Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun Bettinger, author of the 29-book “The Cat Who …” series, died Saturday at a hospice in Landrum, S.C.
The novels, well-known to cat lovers and mystery lovers around the world, featured fictional columnist Jim Qwilleran and his Siamese cats, KoKo and YumYum.
The cats, who often provided vital clues to solving the mysteries plaguing the fictional town of Pickax, Mich., were inspired by a tragedy involving Braun’s first cat. The original KoKo died in a fall from a 10th floor window in her Detroit apartment, where she was living in the 1960s.
When neighbors later told Braun that someone pushed KoKo, she wrote a short story based on the incident to help her process her grief. This turned out to be the genesis of “The Cat Who …” stories.
The first book of the series, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, was published in 1966, while Braun working as a reporter and editor for the Detroit Free Press. That novel and the two that followed, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern and The Cat Who Turned On and Off, were praised by critics.
But then Braun dropped off the literary radar for nearly 20 years.
[The books’ publishers] wanted her to introduce sex and violence into her stories, her husband, Earl Bettinger, recalled, and my wife wouldnt have any part of that, so she quit writing.
But with the encouragement of her husband, she decided to continue sharing the exploits of KoKo, YumYum, and Qwilleran. The next book in the series, The Cat Who Saw Red, was published in 1986.
Since then, the books have been translated into 16 languages and regularly appeared regularly on The New York Times best-seller list.
Critics generally praised the books’ charm and warmth. Booklist once described Braun’s style as “comforting as a warm cat in your lap on a rainy day.”But other reviewers gave the series a thumbs-down for what they believed to be poor plotting and formulaic writing.
The series’ consistent popularity left no doubt that many cat lovers delighted in these “formulaic” pleasures. In every book, Braun tenderly described the cats’ day-to-day lives — purring, grooming, eating luxury foods, frolicking and sleeping.
Of course, as the real heroes of the story, KoKo and YumYum would throw up clues along with their hairballs, or pull particularly significant books off Qwilleran’s shelves.
When discussing KoKo’s talent for detective work, Braun once said, Of course when youre writing about a cat solving mysteries, you cant be entirely serious. He doesnt speak English or leap tall buildings. But there are things he does that draw attention to clues that help solve the mystery.
“The Cat Who …” series made such an impression on popular culture that in 2003, Robert Kaplow wrote a satirical mystery called The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun.
Never a fan of technology, Braun wrote all her books in longhand and turned them over to a typist. Later on, she took to typing the books herself.
Earl Bettinger, her husband of 32 years, said, “She was thrilled at the success she enjoyed and thankful that she had such loyal readers,” he said.
Lilian Jackson was born on June 20, 1913, in Massachusetts. Her first husband, Louis Paul Braun, died in 1969. For the past 23 years she lived with Bettinger, her sole survivor, in North Carolina.