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Reminiscent of Mickey Spillane at his Best

by John Grant

This time last week I was shoplifting in my local Barnes & Noble, as is my habit on Thursdays. I picked up my usual supplies of books to resell on Amazon — Webster's Complete Dictionary, Readers' Digest Atlas of the World, etc. — plus, as usual, a little something for myself. This week my indulgence was, or so I thought, a somber academic treatise on the important matter of flogging and flagellation of naked nubile women through the ages, a subject of particular interest to me. Not that I find it in any way titillating, I hope you understand; at least, not very.

On my return home, as I unpacked my "purchases" from the front of my jeans, I discovered that I had made a terrible mistake with that final acquisition of mine. The book that emerged redolently from its hiding-place was a novel entitled The Cat Who Had Nine Tails by an author called Lilian Jackson Braun.

Well, at least I could hawk it on Amazon along with the others, I thought as I scanned the blurb with mild distaste.

It proved to be a detective novel, whose twist is that a cat provides the hero with material assistance in solving a series of inexplicable murders. Having nothing to do until the parole officer phoned, I began to read the book.

To my great disappointment it wasn't at all what I had expected. I had assumed, as might any rational reader, that at some point there would be a juicy (but sensitively described) evisceration, and that the hero would then read the entrails of the useful cat to get guidance as to the criminal's identity, modus operandi, motives, weaponry, etc. You must know the sort of stuff I'm talking about:

"A double carbuncle on the vermiform appendix, Watson! That can only mean the murderer shot Sir Rudolf Golightly in the airtight time-locked safe using a dart tipped with a form of curare that is only found in the ink used in Sumatra in 1898 to print a rare set of Tarot cards decorated with Three Little Piggies motifs! Find such a deck with one card missing and we'll have found our killer!"

"Holmes, there's a perfectly good sanitarium in Kent I've heard about . . ."

Instead, what Ms Braun chose to serve up was a milquetoast tale in which two Siamese cats miaow at appropriate moments such that our exceedingly dense and obdurately non-nubile, fully clothed male protagonist jumps to illogical conclusions that just happen to guide him to the solution of the crime:

"That's it! Poo-Bah and Tiddles made a heck of a racket while I was opening a can of tuna for them! Why didn't I think of Flossy Bunwhacket before? She had the means, she had the motive, she gets the money! And, most damningly of all, she works as a piano tuna!"

You may be wondering why I chose to persevere with this dry tome after I'd discovered that it had so little to offer the connoisseur of such prose artistes as Mr James Patterson and Mr Thomas Harris (I'd have thought the solution was pretty obvious once we'd learned that Ms Bunwhacket was a vegetarian, and so left behind an enormous clue in that she failed to devour so much as a pituitary gland of her victim), but I had my reasons.

One compelling reason, in fact.

On the back cover it said: "48 MILLION COPIES SOLD WORLDWIDE!!!"

As you may imagine, I was on the phone to my good friend and business manager Dave Knuckle immediately, locating him eventually on his mobile in a cornfield somewhere, where he had interrupted his journey back to Folsom.

"I had to give up the Shocking Science Wonder Stories gig," he hominy clenched through gritted teeth before I had a chance to speak. "There was a typographical error in a column of mine about IQ testing and George W. Bush took great exception to being described as an adherent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

"That wasn't what I phoned for, Dave," I said, and I hastily explained to him about Ms Braun's seemingly hypersuccessful career as a writer of dull yarns featuring cats as assistant sleuths. "She must have made heaps of loot," I concluded, "and so I'd like to follow her literary example. I'm sure I speak for my bank manager as well here."

"Ah, yes," mused Dave. There was a little interference on the line, so that for a few moments it sounded as if someone were worming their way along a ditch. "Pet detectives. A very popular subgenre. Ms Braun's not the only one — damn these blasted manacles! — doing cats, and other writers have done books about doggie detectives. I think there's also a series with a parrot sleuth, too, but don't quote me on that. Shit! A tarantula's just crawled down the back of my neck. Look, Alan, I'm going to have to call you back later, OK? There's a law- enforcement officer shooting a bazooka at me."

With that he hung up. Once I'd got over his rudeness, assisted by a healthy swig of Nite Relief Sure Fire Mango Flavor Cold Cure, I realized there'd been the kernel of an idea in what he'd been saying. To put it in a nutshell, which is where kernels are quite often found: there was greenbacks to be had from pet detectives.

The trouble was that so many other writers had got there first, appropriating so many different species for their own selfish ends. Cats had already been done to death (as it were); likewise dogs and possibly parrots. If I wanted to be sure of grabbing a niche in this lucrative market I was going to have to choose a different type of pet.

Well, best to write about what you know, as we writers always say, and so I began to survey the animals populating my own apartment, Chateau Smithee.

This proved a less rewarding line of research than I had hoped, since my landlord has refused to let me keep pets ever since my lice colonized his iguana.

Item: A dead mouse. At least, I think Mickey is dead, because he hasn't moved for three weeks and his tail has fallen off.

Item: A stuffed owl. I won Hooter as a prize in the masquerade at Dragon*Con last year in the category Best Charlie Chaplin Impersonation. I've never quite understood why I won it, to tell you the truth, because at the time I was being a rather striking Mr Spock.

For obvious reasons, I'm hoping to win a stuffed owl at the next Dragon*Con masquerade, too.

Item: About a million cockroaches.

This itemized list did not at first seem very promising, and for a while even my Nintendo Gameboy (boosted from the bargain bin at RadioShack; I can never resist a bargain) couldn't console me. I racked my brains for other pets my putative Sherlock might plausibly have. Freddie the Maltese Falcon? Ratso the Ratiocinative Raccoon? Simon the Stick Insect, Scourge of Malfeasants? Pete "Scarface" Piranha? The latter sounded modestly promising, actually, because the hero could pop Pete into the culprit's bath to serve as both judge and executioner, but . . .

It was at that moment, dear reader, that a cockroach ran across my toes.

And inspiration struck!

An individual cockroach may not seem a very likely candidate as a pet detective to enrapture readers by the billion. There's a credibility gap: cockroaches are not very intelligent. To be sure, they can outwit armies of exterminators all called Bubba and Hoss carting the latest hi-tech equipment and charging you a fortune to blast enough internationally prohibited chemical weaponry around the interior of your apartment to make Saddam Hussein orgasmic, but that doesn't mean to say they're bright. And they score pretty low on the cuddliness quotient as well: you may find it appealing to snuggle down at nights with a cockroach purring in peaceful companionship in your arms, but the one time I tried it I had to make a midnight dash to Emergency so a doctor could extract the little bastard from my ear.

So forget about Colin Cockroach, Sleuth to the Stars.

On the other hand, even if an individual cockroach couldn't be exploited for my literary ends, think about a host of them, such as were currently chirruping their way through my stash of Little Debbie Frosted Cinnamon Muffinettes . . .

Could they not develop a group mind?

In fact, the more I thought about this idea, the more it seemed to explain the repeated failures of Bubba and Hoss from Vermin R Us.

Communication between my gestalt-minded Golden Horde and the hero would be a difficulty, but not an insuperable one. Morse Code would suffice, with a dash being represented by a scuttle and a dot by a pounce. Mobility would be another problem: people (except in New York) might turn to stare if, everywhere my hero went, he were carrying a highly mobile sack over his shoulder, and likewise if he were being a sort of latter-day cockroach Pied Piper, followed wherever he went by a furtively glistening russet sidewalk.

Wait a moment! I dropped my lifesize Buffy the Vampire Slayer Action Figure in awe at my own genius. As Buffy deflated slowly at my feet, my mind raced ahead. What if the composite mind of the hero's cockroach tribe were in telepathic communication with him?


That solved both of my dilemmoids and opened up whole new chasms of possibilities for plotting! The cockroaches could stay at home while hardbitten private dick Harry Potter (we want these books to be stocked in Barnes & Noble, right?) explored the crimes far afield, their focused mental beams directing him to each new clue and finally to the perp!

I ran to my computer (486GHz, 4400Gb hard drive, 900Gb RAM, double DVD-RW drive) and tried to find enough memory left over from games to open up MS Word. Already I could see all this in my mind's eyes. Lilian Jackson Braun's cat had only nine tails, hm? Hell, my psychokinetic cockroaches had thousands.

The first novel would be called Harry Potter and the Cockroaches of the Rings. "Somewhere on a lonely Dartmoor, amid the mists of the millennia, a spectral creature howled . . ."

Just then there came a fizzle and a splat, and a small puff of smoke emerged from the back of my computer.

The screen went dead.


It was at that moment, dear reader, that I realized I'd not so much devised the basic premise for a whole series of bestselling pet detective novels as stumbled upon an Awesome Truth.

More about this Awesome Truth next week.

If my masters will permit . . .

The End