Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here, blatantly plugging Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, available in hardcover and ebook formats in the U.S. since December 1. The Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe and Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, are hybrids. Each of these novels combines murder with espionage. The publisher labels them thrillers. They are set in the sixteenth century, so they are also in the historical genre. There is a story arc/subplot involving the personal life of my sleuth and sometime spy, Rosamond Jaffrey. But when it comes to finding out who dunnit, Rosamond is an amateur, not a professional. The novels contain a minimum of gore and there is no gratuitous sex or violence. The mystery is centered on a closed community—the very definition of a traditional mystery. And, since I write at the cozy end of the traditional spectrum there is, of course, a cat.
Don’t groan! There are very good reasons for including animals, particularly cats, in mystery novels. Top of the list, naturally, is that the author has cats, loves cats, and can’t resist writing about them. I plead guilty to those charges. The cat in the Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries is modeled after Feral, one of the three felines who currently share our home. Beyond that, however, cats can serve several useful purposes in fiction.
They humanize their owners. Rosamond is not the easiest person to like. She’s prickly, defensive, too well-educated to fit easily into a male-dominated society. As a child, she was spoiled rotten. She has also inherited the worst characteristics of both of her parents, neither of whom was exactly a paragon of virtue. Rosamond is wary of showing affection to other people, even her own husband, who was her best friend growing up. Since she clearly needs a relationship to show her in a softer, gentler light, I gave her Watling, a large gray and white striped cat she rescued when he was a kitten. She named him for the place she found him, Watling Street, the old Roman road that runs from London into Kent.
Cats may not function as well as dogs when it comes to standing guard or hunting game, but they are no slouches when it comes to defending their territory. They are also good judges of character. If a cat takes a dislike to someone, that may not mark that person as the villain of the piece, but it does send a clear signal to be wary of him or her. By the same token, if Watling allows anyone other than Rosamond to pick him up, hold him, or pet him, you may be sure that person is one of the good guys.
In Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, Watling signaled his approval of one particular character. When Rosamond had to be absent from home for an extended period of time, that person was the only one who could get Watling to stop howling all night long. I must add an aside here. Feral, the model for Watling, does not howl. He doesn’t even meow. He’s the most silent cat we’ve ever owned. Perhaps that’s why I made Watling obnoxiously loud.
In Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, Watling has a more important role, that of distracting the men who come to search Rosamond’s house. He performs it admirably, and once again makes it clear which characters are wearing the white hats.
What does Feral think of all this? Silent as always, he’s not saying, but since the two other cats with whom he shares our home are featured players in the contemporary mystery series I write as Kaitlyn Dunnett, I expect he feels it’s about time he had his fifteen minutes of fame.
What do you think about using cats or other animals as continuing characters in mysteries? And if you see a cat on a cover, do you automatically think “cozy”?
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and www.KaitlynDunnett.com