Author Clea Simon on Murder Mysteries, Cats, and How She Started Writing "pet Noir"

Lylah M. Alphonse, Senior Editor, Yahoo! Shine
Author Clea Simon with her cat, Musetta.
Author Clea Simon with her cat, Musetta.

Most pet-lovers know that dogs and cats communicate regularly with their human companions. But what if they could help you solve a mystery? In her latest pet noir, "Cats Can't Shoot," author Clea Simon explores the connections between pets and their owners, weaving a complex murder mystery that appeals even if you're not a die-hard animal lover.

"In truth, I have always been a storyteller," Simon told Yahoo! Shine:. "From the earliest I can remember, I loved making up stories to amuse people. But in junior high, I was also bitten by the news bug and it quickly became apparent that there was a more clear career path in journalism."

A Long Island native who has lived in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, since the mid-1980s, Simon spent years as a magazine editor, newspaper editor, and music critic before stepping away from full-time journalism in 1999. By then, she already had one non-fiction book to her credit ("Mad House: Growing up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings") and her second, "Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads," came out soon after.

"I'll admit, in many ways it is less scary to be a journalist than a storyteller," she says. "After all, as a journalist, you are conveying information -- finding out facts that everyone needs. But to be a storyteller requires a certain confidence -- the belief that a story that you've made up out of your own head, that has no useful value, will be valued by someone. And somewhere in my early adulthood, I'd lost the confidence in my storytelling that I'd had as a child."

Her confidence returned after her third non-fiction book, "The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats," was published in 2002. The link between women, mysteries, and cats took her to the next level, and soon her first mystery series, featuring a Boston-based music reporter named Theda Krakow. Since then, she's written three full series, all with different heroines; her ninth and tenth books come out in April. (You can find excerpts of her books online at CleaSimon.com).

Shine: You wrote three nonfiction books before publishing your first pet-related murder mystery. What made you start writing mysteries? And why populate them with pets?

Clea Simon: I'd always loved animals, and animals have always played a huge role in my life. My last nonfiction book ("The Feline Mystique") let me explore history and mythology, behavioral science, psychology, you name it - all with cats. And I had a blast.

At the time this book came out (2002), I was a regular at the great Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had come to know Kate Mattes, the proprietor. Kate had an annual holiday party at which she'd invite dozens of authors to come sign their books. I'd been to several -- the store was small and would be packed, people spilling out into the yard. It was always a blast. And Kate said to me, "Clea, why don't you come sign 'The Feline Mystique'? I'll get a bunch in." I said, "But Kate, my book isn't a mystery." And she replied, with a twinkle in her eye, "Clea, believe it or not, there's a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers."

So I did, and she did, and a fair amount of wine was consumed. And then towards the end of the party, when we were picking cupcake wrappers off the bookshelves, Kate turned to me and said, "Clea, you should write a mystery." And so I went home and started one that night, which became "Mew is for Murder." She gave me permission to do what I'd always wanted.

Shine: In your earlier books, the animals don't talk, but in the later ones, they do. What happened?

C.S.: In my first four mysteries, the Theda Krakow mysteries, I was very concerned with making the cats be real animals. I was still mining a lot of the research I'd done with "The Feline Mystique," and I wanted to put animal issues front and center in each book. And so "Mew is for Murder" dealt, lightly, with animal hoarding -- the neighborhood "cat lady" is murdered. Then in subsequent books I dealt with puppy/kitten mills and pet overpopulation. I wanted to -- and I think I succeeded -- in bringing these issues up without being preachy, and in the context of a fun adventure. And, of course, I obeyed the golden rule of cozy mysteries, which is that you can kill as many people as you want, but you cannot harm an animal. I also really enjoyed portraying my characters and their pets as directly as I could -- we pick up cues from our pets all the time. They don't HAVE to talk!

Then my longtime beloved cat Cyrus died, and I had a very strange encounter. I was running down the street -- late for an appointment -- and I saw a cat that was the exact double of Cyrus, sitting on a porch, watching me. I'd never seen that other cat before, and I never did again. And so I started thinking, "What if our animals came back as ghosts to watch over us?" Add in that I spent a good deal of my undergrad career studying novels of the 18th Century - and that I've become increasingly aware of some issues that have stayed the same (mainly, the ghettoization of female authors, and of books popular with female authors). Suddenly, I had a new heroine - a bookish grad student, Dulcie Schwartz, who is studying Gothic novels and thinks she's super rational. Until she sees the ghost of her late cat, telling her not to enter an apartment where a body lies dead... "Shades of Grey" was born, and that series will have its fourth book, "Grey Expectations," out this April. Mr. Grey, the ghost cat, appears erratically, and is usually quite enigmatic, never telling Dulcie anything directly. He is not only a ghost, after all, he is a cat.

Then, I took the next step as the result of a challenge. I was at Sleuthfest, a mystery conference in Florida, when the editor of a mystery story anthology challenged me to write a story for her. I'd been reading a lot of the new female-centered noir, books like "Queenpin" by Megan Abbot, and I just loved that tough, cool voice. But when I write, somehow, there's always an animal involved. So, sitting by the pool, I came up with "Dumb Beasts," which featured an animal psychic with a real bad attitude, who solved a mystery by the clues the animals were giving her. The key, though, was that the animals responded as animals do - the dog doesn't say, "he did it!" The dog says, basically, "Let's go out! Let's go out! Why haven't we gone out?" And the cat doesn't say, "it was a gun." The cat says, "That was loud. I hate loud." Pru has little use for people, but she grudgingly respects animals - because they are true to themselves. That short story grew into "Dogs Don't Lie," which became a three-book series and continues this spring with "Cats Can't Shoot."

It is very important to me, in all these books, that I present the animals honestly. No, I know cats don't talk, but even when I have them communicate, I try to present them in ways that are true to themselves. I love animals, but what I love about them is their animal nature - the way they react, with their instincts, to the world. I think that if I can convey that honestly to the reader, then the reader will love these characters as much as I do - and more than if I tried to cutesy-poo them up. So, yes, several of my animals now talk, but I like to think their voices are true to who they are.

Shine: Your latest heroine Pru Marlowe can hear what animals are thinking. Are you a bit of a pet psychic as well?

C.S.: I wish -- or, no, I don't, because Pru often finds it maddening. Can you imagine the inanities the birds come up with each morning? But I do think that even we normal humans can use many of the same tools that Pru uses: if we observe our

Shine: Have you ever worked with a pet psychic?

C.S.: Yes, for "The Feline Mystique." it was kind of hilarious. She did a consultation over the phone and my cat slept through most of it.

Shine: Are any of your heroines autobiographical? There's Pru, journalist Theda Krakow, and graduate student Dulcie Schwartz.

C.S.: I think they all contain elements of my personality. Theda's life most closely mirrored mine -- a onetime newspaper copy editor and music critic. I like to see myself as Pru, tough and world-weary. But at least one of my close friends thinks I'm much more the bookish, gentle Dulcie.

Shine: Tell us about your own pets.

C.S.: I am now serial monogamous with cats, and we currently cohabit with Musetta, a feisty but affectionate black and white ("tuxedo") medium-hair cat. She's a very different personality from the late, great Cyrus, in that he was courtly, allowed anyone to pet him, was very quiet and gentle. Musetta will hiss and meow at anyone - including me - and when she gets excited, she bites. But she's also extremely affectionate. I think she's like our little riot grrrl, whereas Cyrus was a philosopher.

When I was younger, I had a huge menagerie. Several anoles and other lizards, including a horned toad, and various turtles and hamsters, too. For a few years, I had a lovely toad named Dyatt, who overcame his fear of me and would sit nestled in my hand, enjoying the warmth. I would catch flies for him in summer, which is a very useful skill that I have retained (though i do tend to kill them now -- Dyatt preferred his prey still kicking). The first cat in my house was a big black-and-white tom named James, brought home by my brother from college. He was followed by Thomas and Tara.

Shine: Is there a real-life pet-related issue that you're particularly passionate about?

C.S.: Most of them! I'm a huge supporter of spay and neuter programs, and also of keeping cats inside. They have longer, healthier lives indoors with a modicum of care and attention, and it is better for them and for the environment. People are about 20 years behind the times with cats then they are with dogs. Nobody, well, virtually nobody, leaves their dogs outside anymore to fend for themselves. We know that these are domestic animals and we have a pact with them - to care for them as they serve and please us. We have to catch up with our care of our cats, too.

Shine: Tell us a bit about "Cats Can't Shoot," which comes out in April.

C.S.: As "Cats Can't Shoot" opens, Pru has gotten a call from the cops, telling her that she's needed to help out with animal control, there's been a cat shooting. She's horrified, of course, but when she arrives, she finds out that the cat is unharmed - but its owner is dead. It appears that the cat, a white Persian, has accidentally set off a hair-trigger antique dueling pistol. The cops had called Pru to remove the cat, which is hiding and terrified, but, of course, Pru is curious and hopes, using her special skills, to pick up something about what really happened here. However, the cat is either too traumatized to tell her, or she's losing her special gift. Then, when the widow and her much younger "assistant" start fighting over the cat, Pru knows something is going on.

Pru, by the way, has a snarky sidekick, an elderly tabby named Wallis, who has no respect for pedigreed cats like that Persian. Or anyone else for that matter.

Shine: You have another book in the works, too, don't you? Can you share a bit about it with us?

C.S.: Next month will also see the U.S. publication of "Grey Expectations," the fourth Dulcie Schwartz mystery. In this one, Dulcie finds herself under suspicion when a rare English codex goes missing - and when she discovers the dead body of the director of the library special collections, she is drawn in more deeply. Rumors have been circulating that the missing codex is haunted, but when Dulcie tries to confer with Mr Grey, he's no help at all.

Shine: Most of your pet mysteries involve cats. Why not more dogs? Are cats inherently more mysterious, do you just like them better, or is it a readership demographic issue?

C.S.: I do have a wider variety of animals in the Pru series. In fact, the first of those, last year's "Dogs Don't Lie," focused on a rescued dog who is accused of killing her owner.She's headed for euthanasia unless Pru can prove to the world what she knows - that Lily would never have killed the man who gave her a new life. There's also a recurring character, a very macho bichon frise, in that series, who acts as a kind of Greek chorus. He's the canine equivalent of Wallis. Please don't tell Wallis that, though!

Dogs and other animals will probably always be secondary characters in my books, though. I don't write with reader demographics in mind. I can't; I just write what I love and at heart, I'm a cat person. There are great dog mysteries out there - I recommend Susan Conant's books highly - but I don't know them as well and so I don't write them as naturally.

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Clea Simon's ninth and tenth books are due out in April.
Clea Simon's ninth and tenth books are due out in April.