In my earlier years when I taught an occasional Shakespeare play at Monmouth High School, I used to enjoy explaining to my students the origin of the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” In the era of the British thatched roof and William Shakespeare, a homeowner used to put dogs and cats on the roof to catch the rats that occasionally nestled in the thatch.
It wasn’t hard for rats to create a comfy home because of the nature of thatch. It was made of densely-packed straw, sedge, rushes or palm fronds. The rats were attracted to the grain in the straw. But once the intrepid dog or cat patrol was released on the roof, the rats were in big trouble. Unfortunately, sometimes it began raining during the hunt, and then the dogs and cats would go sliding down the wet, slippery thatch and fall to the ground, leading to the origin of the statement, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
But I digress.
Several years ago, I heard the highly regarded Scottish mystery writer, Ian Rankin, talk about the one cardinal rule for using dogs or cats in mysteries, especially cozy mysteries. That rule is “Never, ever kill or hurt an animal.” Besides the thousands of people from animal protection organizations that will boycott your books and send poisoned pen letters, many of your fans will also turn against you. They love their pets. Many a mystery writer has learned that the hard way.
Frankly, I never thought about using pets in my mysteries since I have no experience with them. Allergic to animals since I was young, I tend to stay completely away from them. This, of course, is a problem since putting pets in my books would indicate an understanding of how they behave. But then I remembered a fabulous truth: I write fiction, so I can make up whatever I want. Right?
My first foray into pet description occurred in my most recent novel, Marry in Haste. TJ Sweeney, Endurance police detective, has a cat she names “Eliot Ness.” Unfortunately for TJ, Eliot Ness is currently residing across the street at Grace Kimball’s house since TJ is gone long hours because of her job. One afternoon, Grace’s house is robbed and the criminals do serious damage, but when Grace comes home and discovers the crime, the first thing she thinks about is Eliot Ness. Is he dead? Is he hurt? Will TJ kill her?
Grace finds Eliot locked in a pantry in the kitchen after she hears the cat scratching on the door. As soon as she opens it, Eliot takes off like a bat and cowers under a sofa. Eliot Ness, being the amazingly intelligent animal that he is, now knows the identity of the murderer. Unfortunately, he does not tell Grace.
Later, Eliot Ness plays a key role in thwarting a multiple murder because of a trick Grace’s sister-in-law, Lettie Kimball, taught him. Smart cat—survives this ordeal—readers are happy.
After this book went in for publication, I back-tracked and wrote an e-book novella called The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. Eliot Ness, the kitten, is introduced in this story, and TJ names him for her hero. Eliot will go on to be immortalized as the cat who thwarted a multiple murder, a good thing since it kept my Endurance mysteries going.
Not content to settle for a single cat, I decided to include another pet in my upcoming novel, Death Takes No Bribes. Across the street from my real house resides a singularly beautiful English cocker spaniel named “Stella,” with a magnificent, taffy-colored coat. No one—not even the most stone-hearted animal hater—could fail to admire and love this gorgeous animal. Stella guards the property of Armond and Betsy Akey, but she can most often be found rolling around in the grass when it is warm and sunny outside. Her antics as a puppy were simply hilarious to watch.
I needed a good reason for Grace Kimball, my main character, to speak with a high school student. Stella fit the bill. Grace’s neighbor, Ginger Grant, is walking down Sweetbriar Court with my fictional Stella on a leash one afternoon. Ginger likes to take Stella out for walks, and they plod down the street in the snow, Stella spirited and happy on her adventure. Grace joins them, and Ginger fills Grace in on her thoughts about a recent murder at the high school, but not before they both pet Stella’s beautiful coat. While she has only a cameo appearance, Stella provides a reason for Grace to have a conversation with Ginger.
Eliot Ness, the precocious cat survives. Stella, the beautiful cocker spaniel, survives. I love happy readers.
On the other hand, Stella has written a pre-publication note to me about having her agent inquire about her share of my royalties. If Stella is talented enough to type this note and lift it up to my mailbox, I think my neighbors ought to take this act on the road.
Reprinted with permission of the Review Atlas.