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Literary Cats vs. Dogs, Round I

Updated: Jan 18

I don't know how common it is for writers to picture movie stars when devising their characters (perhaps casting them in anticipation of their hoped-for screen adaptation). I usually take the Frankenstein approach when building my characters, with traits and idiosyncrasies picked from here and there – never completely real or completely made up. But for the cat in After the Blue, Blue Rain, I went full-on movie star. When it came to imagining Orange Bomber, I turned to my favorite film feline for inspiration, 100 percent.

He was known by many names, but I prefer to call him by his original name, Orangey Murray.

In the world of animal acting, Orangey Murray was a major star. His filmography is hard to pin down, as he often appeared without an onscreen credit, but he won two prestigious PATSY Awards for his work in Rhubarb (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

The story of Orangey Murray's rise to stardom is the stuff of Hollywood legend. As the tale goes, the ginger tabby was plucked from the streets of Sherman Oaks by a 2nd assistant director at Paramount, who had heard the producers of Rhubarb were desperate to find a cat for the title role. Orangey auditioned and won the part, beating out dozens of other contenders. Soon the Paramount publicists were feeding the trade papers with Orangey gossip, noting he had been given his own apartment in Hollywood, which he shared with his feline stand-ins.

Orangey's acting range was impressive. He could play soft and pathetic, as demonstrated in his award-winning turn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or tough and fierce. According to Wikipedia, in real life, Orangey was known as the meanest cat in Hollywood. He would scratch and bite the actors, with no concern about his victims' star status or wealth. Sometimes he would bolt from the set, forcing a frantic search around the lot. In short, he was his own cat, living life on his own terms, as any self-respecting feline would. He was exactly the cat I imagined Orange Bomber to be.

Early on, I decided that I wanted my detective Kit to have a cat and specifically to adopt a stray like Orangey Murray. It just seemed right for her character and for the story. It's no surprise that cats pop up often in mysteries. Not only are they reliably inscrutable and sphinxy, making them ideal symbols for all things dark and mysterious, but they're also natural sounding boards. Characters can share secrets or bear their souls to cats, knowing their words will never come back to haunt them. A dog might sense sadness or tension and react accordingly. But a cat? Sure, he'll listen, but no one expects him to empathize, to understand. That's part of the fun of including them. They're always content just being easy tropes and silent sidekicks.

There are a number of mystery series in which felines are not the side show but the main event, the point-of-view crime solver – Carole Nelson Douglas' Midnight Louie series; the Joe Grey series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy; the Leger - Cat Sleuth series by Lacey Dearie; and many others. (There's even a Cat Writers Association.) According to Vulture, cat mysteries are a "blockbuster trend." I'm guessing that part of these books' appeal comes from the very fact that they defy our common perceptions about cats. Not just our general understanding about animals and their intellectual limitations, but our specific notions about cats. We could believe that cats are savvy enough to unravel the clues. They're observant and stealthy, after all. But why would they bother getting their paws dirty for us?

Dogs, on the other hand, we can easily picture stopping and solving crimes (remember McGruff the Crime Dog?). They're bred to serve and defend, after all, and be "dogged" in pursuit. But a cat following up on anything? For anyone who knows kitties, that requires a huge leap of imagination. Unless it's made of catnip or tuna fish, that hot lead is going to be left blowing in the wind.

Obviously these popular literary sleuths are extraordinary exceptions to the feline mindset, and we adore them precisely because they are anomalies. Maybe we like to think that our own wonderful felines could solve that mystery, too . . . if they felt like it. I do know a cat named Jean-Luc who would make a good lock picker – he can open the kibble drawer by draping his paws over the drawer pull and hopping backwards on his toes. But that's as far as his private investigator talents go.

Personally I want my book cats to be cats like Orangey Murray, who on general principle alone would never solve your mystery for you. But I appreciate the bold love that goes into the creation of a cat detective. For sheer outrageousness, literary cats win big points. It's safe to say that, silent or chatty, selfish or heroic, cats will always have a seat at (or on or under) the mystery table.

Round 1: Cats

Who would you hire to solve a mystery?

  • Cats

  • Dogs

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