If, like me, you were dissuaded from reading The Cat Saw Murder (1939) by Dolores Hitchens because the titles brings on the hives of a cozy Cat Catches Criminals caper, rest assured that this is very much not that type of book. The cat does indeed see murder — the surprisingly violent hacking to death of Lily Stickleman in the shabby beachside boarding house where she resides while waiting for an inheritance — but the sleuthing is done by a combination of Lieutenant Stephen Mayhew and the elderly Miss Rachel Murdock. Samantha, the eponymous moggy, provides a clue and a little intrigue of her own, but she’s much more dragged in rather than an essential catalyst (Ithankyou).
Miss Rachel travels to the small community of Breakers Beach after being summoned by her niece, Lily, on the understanding that some difficulty must be faced, and is ensconced in Surf House in a room near Lily’s own. The opening chapters, then, concern the various denizens of this rundown establishment, and there’s something of the work of Constance and Gwenyth Little in the oddball types who fill out the remaining rooms: the faintly threatening Mr. and Mrs. Scurlock, the timid Timmersons, the always-working single mother Mrs. Marble and her five year-old daughter Clara, the notable-by-his-absence Charles Malloy who might be romantically linked with Lily…the list goes on (thankfully not too much longer) and the relationships that exist between some of these people — part of the fun of this type of novel — fill out well and explain certain actions very pleasingly.
Before long, just as the predicament of Lily — surely the stupidest and most insanely frustrating victim in crime fiction history — is made clear, Miss Rachel finds herself drugged and slipping into unconsciousness in Lily’s room as the door opens and an unseen person enters. And when our intrepid spinster comes to, Lily has been murdered and suspicion points at just about everyone else in the house. So, with nowhere else to go (that really does seem to be her only reason for getting involved, there being no sense of injustice at Lily’s death or moral revulsion to murder…it’s more like ‘Well, I’m here, so I might as well…’) Miss Rachel slowly begins to investigate, bringing her into contact, and quick sympathy, with Lieutenant Mayhew as they work together to find the killer in their midst.
The most successful part of this largely very enjoyable book is the relationship between Mayhew and Miss Rachel. Hitchens has a charming way of writing about Mayhew’s foibles in the present tense, as if he is a real person who exists outside the story about whom these snippets remains true, and there’s a sense of our author being very much taken with her central duo and their differing talents and perspectives:
Lieutenant Mayhew assumed an expression that kind people wear when they are dealing with stupid children. Miss Rachel has described it, after thought, as maternal.
As a crime, the murder presents certain points of almost puzzle-based interest — the pin in the curtain enabling a clever deduction, the presence of the killer in the room baffling on account of the number of times the door might have opened, unusual pry marks on the window ledge — and Hitchens does a good job of balancing character pieces with Mayhew’s patient following of leads (though the alibis don’t get checked for a very long time…). There’s even some forensic detection regarding the placement of fingerprints, which was nice, given that this could easily have dropped into prototypical cozy mystery tropes; the detection won’t blow you away, but it’s solid and well-reasoned. It’s a shame, then, that, after its initial introduction, the house is so airless: there’s really no sense of the place as a domicile, and it very much feels as if characters are just waiting in their rooms to pop out and further the plot before going back into a suspended state until next required.
Away from the core plot, Hitchens is less successful at mystery-making — if, for instance, you are on tenterhooks following the quote attributed to Mr. Leinster which closes out chapter five in dramatic style…well, welcome to your first every mystery novel. What makes up for this is her lovely turns of phrase (“[Miss Rachel] held her breath and became nothing but ears.”), the handling of a surprisingly non-schmaltzy romance, the well-developed plot which moves on speedily with each chapter, and the general oddness of the whole endeavour as it straddles the divide between the classically-structured mystery and the American Had-I-But-Known school without every looking comfortable yet giving the impression that it knows exactly what it’s doing.
Ultimately, what holds me back on rating this slightly higher is that so many of the little details just don’t add up: the crime is senselessly violent in a way that the genre’s stronger writers would make meaningful but here feels like (ahem) overkill, the way the cat ties into the realisation of the solution is both unlikely (rot13 for spoilers: unir lbh rire gevrq gb ongur n png?!) and meaningless (rot13: jul abg whfg chg gur png onpx va gur ebbz jvgubhg jnfuvat vg? Gur zheqrere jbhyq unir orra pbirerq va oybbq naljnl, fb n yvggyr zber sebz cvpxvat hc n oybbql png jnf uneqyl tbvat gb znggre), and the revelation of the killer’s identity is achieved on account of a disclosure that doesn’t really give anything away and so seems to come about because the book knows it’s coming to an end. However, I would read another one of these — the second Miss Rachel book The Alarm of the Black Cat (1942) follows in the American Mystery Classics range soon — as the chance to spend more time with Mayhew and Miss Rachel appeals greatly, and so it can’t be all bad, eh?
Bev @ My Reader’s Block: In this first mystery with Miss Rachel, I feel like Hitchens had some falls along the way, but overall, like the titular cat, she nearly always managed to land on her feet. Our spunky heroine (Miss Rachel…not Samantha) is just getting the hang of this amateur detective business, so she doesn’t spot clues quite as quickly as she has in the two books I’ve read previously, but she does know when Mayhew is going astray. He is all set to arrest someone (twice!) and she manages to convince him that the solution still isn’t quite right. She might have come to the final conclusion as soon as I did (yes, I did spot the murderer before Miss Rachel)…if she had been privy to all the mentions of a certain something that the reader was.
7 thoughts on “#1058: The Cat Saw Murder (1939) by Dolores Hitchens [a.p.a. by D.B. Olsen]”
Actually, I was wondering when I saw the title just what kind of fiendish device a Cat Saw was!
This one left me a little dissatisfied as well. As you said, the devil is in the details. The ending felt like a jigsaw puzzle that had been laid out correctly without the jigsaw pieces connecting together. So you can make out the complete picture, but appears disjointed when taking a closer look at the details. I’m willing to try another one of Hitchens’ novels to see if she managed to get a tighter grasp on her plots. Anita Blackmon’s Murder à la Richelieu and Mabel Seeley’s The Listening House have proven these gruesome HIBK suspense mysteries have a ton of potential!
The violence of the murder is so uncommon that I was expecting it to have some reason — but quite the opposite is true: when you start thinking about it, it seems immensely unlikely that the killer would take the time to murder Lily in so time-consuming a way. So it becomes a weird inclusion, striking an odd note that feels false amidst the good work Hitchens does in the details elsewhere.
I will read the next one, however, so never let it be said that I’m unyielding in my opinions 🙂
I know what you mean! Hitchens left a better solution on the table that would have fixed some of its problems. That or all those Japanese mysteries are beginning to affect our minds.
I have been eagerly awaiting today, counting down the days to seeing what you made of this book. Could have been better, could have been worse – I will take what I can get and I am glad you are prepared to read another by her. It is more violent than you would expect and is very much not cosy in the way cat mysteries are expected to be today. I kinda like though how classic crime can completely throw the rule book out on what a certain subgenre or trope should be like,
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