Review: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun

I picked up my first “Cat Who...” book because I really liked cats when I was younger, and that’s how I unknowingly stumbled upon my first adult fiction murder mystery series. This remains one of my favorite murder mystery series thus far. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards is the first in the series featuring the likable protagonist Jim Qwilleran and a very smart cat. Braun chose an unlikely venue for this story, but still managed to develop an intricate and well-paced plot. Although I wouldn’t call this book spectacular, it was a nice, comfortable read.

Desperate for a job that pays the bills, ex-police reporter and crime author Jim Qwilleran reluctantly takes on the task of writing about the city’s art scene for The Daily Fluxion. What he doesn’t realize is that the art scene is like a war zone: artists and art-lovers alike are out for blood, particularly for that of George Bonifield Mountclemens III, The Daily Fluxion‘s opinionated art critic. A series of events (including persuasion in the form of Mountclemens’ amazing culinary skills) leads Qwilleran to rent an apartment in Mountclemens’ house and take up the role of errand boy and cat sitter; and as Qwilleran wades through the politics and drama of the art scene following two stabbings and a fatal fall, he enlists in the help of Mountclemens’ Siamese cat, Kao K’o Kung (who does indeed read backwards), to solve the mystery.

Jim Qwilleran is one of the reasons why I like the “Cat Who...” series so much; he’s a jovial, middle-aged man with a great sense of humor and an eye for crimes and mysteries due to his past experiences. To be blunt about it, I don’t read many books where the protagonist is an old man, so maybe that’s why I’m so intrigued and appeased and giggle every time I read about him stroking his “pepper and salt moustache.” But I like his humor, his handsome moustache, and his curious nature; even though The Cat Who Could Read Backwards is told from a third-person perspective, Braun makes Qwilleran’s thoughts somewhat transparent by occasionally telling the readers his questions and moods. AND Qwilleran also speculates out loud, much to his friends’ (and my) amusement, making for some fun dialogues. For example, Qwilleran, as he’s doubting Mountclemens’ existence:

“He’s a fake.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t exist. He’s a legend, an invention, a concept, a corporation, a gleam in the publisher’s eye.”

Arch said, “Who do you think writes all that copy we print under his sesquipedalian byline?”

“A committee of ghost writers. A committee of three. Probably a Mr. George, a Mr. Bonifield, and a Mr. Mountclemens. No one man could cause so much trouble, or be so hated, or have such an ambiguous image.”

“You just don’t know about critics, that’s all. You’re used to cops and robbers.”

“I have an alternate theory, if you don’t buy my first one.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a phenomenon of the electronics age. The art column is turned out by a battery of computers in Rochester, New York.”

The other characters are less transparent, and we see them as how Qwilleran sees them. But the supporting characters are multi-dimensional and realistic in that they have distinguishable personalities and roles, and they don’t tell Qwilleran everything he needs to know to solve the mystery. I would say that dialogue and action each occupy half the book, and the mix of the two really moves the story forward.

The plot itself isn’t overly interesting, but kept my attention for the entire story. I didn’t know how the story would end until it ended, but the ending didn’t shock me. I think this is halfway to being a cozy mystery because there’s no explicit bloodshed, just a lot of shrieks and flying things and a smack and, oh, it’s over? Okay. But otherwise, this is a step up from the one cozy mystery that I’ve read so far because the revelations are unexpected but logical, and because the protagonist seeks help from a cat. (Cats make everything better. All stories should have cats in them.)

Overall, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards was a comfy read because of the humor, the satisfactory chill-down-my-spine moments, and the intricate plot. If you like cozy mysteries or want something more substantial in a quick read, give this a try! And if you like middle-aged men with moustaches, you’re in for a treat. 😉



7 thoughts on “Review: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun

  1. I really enjoyed this too 🙂 It’s fun to read a book that includes so many details about a cat’s mannerisms. I thought that part was very cute. And you described my feelings about Qwilleran perfectly. There’s just something that makes it fun to read bout him.

    • YES, so true! Have you read The Cat Who Had 14 Tales? I love Braun’s cat narrative just as much as – if not more than – her third-person narrative about cats. Glad to see another Qwilleran/Cat Who... fan!

        • Yes, I’d definitely recommend that one, along with The Cat Who Played Brahms! I’ve never read the series in order, so that’s what I’m planning to do in the next year or so... hopefully it won’t take too long, haha.

  2. I used to love this series! I eventually burned out as there’s like…30 of these, but for a while I couldn’t get enough of them! I actually contemplated naming my cat Koko or Yum Yum (she ended up as a Lily though)

    • I’ve never read this series from beginning to end, so that’s what I’m doing right now! But if I read too many of Cat Who… books in a short time period, I start getting bored from the repetitiveness, so I’m trying to space them out.

      Awww, Lily’s a cute name! If I had a cat, he or she would definitely end up as a Yum Yum. 😀

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