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The Eccentric, Unusual, and Layered Plotting of Dolores Hitchens’ The Cat Saw Murder

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Magic is mysterious, and mystery is magical: we are enthralled by that which we don’t (yet) know, and many of us are under the spell of a near-visceral compulsion to learn the truth—“solve” the mystery.

It’s a natural instinct, to wish to know. Problems exist to be solved but mystery is ever elusive. Even if we know who has committed the crime, we need to know how; we need to know why. Beyond that, we crave to know meaning. In magic, the ingenious magician is one who not only knows how to perform magic but knows how to deflect his viewers’ avid attention from the workings of magic itself, which are (of course) illusory—the magician is the “illusionist.” Of magic it is commonly said that the “magic” exists exclusively in the eye of the enthralled beholder; expose the mechanism behind the magic, you have reduced it to mere trickery—disillusionment.

Mystery/detective novels of the Golden Age (1920-1939) are more akin to magic than to mainstream literature in which an exploration of human personality in a recognizably “real” world is the point, as well as a cultivation of language as an end in itself; in the classic mystery/detective novel as executed by Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen among others, a brilliantly facile sleight-of-hand obscures from readers “clues” cleverly seeded in a prose narrative that, upon a second, closer reading, leap forward as premonitory. So that explains it, we think, marveling. As in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” the most inspired clues, as they are likely to be invisible, are before our eyes.

All mystery/detective novels begin with a crime, usually a murder, which precipitates everything that follows. To compose an adventure of detection of some length it’s necessary for the author, as the master magician, to deflect the reader’s immediate attention from clues that will give away the mystery too quickly, as the reader’s attention must be directed toward, yet also away, from the individual who will be unmasked at last as the “guilty” party. Ideally, readers should be surprised by the unmasking, yet recognize it as plausible, indeed inevitable. If inadequate clues are seeded beforehand, the reader will feel cheated; if clues are too obvious, the reader will feel cheated. (The game-like nature of the genre was brilliantly highlighted by Ellery Queen’s innovative “challenge to the reader”—interrupting the prose narrative to declare that, given the assemblage of clues available at that point, the attentive reader should be able to solve the mystery himself.) Like magic, mystery/detective fictions are variants on formulas, read by aficionados familiar with the conventions of the genre, which can come to be addictive: because Mystery is never solved, but only shifts to new circumstances, mysteries can be explored forever.

[T]he randomness of life is anathema to the Golden Age mystery.

In genre crime literature nothing precedes the crime: there are no significant “back-stories,” no complex social circumstances. The discovery of a body sets in motion a sequence of actions each related to its predecessor and successor in a causal relationship; the randomness of life is anathema to the Golden Age mystery. For the author, as a puppet-master, the skillfully composed mystery begins with its ending, and is imagined backward; all forward motion—“plot”—moves inexorably toward that ending, the “solution” of the crime or crimes. Along the way there will be an ample supply of “clues” both legitimate and misleading; there will be a (hopefully colorful) cast of “suspects” with “motives.” The ideal Golden Age mystery is a “locked-room” mystery in which ingenuity is the point, demonstrated by the (unknown) murderer and the sleuth who tracks and eventually names him, at which point the fiction dissolves to the sort of ending characteristic of fairy tales: nothing beyond this naming of the “guilty,” no lingering consequences of murderous crimes, no permanently traumatized victims, no anxiety about whether criminal justice will be fairly meted out, or meted out at all. As in The Cat Saw Murder the ideal sleuth is an amateur for whom no employment of forensics or the resources of professional law enforcement is an option and who must rely upon her own ratiocination: “There was the puzzle of the crime, which allured [Miss Rachel’s] mathematical mind as would a problem in algebra.”

The sleuth, like the reader, is presented with a situation, usually of escalating criminal acts, but, unlike the reader, the sleuth can construct a coherent path through the underbrush. By the end of the novel we are dazzled by an illumination of just one, crucial and seemingly inevitable storyline, which “solves” the mystery; in an ideal specimen of the genre, a second reading will reveal how cleverly the author has arranged his revelations amid much that is distracting.

The Cat Saw Murder is a particularly eccentric example of such a genre work in that there are two “mysteries” running concurrently: the mystery of who has committed a curiously awkward, quasi-bungled murder at a most inopportune time, and the mystery of who is narrating the story, from a future perspective in which the mystery has (evidently) been solved, and one, or two, or three individuals are engaged in narrating it. The primary mystery is a conventional one involving murders in close quarters, with a limited cast of characters/ suspects, as in a formulaic locked-room mystery; the secondary mystery is more intriguing, for its solution must lie beyond the scope of the novel’s timespan, in a future devised by the unlikely sleuth, 70-year-old Miss Rachel Murdoch.

The first in a series of mysteries by D.B. Olsen, one of the pseudonyms of bestselling Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973), The Cat Saw Murder (1939) inaugurates what has become a curious publishing phenomenon—the “cat mystery,” now a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry. (Given the mythology of cats, originating in ancient Egypt where cats were allegedly worshipped as gods, it is not surprising that the cat, of all animals, is imagined as the Doppelganger of amateur detectives, usually women: where dogs are extraverted and eager to please, cats tend to a brooding sort of introversion, and a marked disinterest in “pleasing”—exactly the sort of personality suited for dispassionate detection and the unmasking of deceit.) In twelve mysteries published between 1939 and 1956, bearing such playful titles as The Cat Wears a Noose, Cats Have Tall Shadows, Cats Don’t Smile, Death Walks on Cat Feet, among others, the fragile-bodied but sharply observant Miss Rachel Murdoch confronts murder after murder with astonishing composure for a maiden lady of advanced years; in The Cat Saw Murder Miss Rachel is fearless, at times reckless in the pursuit of solving the mystery of who brutally killed her niece in Miss Rachel’s very presence (she has been drugged with morphine), and goes on to kill again, with a gruesome corpse-maiming as a bonus. One of a devoted pair of elderly sister-spinsters, Miss Rachel is the lively sister, the inquisitive sister, the one whom the author favors:

Even at the age of seventy some traces of what had been Miss Rachel’s stunning beauty remained. The hairline—though the hair was white and thinned—was a perfect widow’s peak and set her small face off into the shape of a heart. Her eyes regarded Miss Jennifer [her sister] with a dark aliveness, like the movement of water in a little pool which feels the current of the stream. Her hands broke her toast with definite grace. [3]

Miss Rachel will prove to be a delightful amateur sleuth, more than a match for her professional counterpart, the socially maladroit and somewhat bumbling Detective Lieutenant Stephen Mayhew, who has been called to the crime scene in the coastal town of Breakers Beach, California; the informal partnership of Mayhew and Miss Rachel, whom he condescendingly calls “the old lady,” gives to The Cat Saw Murder an air of uplift, as in romance, or young adult fiction, in which unlikely individuals become bonded in a singular heroic effort.

Indeed, Mayhew behaves less like a police detective than an amateur sleuth whose homicide investigation involves inveigling a naïve young woman to act as a decoy to attract the murderer—with near-fatal results for the young woman. He is something of a cinematic “character”—mercurial, short-tempered, a sexist who “dislikes fat women who wear red nail enamel” [212], a bully who “throws” an annoying suspect into a corridor, and slaps the face of a traumatized young woman. He is so narrow-minded that an attempted suicide by an (obviously innocent) older woman is “tantamount to a confession.” [191] Exotically described as having “blue-black hair, bushy black brows and a brown square face as emotionally mobile as a nicely carved wooden mask . . . . [Mayhew] needs only a good nasty growl to complete the picture of a black bear.” [47] Eventually Mayhew will feature in two independent Olsen mysteries but he is not nearly so interesting or original a creation as Miss Rachel.

One of the novelties of The Cat Saw Murder is that the account of the mystery is jointly narrated, by both Miss Rachel and Mayhew, from some undisclosed future time; while the homicide case is past tense, the narration is present tense, a distinction likely to distract some readers with frequent time shifts, and an obscure perspective, in which Detective Lieutenant Mayhew seems to have acquired an informal personal relationship with Miss Rachel. (It will give little away to inform perplexed readers that Miss Rachel, Mayhew, and Mayhew’s young wife Sara are well acquainted, having bonded together in the strife of the homicide investigation of The Cat Saw Murder; at some peaceful later time the three are piecing together their individual memories of the case, which Mayhew has called “the damnedest case that he ever met up with” [1]. If the reader keeps this in mind Olsen’s frequent time-shifts are not so jarring.)

The cat that saw murder is Miss Rachel’s “black satin” Samantha, an elegant creature with “golden eyes” and a “soprano miaow” whose life is endangered since she happens to be an heiress, having inherited a small fortune from Miss Rachel’s elder sister. (This is a subplot, not integrated into the larger mystery.) Readers uneasy at the prospect of a preternatural feline acting as a sleuth, or as a companion of a sleuth, should be assured that Olsen’s cat is not possessed of extraordinary gifts, and Miss Rachel is not an especially besotted cat-owner: at one point she is uncertain that the cat is even Samantha. (Among much that strains credulity in the novel is Miss Rachel’s bizarre notion that a strange cat has been substituted for Samantha, as it is unlikely that Miss Rachel wouldn’t immediately take Samantha away after two attempts are made on the cat’s life.)

Beyond feisty Miss Rachel, bear-like Detective Lieutenant Mayhew, and Samantha the black satin cat, characters in The Cat Saw Murder are but functions of the plot, sketchily presented as physical beings of a repellent sort: among the suspects are Mrs. Turner (“Her bony cheeks were flushed with anger; her big jaw jutted at him . . . she had the beak and eyes of a bird of prey and her neck was wrinkled and grayish as a buzzard” [65]); another unpleasant (female) suspect is “tall, big-jawed” [36], still another has a “stout bosom” [61]. Miss Rachel’s niece Lily, whose function in the plot is to get herself murdered in an early chapter, is a slovenly, mammalian figure, clearly repulsive to the author as to fastidious Miss Rachel herself:

Lily Sticklemann was getting perilously close to forty but she tried desperately, though not cleverly, not to show it. She was a big woman with very white skin, prominent teeth and mountainous masses of pale hair . . . Her figure was not svelte. It bulged, in spite of an excellent corset . . . If Miss Rachel might properly be said to resent anything, she resented the fact that Lily was so obviously and persistently stupid. It was an involved stupidity that attempted to simulate cunning; that loved its little mysteries; that was coy; that was dull. [9]

Significantly, the frowsy Lily is not Miss Rachel’s niece by blood, only by marriage: she confesses to Miss Rachel that she has been cheating at bridge, but so ineptly that she has been losing badly, and is now in serious debt; she offers Miss Rachel a most unappetizing liver sausage sandwich from which “she with drew a long yellow hair . . . and dropped it into the sink, where it lay disconsolately upon soiled dishes.” [21] A fount of dismaying manners, Lily is soon murdered with excessive brutality, in the sort of awkward circumstances that would be unlikely in actual life but are characteristic of murders in “locked-room” mysteries in which there are numerous suspects in close proximity, each of whom will have to be interrogated by the sleuth.

The novel’s suspenseful scenes establish Miss Rachel as not only a cerebral sleuth but one willing to risk herself physically; to determine who may have murdered her niece, Miss Rachel manages the acrobatic feat of lowering herself into the apartments of suspects in their absence, a practical endeavor described in detail:

There was such an opening in the ceiling of Miss Rachel’s closet, and when she saw it her heart gave a bound of pure sleuthly joy . . . To get into this place without leaving an obvious stack of chairs, or a similar means of mounting, seemed at first quite a problem, and then it became exceptionally easy. Miss Rachel simply pulled each drawer of the built-in chest slightly outward, so that its edge gave a firm foothold, and then upon this arrangement she mounted daringly upward . . . It was as black in the attic as the uppermost depths of Hades might be presumed to be. [161]

Despite her frail physique Miss Rachel is clearly not hobbled by her gender, no more than by her genteel caste and reasonable disposition.

As sheer entertainment, its wild improbabilities overlooked, The Cat Saw Murder is deftly executed; Miss Rachel is an engaging, even endearing amateur sleuth, and “black satin” Samantha a highly promising companion for further adventures. D.B. Olsen was a skillful storyteller whose mysteries are due for reexamination, particularly in the light of women’s crime fiction and contemporary “cat mysteries.” Beneath the surface narrative, fast-moving as a stream, is a deeper sort of tragic wisdom, appropriate for the darkening era of 1939 as for our own:

Mayhew was disturbed by the evidence of the severed hand more than he liked to admit. He had been in contact with violent death many times, death both planned and accidental and most hideous, but outright, cold-blooded torture was rare to him. He found himself wondering about the hand and about the man who had owned it: what frozen superhuman control or babbling frenzy had possessed him in his hour of agony, and above all, what the purpose of the torture might have been. [133]

What the purpose is not a theme taken up by most mystery/ detective fictions, beyond the pragmatic and expedient purpose of creating a mystery to be solved by an impresario sleuth. In The Cat Saw Murder it is particularly satisfying that the 35-year-old plainclothes detective Mayhew is aided by teaming up with the 70-year-old Miss Rachel; only by joining forces can these two seemingly antithetical individuals put an end to what would be a succession of brutal murderers by a crude and unrepentant murderer.



Excerpted from Joyce Carol Oates’ introduction to THE CAT SAW MURDER by Dolores Hitchens, copyright © 2021 by the estate of Dorothy Hitchens. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, American Mystery Classics.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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