by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of The Cat Sitter and the Canary, along with a fun interview with John Clement who continues this series started by his mother, Blaize. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of The Cat Sitter and the Canary. We also have a link to order it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
The Cat Sitter and the Canary A Dixie Hemingway Mystery by Blaize & John Clement
Review by Cynthia Chow
Before she was a professional pet-sitter, Dixie Hemingway was a Sarasota sheriff’s deputy. It was in that capacity that she had her first run-in with model Elba Kramer, although Dixie saw her only as a naked woman running off of the yacht of an up-and-coming Senator. The newspaper pictures of that scandal tanked his hopes of a presidency and forevermore labeled Elba as the Scarlet Woman of Siesta Key. Dixie is now being summoned to once again meet the reclusive and shamed celebrity, this time in Dixie’s newfound profession. According to Elba’s manservant, she requires a sitter for Elba’s beloved intense yellow lipochrome, AKA, a yellow canary.
Before that official meet can happen, Dixie’s Lhasa apso client leads her to a body in the home of another client, one whom happens to be Elba’s neighbor. While it’s disturbing enough that the corpse is a young woman dressed as a man, far more upsetting is the note attached to the body specifically targeting Dixie. While Dixie’s past as a deputy garnered her no small number of enemies, it’s been six years since she left the force, and she can’t explain who would be after her now. Her disorientation and confusion isn’t helped by the fact that everyone seems to be in New Orleans attending the wedding of one Detective Jean Pierre Guidry, a former Sarasota detective and the man who gave Dixie the ability to believe that she could love again.
Even though this is the eleventh in the Dixie Hemingway Mystery series, new readers should be reassured that they can easily start here and never feel lost. As a result of the deft manner in which Dixie’s past is slowly revealed, her tragedies will feel even more devastating and impactful to those unfamiliar with her history. It was the love and care from her brother and his husband that forced her out of bed every morning, and the responsibilities to care for her clients’ companions that kept her going throughout the day. Now Dixie is able to see an actual future ahead of her, and no small part of that has been the affection and companionship she receives from her non-human charges.
I admit to having an emotional attachment to this Dixie Hemingway Mystery series that began with Curiosity Kills the Cat Sitter back in 2006. I adored the wounded heroine struggling to get back to life with a dark sense of humor, loyal and overprotective brother, his sardonic Sarasota Special Investigations Bureau agent husband, and her assorted animal clients. Now that the series continues through the writing of the late Blaize Clement’s son, the novels feel even more introspective and powerfully moving. Blending somber character moments with dry and witty observations of Sarasota life, the Cat Sitter mysteries satisfyingly bring Dixie to life through her always intriguing and extraordinarily complex adventures.
Interview with John Clement:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
John: Pretty much all my life. My first book was titled Dogs of the World, which I wrote and illustrated when I was six years old. It was originally conceived as an exhaustive compendium of every breed of dog known to mankind, past or present. It is nine pages. I’m still looking for a publisher.
KRL: Tell us about your first published novel.
John: My first published novel was The Cat Sitter’s Cradle, which came out in 2012. It was the eighth installment in The Dixie Hemingway Mysteries, a series created by my mom, Blaize Clement. All the books are set in one place, a little island in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Sarasota, Florida, called Siesta Key. Each book chronicles the life and times of Dixie Hemingway—no relation to you-know-who. Dixie used to be a sheriff’s deputy, but now she’s a “cat sitter.” I put that in quotes because in reality she’ll pretty much take care of any kind of pet—cats, dogs, hamsters, parrots—all God’s creatures, furry, feathered, or otherwise. Except snakes. Not that she has anything against snakes. She just can’t stand the idea of dropping tiny live mice into their mouths. Plus, she’s not so sure it was God that came up with the idea of snakes in the first place.
In Cradle, Dixie’s on a morning walk with one of her clients when she discovers a resplendent quetzal, a really amazing tropical bird. It’s the national bird of Guatamala and figures prominently in Mesoamerican mythology. The male has iridescent feathers and a tail that can reach up to twenty-six inches long. They’re not found anywhere other than South America, so when Dixie finds one on Siesta Key… the mystery begins.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries?
John: No. In college, I studied writing, focusing primarily on short fiction, but I eventually became an actor, which I managed to do professionally for about fifteen years by subsisting on rice, beans and cheap wine, first in New York and then in Philadelphia. I kept writing that whole time—mostly short stories, magazine features, and plays. One of my stories, “Dogs Bark Blue,” was made into a movie in 1992. It has five reviews and three stars on IMDB, and Variety called it “deluxe results,” whatever that means.
KRL: How cool–I had no idea you were an actor. How/why did you end up taking over your mom’s series, and what has that been like?
John: It’s been a blessing, although it didn’t feel that way at first. In 2010, while my mother was working on her seventh book, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. It was such an unexpected blow for everybody. She was in perfect health otherwise, but by the following year, when it was clear treatment wasn’t working, an idea was hatched between my mom and her editor, Marcia Markland at St. Martin’s Press. My mom had big plans for the series going forward—story ideas and character arcs—so thinking about Dixie living on filled her with joy.
Me, not so much. We were making arrangements for hospice care, when she asked if I would take over the series. I remember it so vividly. I was sitting next to her bed, and I can still see the disappointed look on her face when I said no. Obviously, there were a lot of other things on my mind at the time, but also I just didn’t think I could do it. I’d never written a full length novel, and I didn’t know the first thing about crafting a mystery. But the main thing I remember is that look on her face—the disappointment was for me, not her. Even in the moment, I realized it was like the call to adventure in a hero’s journey. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when Gandalf invites him on an adventure to help the Dwarves reclaim their homeland. Ten minutes later, after some gentle prodding from my mother, I changed my mind. That turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.
KRL: What a lovely story. How many books have you written so far?
John: So far there are four: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle, The Cat Sitter’s Nine Lives, The Cat Sitter’s Whiskers, and The Cat Sitter & The Canary.
KRL: Do you know what brought your mother to choose the setting and characters in this series?
John: She’d always wanted to live in a beach town. Her whole life, she felt like the ocean was calling to her. So in 1997, she bought a house in Sarasota. The idea of Dixie was born almost immediately, and the mystery series came shortly thereafter. She wanted Dixie to be a cat sitter because, well, cats are awesome, but also she envisioned a woman who’d been through a terrible time, who’d lost her family in a tragic accident, and by helping others, she would learn to be happy again. That character arc mirrored her own in many ways. When my mom was a young mother, barely twenty years old, she was stricken with polio. It left her completely paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life, so she understood suffering from a very personal point of view. I’ve always believed that’s why, before she began to write full-time, she became a psychologist—so she could help others who were suffering. That mindset is very present in all her writing.
KRL: Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
John: The Cat Sitter & The Canary opens with Dixie finding a tall, handsome tourist loitering around the home of one of her long-time clients. He tells her he’s just arrived from Scotland, and that he’s lost his glasses, which presumably explains why he can’t find the house he rented for his seaside vacation. Dixie points him to the bungalow across the street—not before rebuffing a few of the sexy Scotsman’s passes—and then continues about her business. She doesn’t think about the man again until the next morning, when she discovers a dead body in her client’s front hall—a man in a three-piece suit with jet-black hair, delicate wrists, and a small notecard stuck to his lapel with a pearl-tipped hat pin. Right away, Dixie puts on her sleuthing cap and starts looking for clues, but when she sees what’s written on that card, she knows this is unlike any adventure she’s ever had before.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
John: I think primarily I write to entertain, but because the books are told in first person, it gives me an opportunity to explore issues that are important to me: Animal rights, human rights, the environment, racism, homophobia, sexism. Luckily, these are all issues that were important to my mother, so they’re all built into Dixie’s character.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
John: I’m pretty strict about my schedule: I start in the morning around 6:30 or so, and then I write for as long as the coffee holds out and/or I’m starving, which is usually around one or two in the afternoon. I don’t look at it again until sundown, which is long enough (for me at least) to have completely forgotten what I wrote. That way I can sit down with a glass of wine and read it fresh. I’ll play around with it and make it better, or, more often than not, delete it all and rewrite it, and once that’s done I’ll plot out the next morning’s work.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
John: Unfortunately, I don’t outline at all. I have an idea of the overall shape I want, and I know the characters inside and out—I do a lot of character research and development before I start a story. But in my own experience, outlining just stifles my creativity. I like my characters to surprise me. I’ve found that if I know too much about how the story will end, the writing of it starts to feel hollow and pointless. This is a terrible way to write a book. You can write yourself into a hole that you can’t climb out of, plus it’s a real deterrent to meeting deadlines. I don’t recommend it, but it’s the only way I know.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
John: I’m lucky enough to have been able to keep my mother’s house in Sarasota, so I spend as much time there as I can. That’s the best research—just soaking up the warmth of the sun and the people. Plus, for some reason Sarasota seems to be a magnet for interesting characters. It has a thriving arts community, and it was the original home of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, & Bailey Circus, whose presence is still very palpable. But also, I think it’s the geography. You pass Sarasota on the way to Key West, which is the furthest point south in the United States—literally, the end of the road. That alone attracts a certain element, people in search of something. Hemingway knew exactly what he was doing when he moved there. (As a side-note, descendants of his cats still live at his house.)
KRL: Do you have any future writing goals?
John: I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m hoping to keep Dixie going as long as her fans will let me. And also, in those rare times when Dixie’s not monopolizing my thoughts, I’m working on a stand-alone mystery. It’s leaning more and more “YA” every day. I don’t want to jinx that either, so I’ll leave it there.
KRL: Who are some of your writing heroes?
John: I’m a huge John Steinbeck fan—the rich characters, the economy of language, the beautiful imagery. There are few passages in the English language as beautifully written as the opening paragraphs in Of Mice and Men. I keep a copy of it on my bedside table. I love Denis Johnson, Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Agatha Christie, James Salter, Eudora Welty. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say my mother, too. Whenever I’m feeling stuck or stupid, I just pick up one of the earlier books in the series. It only takes a few pages before I feel completely inspired and rejuvenated again. For a writer, that’s a very lucky place to be.
KRL: What do you read?
John: I have a very impressionable mind, so I can’t read fiction when I’m writing, otherwise the voice of the novel I’m reading squeezes its way into my own. Non-fiction is my only safe option. Right now I’m reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, which tells the history of mankind by exploring everything in the modern home and how it got there, from the dining table and the closet, to the doorbell and the toilet. I’m also reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. It hasn’t changed my life yet, but I’m hopeful.
KRL: Do you have favorite TV shows or movies?
John: Right now I’m obsessed with Westworld. I spend way too much time theorizing about the next season and nerding out on the Westworld Reddit forum.
KRL: Do you have any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
John: Write. Don’t quit. Don’t listen to that voice that says you suck. Write some more.
KRL: What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
John: I can juggle, and I have a role in the movie Jesus’ Son, a brilliant film adaptation of the book by Denis Johnson. The first person to find me gets a signed book.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
John: The latest Dixie Hemingway mystery, The Cat Sitter & The Canary, will be available online and in bookstores this December 20, just in time for…?
Be a Fan!
To enter to win a copy of The Cat Sitter and the Canary, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “cat sitter,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen December 24, 2016. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
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The Cat Sitter and the Canary is on my to read list. I would love to win a copy. Thanks for the giveaway.
Yes! Keep writing Dixie’s books! I just love to read them. Thanks for the chance to win your book! I’ll look for the movie your in! Merry Christmas
Donamaekutska7@gmail.com forgot to add email
Your cover won me would like to read it
This is a wonderful article I had no idea how interesting both Blaize and John Clement were…and the fact they live in Sarasota around a thriving Arts Community sounds perfect. I wanted to move there a few years ago so that makes it more interesting to me…great Review…I would love to read this.
cats and cozies – a PURRRRFECT combo!!!
I loved the work your Mother did on the series. I look forward to catching up with your work too.
And if a wonderful sense of humor is hereditary, I know these books are going to be terrific.
I love this series. email@example.com
Great interview, sent a e-mail 🙂
This series is fabulous. I love this series and the escapades written between the pages.
I read many of the first books & loved how vividly the characters were written. Time to catch up on it.
Wow this is great and another cozy mystery i would love to read a print copy and post a review on a few sites. firstname.lastname@example.org
I love Dixie Hemingway and cannot seem to get enough of her. Great review!
I can hardly wait to read Cat Sitter and the Canary . . . as it gets colder here, I’ll pretend to be in Florida, enjoying the friends, pets, and sunshine.
I have been anxiously awaiting this book. Yay!
I found you, John! It wasn’t easy but I found you in the movie Jesus’ Son on Amazon. I have to say that I like you better clean shaven. That mustache didn’t do it for me but the medical uniform is hot! Will you sign a book for me?
This has always been a wonderful series and I’m sure it will continue to be.
I’ve been a Dixie fan from the very beginning. Her son (in my mind) has done an amazing job of continuing his mom’s works and I’ll read them till he calls a halt.
NoraAdrienne (at) gmail (dot) com
How wonderful that John kept writing this series for his mother Blaize and has done an excellent job doing it in keeping with his and his mother’s timely compassions! Thoughtful and insightful interview and I love everything I just read here about this series, characters, settings and latest book! email@example.com
We have a winner!