As a writer of cozy cat mysteries (my new Tarot Cat mysteries from Midnight Ink, and my Black Cat Bookshop mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime), I’ve long been a fan of crime-solving felines. But I have a great appreciation for any non-human species represented in mystery fiction. A quick review of crime stories over the years shows the long-standing pedigree of animals as both sleuths and villains. Let’s take a look at the famous literary forebearers of today’s animal detectives. Spoilers to follow…though shame on you if you haven’t already read these tales numerous times already!
The great-great granddaddy of all cat sleuths is a wily feline named Pluto, a/k/a The Black Cat of Edgar Allan Poe fame. While technically the tale is one of psychological horror, there are still murders abounding. Pluto (who, not coincidentally on the part of Poe, is named for the ruler of the ancient Greek underworld) starts out as an unassuming family pet. But when the story’s narrator cruelly maims and then kills him, the vengeful feline returns to life as a furry guilty conscience. And after that same narrator murders his wife and hides her body behind a brick wall, the reincarnated Pluto duly implicates his owner when the police come investigating. Pluto is a typical feline detective who doesn’t get his paws dirty but still saves the day.
Poe also employed an animal as a major character in what is traditionally considered the first example of the modern detective story, his The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This go-round, Poe chose a more human-like beast: an orangutan. But rather than acting as a sleuth, the ape is actually found to be the killer--albeit accidentally--of two hapless women. He’s also something of a Villain Ex Machina, since few readers would have automatically concluded as did the story’s detective that an orangutan was responsible for so heinous a fictional crime. Moreover, Poe does disservice to orangutans in general, given that they are quite mild-mannered despite their size. He’d have done better to pin the murder on a chimpanzee.
A few decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle utilized various species of animals in his Sherlock Holmes mystery stories. In The Sign of Four, a clever dog named Toby—disparagingly described by Dr. Watson an “ugly long haired, lop-eared creature”—plays sleuth when he is employed by Holmes to track various persons of interest. A canine makes a more sinister showing in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course, we find at the story’s end that, as with Poe and his hapless orangutan, the hound in question is an innocent beast ill-used by humans, and not a savage animal hunting on the moors.
Of course, we can’t forget Doyle’s The Adventure of Silver Blaze which stars a race horse of that name. As with the Baskerville hound, and Poe’s orangutan before it, Silver Blaze is an unwitting killer. Also in the mix is a canine that gains notoriety by way of the famous line about “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”.
But the creepiest example of an animal character in the Sherlock Holmes canon is the eponymous scaly star of The Adventure of The Speckled Band. Once again, a member of the animal kingdom is pressed into unwilling service as a killer in this early example of a locked room murder. Holmes identifies the reptile as a “swamp adder” (which apparently is a breed conjured up by Doyle, since no snake by that name exists outside of Holmes’ world).
I first read this story as a grade-schooler. And while I found the whole “kill by snake” murder weapon idea cool if shiver-inducing, it landed in the “fail” category for me. The reason being, it was pretty evident that Doyle didn’t know much about snakes. After all, he had this fictional adder living off of milk, being caged in a (presumably air-tight) safe, and being trained to come at the sound of a whistle. And even ten-year-old me knew that snakes don’t drink milk, need air to live, and don’t have ears to hear whistling.
Animals continued to show up in 20th century crime fiction, foreshadowing the cozy mystery boom. I was always fascinated by Asta the dog from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man series, mostly because the pup was a female Schnauzer in the book, but morphed into a male Wire Fox terrier for the movies. And since I’d seen the movies first before reading the original version, I was also surprised to find that the literary Asta was kind of a ne’er-do-well, much like her owners. While the film Asta indulges in all sorts of comical behavior, book Asta is mostly found lounging on the bed, jumping on people, and hanging out in bars with the Charleses while staring (one presumes approvingly) at that married duo sucking down their third adult beverage of the morning. But it was gratifying for me how Hammett, throughout the course of the book, made sure that Nick and Nora regularly fed and walked their pup.
Cats made it full circle back into the role of fictional sleuths by the 1960s, notably with the publication of Undercover Cat. This fun novel by Gordon and Mildred Gordon was later made into a Disney movie that was retitled That Darn Cat. DC works hand in paw with none other than the FBI to help solve a bank robbery-turned-kidnapping.
And now, in the 21st century, feline detectives are dominating what has come to be called the cozy mystery genre. Don’t believe me about which species rules? Check out the shelves next time you’re in a bookstore. Just as a bare male torso on a book cover is the universal signal for a romance novel, a cat equals cozy mystery. Sorry, dogs and orangutans and horses and snakes…you’re but a distant second to the almighty feline!
About the Author:
DIANE A.S. STUCKART is the New York Times bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series (written as Ali Brandon). She’s also the author of the award-winning Leonardo da Vinci historical mysteries, as well as several historical romances and numerous mystery, fantasy, and romance short stories. The first book in her new Tarot Cats cozy mystery series is FOOL’S MOON, on the shelves from Midnight Ink in early November 2018.
Diane is a member of Mystery Writers of America and has served as the 2018 Chapter President of the MWA Florida chapter. In addition to her mystery writing affiliations, she’s a member of the Cat Writers’ Association and belongs to the Palm Beach County Beekeepers Association. She’s a native Texan with a degree in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma, but has been living in the West Palm Beach FL area for the past dozen or so years. She shares her “almost in the Everglades” home with her husband, dogs, cats, and a few beehives.