Jul 11, 2012

The Cat Who Was Straight



Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who. . . books (The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, etc.) are about cats who “solve” the murder: they knock over a vase containing a secret message, curl up on a book with the killer’s identity hidden in the title, yowl to draw attention to a vital clue, and so on.  They are pleasantly written, as charming and cozy as an English high tea, with nothing harsh or troubling, not even the murders (the victim is always an outsider, no one you cared about, and the culprit is always thoroughly reprehensible, about to foreclose on an orphanage or open a fast-food franchise).  Braun describes Moose County, “400 miles north of everywhere,” with precision, consistency, and wit.
            However, Braun also introduces every character with the matchmaking fervor of a male flight attendant, as someone’s heterosexual husband or wife, girlfriend or boyfriend, as married, engaged, divorced, widowed, or “single and available.” Those who are single invariably embarked on a heterosexual romance before the cats yowled at the third clue.  Not only are there no gay people, there are no significant same-sex friendships at all; all human association in Moose County, from the most casual to the most intimate, occurs exclusively between men and women.
The only potentially gay character is protagonist Jim Qwilleran, formerly a crime reporter in the Big City, who inherited a billion-dollar fortune and moved north to bankroll civic improvement projects and solve murders.  A “confirmed bachelor,” he dates but never tries to kiss his “lady friend,” librarian Polly Duncan.  He is a devotee of the theater and the arts.  He named his Siamese cats Koko and Yum-Yum, after characters from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.  Sounds like a 1950s gay stereotype – you can’t even say his name without lisping.  But no fan seems to have ever considered the possibility that Qwilleran could be gay.  He is a “nice boy,” a gentleman, a cat lover.  Besides, any evidence of gayness is eliminated by the sight of Polly Duncan on his arm.  Having a Lady Friend allows us to forget that gay people exist.