Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
This third animal crime series is what I consider to be the first in which the cats genuinely detect to solve human crimes. No pussyfooting in the background while the human amateur detective solves the crimes. This is the Joe Grey series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. Joe and his feline assistants Dulcie and Kit are talking cats fully in the human world. They have their human helpers, but they do all the important detecting. There aren’t as many Joe Grey novels as there are Midnight Louie or Mrs. Murphy novels, but there are eighteen; and there will be a nineteenth next February.
Cat on the Edge. April 1996.
Cat Under Fire. November 1996.
Cat Raise the Dead. May 1997.
Cat in the Dark. January 1999.
Cat to the Dogs. January 2000.
Cat Spitting Mad. December 2000.
(Cat on the Money. 2001.)
Cat Laughing Last. December 2001.
Cat Seeing Double. January 2003.
Cat Fear No Evil. January 2004.
Cat Cross Their Graves. January 2005.
Cat Breaking Free. December 2005.
Cat Pay the Devil. March 2007.
Cat Deck the Halls. December 2007.
Cat Playing Cupid. February 2009.
Cat Striking Back. November 2009.
Cat Coming Home. November 2010.
Cat Telling Tales. November 2011.
Cat Bearing Gifts. November 2012.
Cat Shout for Joy. February 2016.
The setting for the series is Molena Point, California, a fictional California coastal resort village maybe a hundred miles south of San Francisco – a lookalike of the real Carmel. The mystery begins in the first paragraph of the first book:
“The murder of Samuel Beckwhite in the alley behind Jolly’s Delicatessen was observed by no human witness. Only the gray tomcat saw Beckwhite fall, the big man’s heavy body crumpling, his round, close-trimmed head crushed from the blow of a shiny steel wrench. At the bright swing of the weapon and the thud of breaking bone, the cat stiffened with alarm and backed deeper into the shadows, a sleek silver ripple in the dark.” (p. 1)
This is an apparently absolutely mundane crime—so why do two cats who happen to be nearby suddenly gain human intelligence and the ability to talk and read? And why does a human housewife suddenly find herself transformed into a cat?
The two cats are Joe Grey, a gray (Russian blue) cat with only a two-inch stub of a tail who is the pet of Clyde Damien, the owner of an automobile repair shop that specializes in restoring antique cars, and Dulcie, an orange tabby cat belonging to Wilma Getz, a retired parole officer. It turns out that both Joe and Dulcie saw the murder. Why this murder gave them human intelligence and the ability to talk is a mystery, but the killer is aware of it and wants to eliminate them as inconvenient witnesses. Kate Osbourne, the housewife, is also turned into a cat by the murder. Molena Point is small, and Clyde, Wilma, and Kate all know each other. Joe is satisfied to live as a pampered pet, while Dulcie wants to know why she is suddenly intelligent and can talk; but both cats are forced together to escape the murderer. Also, Clyde was the business partner of the murdered man and is suspected by the police of being the killer, so Joe has to prove Clyde’s innocence to preserve his own comfortable life. Cat on the Edge ends with the real killer unmasked, Kate restored to humanity, and the cats’ intelligence revealed to their human companions; but the mystery of how and why the cats are now intelligent and can talk still unknown.
In the subsequent novels, the mystery of Joe & Dulcie’s ability to talk and Kate’s turning into a cat (and Kate herself) fades into the background. Joe & Dulcie can just talk, and in each book, they enjoy playing detectives. They get involved with a new crime, invariably a murder (or a lesser crime that leads to a murder), and have fun (1) learning who the killer is, (2) finding the evidence needed by the police, and (3) finding how to deliver the evidence to the police without revealing themselves. They become adept at giving mysterious telephone calls to Police Captain Max Harper.
As the series progresses, the cast grows. Kit, a tattercoat tortoiseshell kitten who can also talk, appears in #7, Cat Laughing Last, and the feline duo becomes a trio. With #11, Cat Breaking Free, a whole clowder of feral cats who can talk is discovered living in the hills above Molena Point. Some of them become a major supporting character for one novel; in #12, Cat Pay the Devil it’s Cotton, Coyote, and Willow, while with #15, Cat Striking Back, it’s Tansy and Sage. With #17, Cat Coming Home, Misto, an old yellow prison tomcat briefly joins the trio. Even before that, the regular human cast grows tremendously with Wilma’s niece, Charlie; Molena Point Detectives Dallas Garza and Juana Davis; building contractor Ryan Flannery; elderly Pedric and Lucinda Greenlaw; and others. Almost all the humans get married. The number of humans who know and keep the talking cats’ secret increases. Azrael, a possibly demonic cat (he practices voodoo), appears in #4, Cat in the Dark, and occasionally in later novels. Kate Osbourne reappears more rarely. One human criminal, Greeley Urzey, who knows the cats’ secret, is in #4 and #12, but he keeps the secret for his own reasons.
In the real world, several of the novels have become winners of the Cat Writers’ Association’s annual Muse Medallion for the best writing about cats in several categories. However, even granting the premise of talking cats, the series includes some major implausibilities. Kit remains a little kitten for years before growing up; and Joe & Dulcie remain “just good friends” for equally far too long before “getting married” and having kittens – in fact, this is still due to happen in Cat Shout for Joy coming in February. Joe, Dulcie, and Kit regularly get information by pretending to be normal cats at human tables and listening while they beg for food or eat dropped human food like dogs; but those increasingly include human food like Mexican and Chinese food that would probably not be good for real cats – if they did not ignore it. The first few novels give convincing reasons for the cats to take interest in human crimes, but in the later novels Joe, Dulcie, and Kit become implausible do-gooders who just want to help human strangers out of a love for justice. But the Joe Grey series is a “cat cozy” fantasy, so readers will not care about a few implausibilities.
To be noted is the “unpublished” Cat on the Money. This is a novella that began serialization in Cats magazine. Cats was discontinued before the serialization was completed. The entire story, too short for a book, can be downloaded from the official Joe Grey website: http://joegrey.com/
There was a break of four years between #18 and #19. This was because Murphy collaborated on two novels with her husband, Pat J. J. Murphy:
The Cat, the Devil, and Lee Fontana. February 2014.
The Cat, the Devil, the Last Escape. February 2015.
These are two spinoffs about the Devil tormenting a mortal, Lee Fontana, and his being helped by the old tomcat Misto as a ghost cat. They are more fantastic/supernatural than the Joe Grey series.