Cats, unlike dogs, are not ranged on the side of order against chaos. They are not motivated by simple human moralities, by universalised appeals to the superego such as "good cat" or "bad cat," by guilt culture or shame culture.
Instead they follow their own opaque behavioural structures: Toes are to be eaten but only in certain shoes, walls are to be attacked but only at certain times of day, humans are to be controlled through displays of affection or brute force depending on the hour and mood.
Calling cats the "sociopaths of the pet world," as Jonathan Franzen does in Freedom, rather misses the point.
These are not pets in his condescending sense of the word; they are still half-wild creatures, domesticated at most 10,000 years ago- tens of thousands of years after the dog. And so expecting them to conform to human ethical codes is hopeless.
However, in one extremely popular section of the bookstore, cats don't just conform to human codes, they actually enforce them.
Cat mysteries, a subgenre of detective novels in which crimes are solved either by cats or through feline assistance, have been around for decades, selling millions upon millions of copies: Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... series began in 1966 and spanned 29 books before her death in 2011, while Rita Mae Brown just published the 20th in her Mrs. Murphy series, begun in 1990.
Some cat mysteries, like the early Braun books and Shirley Rousseau Murphy's more thoughtful Joe Grey series, are pleasurable reads; others significantly less so. But all impart some basic cognitive dissonance, given that every cat owner knows their animal is more likely to commit crimes than detect them. Given the extrasensory powers ladled out to felines in these books, my two cats would, I fear, waste little time in cementing their already Cromwellian sway over the affairs of my household.
So how to explain the continuing allure of cat mysteries? The long and twisted history of human-feline relations offers a few theories as to the origins of this unnatural chimera, the cat detective.
Cat Behavioralism. Cats are confounding creatures, and humans have long searched for ways to explain their habits. Christopher Smart's 18th-century poem Jubilate Agno accounts for the daily movements of the poet's cat Jeoffry with a ritual of prayer. ("For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. / For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.")
Similarly, the beauty of cat detective fiction is that it offers a compelling narrative for the strange things cats do. Your cat isn't using your leg as a scratching post for no reason-he's actually alerting you to a crime being committed right outside your door.
A common thread throughout cat detective fiction is the denseness of humans, unable to read subtle feline cues. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, the first Cat Who ... book, the brilliant Siamese Koko adopts the far less acute newspaper reporter Jim Qwilleran, using familiar cat mind-control tricks to help Qwilleran solve the murder of Koko's original owner: "Qwilleran grabbed the cat under the middle and carried him to his own apartment ... but Koko was gone again in a white blur of speed, flying up the stairs and wailing desperately from the top."
When my cats do something like this, it's generally unclear whether they want to eat, to play, or simply to move me arbitrarily from one room to another according to some strange chessboard logic. By the rules of cat mysteries, however, they are telling me there's a dead body under the floorboards, and I am too humanly foolish to understand.
Cat Mythologising. Because of the strangeness of cats, we're likely to credit even paranormal origins to their behaviour. Cats have for centuries been viewed as mystical creatures, associated with Egyptian death cults, Satan, and black magic, and have suffered through a number of unfortunate side-effects: In the Middle Ages, they were wrapped in swaddling clothes and roasted alive as Christian ritual sacrifices, whipped to death in English Shrovetide celebrations, and tried and hanged as witches.
The literary history of mystical cats is extensive, from the witchly cat Grimalkin of the 16th-century anti-Catholic satire Beware the Cat, to Poe's "Black Cat," the demonic Behemoth in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, H.P. Lovecraft's Cats of Ulthar, and Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat.
Today, we read detective novels starring cats capable of human speech or shape-shifting, as in the Joe Grey books with their frequent references to Celtic Selkie myths; psychic reasoning and implausible acts of physical derring-do, as in the Braun books; or invisibility and teleportation, as with Sofie Kelly's Magical Cats series.
None of these abilities seems impossibly strange (or at least not as jarring as they would with a dog or a horse), given what we're already used to from our cats-predicting death, for instance, or just walking diagonally in front of you when you're trying to get to the bathroom.
As one of the owners of the talking cats in the Joe Grey books says: "Cats' strange habits and strange perceptions, that's part of their charm. ... Cats are admired for their peculiar behaviour." Cat detective fiction derives part of its pleasure from its expansive-but strangely believable-definition of "peculiar" cat behaviour.
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