A Real Live Mystery of Sorts | What happened to Lilian Jackson Braun

by Jan 12, 2011Ad Libitum47 comments

The cat who

Featured with this blog post is a photo of my cat, Ramses. She is a stray I rescued from the side of I-65 somewhere between Cullman, AL and Birmingham, AL as I made a trip to take my children to visit relatives a few years ago.

I’ve always had a cat. The first one I remember having was Tinker Bell, a cranky calico my mother got as a kitten from our neighbor when I was very young.  I’ve had many cats since then and although I love them, I can’t say I’m particularly partial to them over dogs.  I just appreciate their unique attributes in comparison to other domestic animals and I love their intelligence and independent spirits.

I love to read mysteries and one day sometime in the early to mid 1990’s I’d run out of options, at least familiar ones. After browsing and finding nothing of interest on my own, I asked the librarian at the Wheeler Basin Regional Library in Decatur Alabama for some suggestions.  She pointed me to “The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts” by Lilian Jackson Braun.  I read it in just a few days and I loved it.

I quickly went back and checked out all of Lilian’s “Cat Who” mysteries in rapid succession over the next several weeks, reading them in order, starting with “The Cat Who Could Read Backwards”.  In that novel the main characters, Jim Qwilleran and his Siamese cat Koko (short for Kao K’o-Kung) make their debut to the world.  Each novel is a murder mystery and Jim and Koko have a hand in solving the crime. A second cat, Yum Yum is added to the mix almost immediately and reading these books begins to feel a little like visiting good friends on a regular basis.

I went on to anxiously anticipate the next novel and continued to read them until the last novel was published in 2007, “The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers”.  There was a noticeable decline in the quality of the novels  well before the final novel but this last one was exceptionally bad compared to the rest of the series.  The same loved characters were there but so much detail was left out it seemed as though half the book were missing.

I usually don’t delve much into the biographical side of the authors of the books I read other than maybe an occasional fleeting glance but when the next novel, “The Cat Who Smelled Smoke” was scheduled to be published in 2009 and then didn’t publish I began to take an interest.  I had been buying the novels up until the last 4 or so, disappointed with those I didn’t think they were worth the price when they first released so I opted for the paperback versions of some of them and never have bought the last two.

I made a few assumptions over the years that I would later learn were not correct.  I read briefly in one of the dust jackets over the years that Lilian published the first novel in the series in 1967.  It was a best seller and she went on to publish two more and then dropped off the face of the planet as far at the publishing world was concerned after the third book was published in 1968.  She didn’t reappear until 1986 with the publication of the 4th novel in the series.  At the time I discovered the books she was just getting back into the swing of things but even with that short window she’d already published 8 more novels.  I assumed she was in her late twenties or early thirties when she got that first book published, went on with whatever career she chose and returned to it when she had the time and resources. This took me to my second incorrect assumption that she was probably in her forties or early fifties when I started reading her books.  With that in mind, I guess I made one more assumption; that it would be many many years before the series came to an end or the series would come to a well developed end.  None of these assumptions were correct.

When time marched on and the final novel never published I began to take a greater interest and searching for whatever I could find about her.  Actually my curiosity was piqued when that final novel went from being announced to publish, to being delayed and then finally cancelled.  There wasn’t much to find, even from her most devoted fan clubs.  Turns out there were numerous incorrect dates of birth given for her by her publisher over the years and she declined to say how old she was in some later interviews.  Finally, a columnist who remembered Lilian’s retirement from the Detroit News published an interview with her in 2005.

In that interview she gave her year of birth as 1913.  She was vague about other details.  All I can find is that she was born in Massachusetts,  lived until the mid 1980’s in Michigan (assuming 1986 or so when she was retired from the paper and back in the novel writing business) when she moved to North Carolina.  Her husband is mentioned often in the credits of her novels as being Earl Bettinger.  With a birthdate in hand (who knows if this one is anymore accurate than the others) I quickly found she was well into her fifties when she published her first best-selling book.  The time given for her retirement also fit with the standard retirement age of 65.  According to the interview she had a 29 year career at the Detroit News and retired from there before the publication of her 4th “Cat Who..” novel in 1986, 18 years after the third novel in the series published in 1968! She was 73.

The novels gushed onto the market in rapid succession, sometimes as many as 3 per year, until 1993 when the pace slowed to roughly one per year until 2007.  Now for the big mystery.  Is she still alive? What happened to that final novel that was announced but never published? Did she even write the last few novels in the series?

Some have speculated that the last few novels in the series were published by a ghost writer and perhaps Lilian had died sometime before they even released.  I’ve wondered if that is why she did the 2005 interview when she’d been much more evasive before that time, to dispel that kind of speculation at that time.  Then I’ve wondered why there wasn’t more information after that? If her name and career path were known it seems someone else could have done a little investigating and learned a bit more about her life in Michigan and subsequent move to North Carolina, etc. There is nothing more to be found past that 2005 interview.

Some have noted discrepancies in some of the details about the characters in the later novels, mistakes the original author would be unlikely to make.  Personally, I’ve noticed a difference in style, and a personality change in some of the characters in comparing them to earlier novels.  In reading some of the brief interviews that were done with Lilian she says she loved the characters and kept no notes about them as she went so maybe she did simply make a mistake with the details.  But what about the personalities of them?  I don’t think that is a mistake she would make.

Anyway, it is a needling little dilemma.  Certainly not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but irritating.  I think it is sad that the series ended on such a sour note.  Earlier, Lilian said she’d been approached to bring the novels to the screen and she said she didn’t want to allow that because she was still writing and didn’t want to be influenced by the on-screen depictions of her characters.  She said they would never go to any screen while she was still writing.  How strange that she was that protective of the series and yet it has declined and faded away with so many unanswered questions for fans.

The final irony is throughout the series it is mentioned repeatedly that the main character, Jim Qwilleran, is bothered to distraction by unanswered questions.  The series ends with no ending, dozens of unanswered questions and at least in my case, fans who feel slighted by such a flimsy final chapter.

If Lilian is still going strong she will be 98 this year, not unheard of that she could still be the picture of health and vibrancy.  I wonder why it is such a secret one way or the other at this point?  Then again, perhaps some order has been given to release the details posthumously and if so maybe we’ll find out someday.  Personally, I would prefer to find out sooner and would love to know what happened with that final novel.  I have dearly loved reading these novels and find the characters a great source of comfort from a stressful day.  Lilian, if you’re out there, I hope you will consider letting us all in on the secret and giving the series a more proper conclusion, one that would answer all of the questions even to the satisfaction of Jim Qwilleran.

UPDATE: A press release was issued recently announcing the passing of Lilian Jackson Braun, so sad to hear this news. In some versions of the announcements it is reported that her biggest regret was in not having finished “The Cat Who Smelled Smoke”.  Also, at long last there is a much more official statement of her age – 97! She was just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday.  It also seems she’d been ill for sometime since some reports say she was residing in a Hospice care facility at the time of her passing.  I cannot tell you how inspiring I find Lilian. Her career writing these novels really took off in earnest AFTER she retired from a 30 year career…and here I am, sometimes lamenting things I wish I’d done, feeling like it’s too late to start now, and I’m at least 20 years younger than she was when she got back to publishing her novels.  What a lady!! Rest in peace Lilian, many people love you and your work.


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