of transparent “Oh-but-I-have-plenty-of-[X]-friends-so-I’m-not-a-bigot” statements one would expect from any self-satisfied bigot convinced of their own enlightenment.

Likewise, Sneaky-Pie states that the protagonist is “locked in hand-to-hand combat with the opposite sex,” has characters pontificate about how male perfidy is the sole cause of divorce, and has the protagonist assert that men never appreciate all that women do and any man who remarries is just looking for a new woman to “enslave.” None of this is presented ironically, none of it is ever contradicted within the novel, and the book itself clearly affirms that these views are the correct ones. Indeed, Sneaky-Pie’s decision to make a certain character the villain of the story? Well, far be it from me to spoil the ending, but let’s just say you can’t get much more anti-male than that!

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I’m sorry, Sneaky-Pie, for whatever those men or Christians might have done to you once upon a time, but you really need to work those issues out in a veterinary-psychologist’s office first, not on the printed page!

There are also strange incongruities, moments in which the book seems to deviate from the sort of thing any right-thinking feline would ever write. EG: No feline I have ever encountered has ever thought badly of rich human beings, yet this book’s bafflingly un-nuanced depiction of wealthy humans is so un-feline you’d think a human had written it! The author also has her characters rant about over-population, a characteristic concern of humans in the late 20th century. However, the author is also apparently pro-eugenic infanticide! I will let this sink in for a moment: the author believes it is good and just to murder infants if they are disabled or otherwise unwell. She justifies this view by ascribing similar views to all animals, having her cat and dog characters repeatedly endorse such practices and criticize humans for their failure to incorporate them into their own lives. Yet at the same time, the author has the animals huff that only humans (and ants) kill their own kind…which not only contradicts their repeated assertions that all animals would and do kill their own deformed/disabled /mentally-ill offspring, but is a bald-faced lie! Animals of all kinds routinely kill one another, whether over food or mates or territory or status, and we think nothing of it! Even herbivores are wont to kill one another! How sheltered and shielded must Ms. Sneaky-Pie Brown have been to not only believe that humans are unique in killing one another, but that other animals[4] would share her childish belief in the same? How can a cat know SO LITTLE about the real world?

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Hippos for instance, gleefully kill crocodiles.

Sneaky-Pie also makes the odd decision to repeatedly mention how one of the white characters’ relatives was shunned for marrying a black woman[5] when that has absolutely no bearing on the plot, no bearing on the characterization of any of the characters, and the married couple is only ever mentioned in passing, never appearing in the novel until the final paragraph (which is itself almost an afterthought). Race is, again, something with which we felines generally do not concern ourselves. Even the various breeds of cats are more the product of environmental difference and human meddling than anything else – an Egyptian Mau is as a Maine Coon in our eyes! We may poke fun at the superficial differences between ourselves, but I can’t imagine any cat seriously caring enough about human racial distinctions to even think of including it in a novel. Especially not in a case like this, where it mainly seems to have been shoehorned in as an excuse to give the author something to preach to the reader about. If any other  feline were to include such details in the novel, they would be integral to character and/or plot, and executed with the utmost subtlety!

[One Hour Later]

Hmmm. After further meditation, I’ve remembered a few more things which strike me as odd for a book written by a cat. The preface and end-note claim to be authentic texts addressed by Sneaky-Pie to the readership, yet I can’t help but notice the following:

1) The feline protagonist willingly consorts with a canine! A canine who refuses to accept its place as her natural inferior. Balderdash! That reeks of the rankest human wish-fulfillment fantasies. It is not without reason that one of the most memorable lines in modern cinema includes a reference to the perennial conflict between our two species. It’s a book claiming to be written by a cat, in a series named after the feline protagonist, and yet the human is the true and sole protagonist, the pets are little more than sidekicks, and the dog not only gets equal attention, but is the feline’s dearest friend? Rubbish. Complete and total rubbish.

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Again, please remember this distinction.

2) The author’s note assures us that Ms. Sneaky-Pie is a 7 year-old cat and that she wanted to write this book to prove something to herself and to another cat. Judging by the longevity of this series, she succeeded! But this novel was published in 1990, meaning it was likely written at least a year before that,[6] and I just discovered that the 23rd novel in the series was published last year! Yet cats rarely live more than 20 years![7] If Sneaky-Pie is still alive and writing novels…why, that means she must be over 30 years old! Given that the world’s oldest living cat is 27, and given that Sneaky-Pie is supposedly still writing successful mystery novels…well, unless she’s some sort of feline vampire or time-traveler who has avoided public notice, I suspect that she might not be writing these novels at all! That it might be some…façade! A lie! A treacherous deceit concocted by the human author to appeal to pro-feline readers, no different than the “Magical Cats” in that horrible new series. THE BETRAYAL!

[13 Minutes Later]

Alas, my worst fears have been confirmed. My human helped me do a bit more digging and I think I might have unearthed the truth. The author – the true author – is Sneaky-Pie’s human, Rita Mae Brown.

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And whatever views Sneaky-Pie herself might hold, Rita Mae is apparently a middle-aged lesbian feminist activist.[8] Her first book was an explicit account of her own lesbian sexual experiences and artistic process, and she was later a contributing writer and editor at a lesbian feminist magazine which preached that all oppression stemmed from heterosexuality.[9] Then she reached the “big time” with this series. Hrm.

Well, far be it from me to stereotype a non-canine, but the revelation about the identity of the book’s true author just might explain the overdone and exaggerated antipathy towards male humans and Christians, and why the human protagonist, her friends and her two animal companions are all female. The novel’s repeated endorsement of eugenic infanticide makes a bit more sense now, as well, as does the decision to make the human protagonist a Smith College graduate. Also, it explains why the villain is not only a male human, but [SPOILER ALERT!] the town’s lone homosexual male human.[10]

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The problem with ideologues is that they lack subtlety, and they are less interested in people and reality than they are in their ideologies. Ms. Brown wastes much of the book with needless digressions of an almost Ayn-Randian quality, as though she can’t possibly envision any character that does not either share or wish to discuss her own personal views at the drop of a hat. Yet she also can’t quite seem to keep her facts straight, and sometimes offers oddly contradictory rants. In one scene the human protagonist complains about commercialism and how the word is too materialistic and non-spiritual and has drifted away from more traditional values, etc. etc. Yet she then immediately rants about Christians and how stupid they are and how Christianity is obsolete and powerless and how “right-wing Christianity” is for the dumb and unenlightened who need moral absolutes (unlike of course our “deep” materialist protagonist and author).[11] The protagonist later insists that Christianity has been “corrupted by collusion with the state” since the 2nd century[12] and is completely worthless in the modern world, but then in a moment of rare introspection notes that the obese,[13] obnoxious,[14] humourless[15] Christian character had a successful, happy marriage while the wise, enlightened, a-religious protagonist hasn’t. This moment of introspection is, of course, never acknowledged again. The book repeatedly celebrates older men for “gentlemanly” behavior and condemns younger men for lacking such graces, while simultaneously decrying the supposed cultural power structure that TAUGHT the older men to be gentlemanly – the cultural power structure which was, in fact, the REASON they were gentlemanly and the dismantling of which is the REASON younger men aren’t! In an egalitarian world, there will be no “gentlemanly” behaviour because men and women will treat one another as exact equals!

Here there are long (LOOOOOOONNNNNG) passages that serve no purpose but to voice the author’s personal derision for Christianity, Catholicism, Europeans, humanity, males, etc. And while they might have been quirky or wry or intriguing if better handle, it has to be recalled that THESE SERVE NO PURPOSE TO PLOT OR SETTING OR CHARACTERIZATION! There’s even one abrupt and inexplicable non-sequitur about feminism shoehorned into the middle of the murder investigation, (which of course somehow converts the Christian character, as though she’d never in her 60+ years on the Earth heard feminism’s claims before).

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And that is, when you get right down to it, the essential problem with this novel. It is less a mystery than a social commentary/cultural criticism tract folded into a small-town divorce drama with only a thin sprinkling of easy-to-solve mystery-flakes on top. The characters exist either as straw-men representing views which the author rejects or mouthpieces for views which the author espouses, and given that Ms. Brown (the human) has such binary, un-nuanced views, there is no subtlety or real insight – this reads more like a modern secular humanist’s version of a Jack Chick evangelical tract that has been disguised as a “cozy-cat-mystery.” These views, thus expressed, will not convert anyone, and may in fact drive away the curious or the sympathetic, as the author is only preaching to the converted and is totally intolerant of dissent.

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So I have problems with her because of the way in which she depicts cats and feline/canine relations; because of the way in which she clumsily combines human and feline perspectives; because of the dearth of interesting, relatable or sympathetic characters (of any species); because she has the gall to pretend to be a feline (or to use her feline’s identity to sell books after Sneaky-Pie’s death) while making her book primarily about humans and making the cat share attention with a dog; because the mystery itself is perfunctory and bland; because of the blanket and unreasoning prejudices expressed against all men and all Christians; and because the whole novel has a sort of bitter, resentful, pedagogical undertone. The book is full of attempts to hammer home numerous political and social messages, yet they are as scattershot and random as the novel itself, totally inorganic to the plot and the characters and coming out of nowhere whenever they arise.

But, there is still much that is laudable in this first novel in the “Mrs. Murphy” series. The sporadic interior illustrations of cat & dog are unnecessary, irrelevant, inexplicable, but charming and well-done. For all her soap-box preaching about racism in America, the author does have one character sagely note that a lot of older people have a hard time shifting from “colored” to more modern, politically-correct euphemisms like “black” because “black” WAS the offensive term in their day.[16] There’s a funny bit in the beginning in which the main cat muses about how it hopes evolution is proven false, as the claim that humans evolved from apes is insulting to apes. This is immediately followed by an equally amusing bit in which the cat muses that humans will be shocked when they discover that God is (of course) actually a cat. And, also early in the novel, the protagonist privately assures herself that everyone who doesn’t like cats is a fascist because they resent how independent cats are! These are rare gems, shining signs of what might be. For as infuriating and as inconsistent as this novel-cum-tractate proved, it is the first in a long-running series – so maybe things get better?

While I, as a male feline living with a male human, cannot share or sanction her anti-male sentiments; nor do I feel it is moral for one to unjustifiably despise an entire religion while fashioning fictional straw-men to justify that hatred;[17] I do respect her for trying something which at the time was fairly new. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first entry in the now-ubiquitous cat-related “cozy” mystery genre! And the marvelous “Joe Grey” series likely owes much to her decision to make both humans and animals main characters with distinct perspectives. And, if she likes dogs, well, at least she made the dog share the limelight with a cat and named the series after the cat! So for all the complaints I have – nevertheless, kudos to you, Ms. Rita Mae Brown! Kudos!

Oh, what’s this? My human went to the grocery store and just texted to tell me that he found something interesting in the book section!

The picture is loading…

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BETRAYED AGAIN!!!!

Oh, Ms. Brown! HOW COULD YOU?!

 

 

 

 

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[1] And I am a cat who found James Joyce’s Ulysses extremely easy to follow and understand.

[2] Well, it’s odd and uncharacteristic for the cat anyway…

[3] In this case Southern.

[4] Animals, it should be noted, who in this novel lead the free and easy lives of indoor/outdoor pets and are permitted to freely roam – thereby witnessing the true nature of the natural world!

[5] Something which, my human informs me, still remains woefully uncommon and which can result in social censure for both parties from both races. Again, you human and your obsession with divisions and superficial differences!

[6] Books are rarely written in the same year in which they are published.

[7] A fact my human prefers to ignore, but with which I have long since made peace.

[8] Again, I will never understand you humans and your obsession with sexuality – you’re so obsessed that many of you make your sexuality the sole deciding factor in your personal and public identities. I’d describe it as childish, but really, even a kitten knows better than to make their sex or sexuality their defining characteristic. Celebrate your achievements and natural gifts! Your hunting prowess, your agility, your silent steps, your charm, your purr, your yowl… Not something as trivial as your sexual identity! You have SO MUCH to learn from us, humans. It’s exhausting to contemplate, honestly.

[9] And…she apparently wrote the screenplay for the classic 1982 exploitation film Slumber Party Massacre. I don’t know what to do with this information, but somehow it seems relevant.

[10] An artifact of the late 20th-century rivalry between gays & lesbians, one suspects.

[11] The contradiction never once occurs to the character, and one assumes it likewise never occurred to the author.

[12] Obviously that degree from Smith wasn’t in History, Classics or Religious Studies…

[13] Because of course she is.

[14] Because of course she is.

[15] Because of course she is.

[16] Given how often humans marvel and coo over my fur colour, I can’t help but wonder why any of you ever felt any revulsion towards members of your own species with colouring similar to my own.

[17] Certainly, if I as a castrated black feline Bastian can get along with human Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus, Shintoists, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, etc. AND canine Fenrisians, Ms. Brown can try to be a bit more tolerant and open-minded.

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