book review

Cat and Mouse

Murder’s such a lonely business: there’s never anyone to talk to.

The winner of my reading poll was Christianna Brand’s Cat and Mouse. There is a specific reason I hadn’t read this book for so long, but I can’t tell you because it’s a spoiler…sort of.

Here’s the deal. C&M is not a detective story (although there is a detective); it’s a gothic, gaslight suspenser with an overactive pulse. A new hidden plot emerges every five minutes, simmering in our main character’s brain before becoming a rolling boil of murderous insinuation and then finally dying into, “Everything was an innocent mistake after all.” Then the next chapter begins the cycle anew. Stories like this certainly have clues (indeed, the ones here are plentiful), but the clues remain buried within the narrative rather than brought to the fore by a detective.

But let’s start at the best place: the beginning.

Miss Katinka Jones is a columnist for a 1950s women’s magazine called Girls Together. Under the nom de plume Miss Friendly-wise, Katinka doles out romantic advice to hopeless women all over the UK. One of these hopeless women captures her attention with a story of romance in the coastal Welsh town of Swansea. A woman named Amista sends her letter after letter detailing her fiery romance with the older Mr. Carlyon. She gives plenty of details–the house and the furniture, the servants and the milk lady who navigates the ferry, even the view from her window. Eventually, Amista reveals that Carlyon has asked for her hand in marriage.

Brand has a lot of fun with the bookend scenes at the Girls Together Headquarters:

“Men are so short these days.”

“I’d settle for a dwarf,” said Katinka.

“It’s the war, I suppose, darling. Yours and my chaps were killed off–I mean the ones of a reasonable age. We’ll have to live in sin with other people’s husbands, that’s all. I do think the haves ought to share with the sex-starved have-nots.”

Desperate for a holiday, Katinka decides to pay her pen pal a visit. She arrives in Wales and catches the ferry (just as Amista had described). When she arrives at the house and meets Carlyon and the servants, she is disturbed to learn no one has ever heard of Amista.

It is here when I must profess an admiration for reviewers of this sort of book. With detective fiction, I can state the problem, vaguely describe the investigation, and then say whether or not I thought the solution was cool. With “a novel of suspense”, it is much more difficult to describe the scenario without spoiling something. I hesitate to go forward, but…we get disfigurement, vicious amounts of violence (wait for it), mistaken identity, and as many false solutions and blind alleys as there are chapters.

Brand is beautifully economical with her metaphors. Look at the beginning of Chapter 4 when Katinka awakens to a sea filled with whales. After a bit more focus, she realizes the sea is the sky and the whales are clouds. Then, she notices the frame around the sky and realizes it’s a painting. Finally, she sees the window frame and realizes the painting is in another room. It’s an effortlessly literal representation of C&M’s plot-within-a-plot structure.

The title too gets a lot of traction with Carlyon’s pet Siamese demonstrating the plot in microcosm.

Tybalt, the cat, had embarked upon a quarter of an hour of intensive training: five minutes of shadow boxing, five minutes of chasing his tail, five minutes of stalking a ping-pong ball across the linoleum floor. It is exquisite, she thought, and charming and graceful and infinitely amusing–and infinitely horrible. For the ping-pong ball is a mouse and when Tybalt has completed his training he will go forth after real mice and, having caught one, he will torture it. He will let it go and when it thinks it is free he will put out one lazy paw and drag it back again into terror. And maul it a little and let it creep away hoping to end its agony in peace, and bring it back once more.

Our detective is neither the brilliant Cockerill nor the ever-chagrined Charlesworth. Instead, we have Inspector Chucky whose only other appearance would come in the elusive novel Ring of Roses. What can I say about Chucky? He is the manic-pixie dreamdetective. When he is required to be handsome, he is. When he needs to cut Katinka down to size or give her a cigarette, he does. Sometimes, I imagined him simply waiting to open a window and surprise her (I’m serious, he does this like twice!) with a mocking grin as she snoops through the house looking for evidence.

In describing the landscape and the house, Brand uses anthropomorphism to great effect–witness the windows winking and the gutters gurgling. The penultimate chapter is filled with her characteristic nastiness. One character’s description of a prior action turned my blood cold. C&M is superbly written and constructed.

So, although I’m more inclined to enjoy detective fiction, I can easily recommend this as prime Brand.

1 thought on “Cat and Mouse”

  1. I think I’ll always be excited to read new reviews of Cat and Mouse because it so undeservedly drifts below the surface. I could make the case that most any of Christianna Brand’s mystery novels feature her “best” ending, and this one makes the cut because it’s an absolute pinwheel of revelations and reversals. Like you kind of go into the end of this feeling like there’s just some small remaining missing piece in this strange HIBK tale, and then it turns into a meat grinder of twists.

    Good luck tracking down A Ring of Roses, which features some delightful continuity with this book. I’ve hardly even seen it available since I snapped up a copy a few years ago.

    Like

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