by Sandra Murphy
“Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Former Senator Paul Tsongas.
Lilian Jackson Braun didn’t do things like other people. She passed away at age 97 wishing she’d had time to finish her thirtieth Cat Who book, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke.
Braun wrote for the Detroit Free Press as the Good Living editor from about 1950 until her retirement in 1978. She covered interior design, art and architecture—and sometimes reviewed kitchen gadgets. The first three Cat Who books were written during her time at the Free Press and received critical acclaim.
Most authors sell a first book, work to write a book a year and keep their name in the buying reader’s mind. Discouraged by the publishing industry’s trend toward sex and violence in mysteries, Braun took an eighteen year break between books three and four. Braun said in a past interview, “People are simply tired of all the blood. I write what is called the classic mystery.”
Her books are definite cozies—violence is off-page, sex barely implied and vices like alcohol and smoking discouraged. Readers who want a strong mystery were put off by the cat’s involvement, solvable plots and the character driven storylines, but fans came back for more of main character Jim Qwilleran and the quirky folks who live in Pickaxe, advertised as 400 miles north of everywhere.
Qwilleran, investigative newspaper reporter, had a problem with alcohol—he liked it too much and that had an impact on his job situation. He took a job writing a column about art, although he knew nothing about it, because it was the only job he could get. The art critic was killed, Jim inherited KoKo the Siamese cat who helped him solve the murder. And that’s how James Qwilleran came to be involved in almost as many murders as Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) without losing any of his charm or good looks along the way.
The first four books took place while he worked for the Daily Fluxion paper. Burned out and bored with throw-away assignments, he took a sabbatical trip to visit his honorary aunt and ended up inheriting her millions. According to the terms of the will, Qwill had to live in Moose County or forfeit the inheritance.
The balance of the series took place in Pickaxe, a community of folks who march to the sound of their own drummers and somehow make it work. The plot lines are thin but readers come back as much to catch up on the latest Pickaxe gossip as for the mystery—and to find out how the title ties to the story itself.
Qwill continued to write, using his column The Qwill Pen, to share his opinions on day to day happenings, while using his inheritance as a way to improve the lives of others through his newly formed charitable foundation.
“Not all mystery lovers like cats but it seems most cat lovers like mysteries,” said Braun, in a past interview. The formula stood her well. KoKo and Yum Yum are easily the favorite characters in the books, leading Qwill to clue after clue, until he is able to piece them together to solve the crime.Braun’s books regularly appeared on the New York Times best seller list, were translated into sixteen languages and sold in the millions of copies. Readers found they could depend on Braun to deliver a delightful if not thought-provoking read.
Lilian Jackson Braun remarried after the death of her first husband, Louis Paul Braun. She died in Landrum, SC, at age 97. Her second husband, Earl Bettinger, to whom she dedicated her books as the husband who, survives her.
It’s easy to imagine her walking through Pickaxe, reading The Qwill Pen, and delighting in the world she created.
Editor’s note: Sadly there doesn’t seem to have been enough there for her final book to be finished—so unless something changes her final story will never see publication.
1. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (1966)
2. The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern (1967)
3. The Cat Who Turned on and Off (1968)
4. The Cat Who Saw Red (1986)
5. The Cat Who Played Brahms (1987)
6. The Cat Who Played Post Office (1987)
7. The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare (1988)
8. The Cat Who Sniffed Glue (1988)
9. The Cat Who Went Underground (1989)
10. The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts (1990)
11. The Cat Who Lived High (1990)
12. The Cat Who Knew A Cardinal (1991)
13. The Cat Who Moved A Mountain (1992)
14. The Cat Who Wasn’t There (1992)
15. The Cat Who Went Into the Closet (1993)
16. The Cat Who Came to Breakfast (1994)
17. The Cat Who Blew the Whistle (1995)
18. The Cat Who Said Cheese (1996)
19. The Cat Who Tailed A Thief (1997)
20. The Cat Who Sang for the Birds (1998)
21. The Cat Who Saw Stars (1999)
22. The Cat Who Robbed A Bank (2000)
23. The Cat Who Smelled A Rat (2001)
24. The Cat Who Went Up The Creek (2002)
25. The Cat Who Brought Down The House (2003)
26. The Cat Who Talked Turkey (2004)
27. The Cat Who Went Bananas (2004)
28. The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell (2006)
29. The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers (2007)
The Cat Who Had 14 Tales (1988)
The Cat Who Put Four in a Box (1999)
Qwilleran’s Short and Tall Tales (2002)
aka Short & Tall Tales: Moose County Legends Collected by James Mackintosh Qwilleran
The Private Life of the Cat Who…: Tales of Koko and Yum Yum from the Journals of James MacKintosh Qwilleran (2003)
Two Cats, Three Tales (omnibus) (2006)
Mystery Cats (1989)
More Mystery Cats (1993)
Mystery Cats III: More Feline Felonies (1995) (with Cynthia Manson)