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

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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47 Comments

  1. Jeff Johansen

    I love this article! Very well written! I will need to link to it on our new CAT WHO FAN CLUB group on Facebook.

    Also, just to let you know, there is an attempt to provide a continuation to the series. You can find more about that at the following link as well as read some of the book.

    http://www.johansenphotography.com/catwho/catwho.htm

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks, I’ll definitely check out the link you shared, that’s exciting news to hear there might be a continuation – first I’ve heard of it and I hope they are better than the last few novels in the real series – definite drop in quality at the end of things here. I appreciate the link on the fan page too, that will be great!

      Reply
  2. Julie

    That ghost writer seems to have missed Polly having moved to France.

    As of March 16, 2011, there is no Lilian Bettinger in the Social Security Death Records so hopefully she is still alive.

    Hopefully the publisher will publish that 2009 book!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I really wish we could get the whole story…such a shame to let it dwindle away like it has so far.

      Reply
  3. Rory

    Great post. I loved the Cat Who books so much I once wrote her a fan letter and got a very small note in response. I told her I wanted to move to Moose County and could she please tell me where it was located. Hahhhhaha.
    Yesterday I finished “60 Whiskers” and my heart was broken. How could she do that to us? My own thoughts are that ever since around the time when Quill moved to the condo the series slowed down to an excruciating slowness. Very dry and boring – especially compared to the fun and humor and clever observations of the earlier ones which I loved so much!
    It makes me so sad to think there will never be another good one by LJB. If there is one at all it will be a hash up job. How will I know what happened to Quill and the cats? I have to know!!!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I just started them all again recently and am on number 3. I’m amazed that in a day and age where people can tell all they know so easily that we haven’t gotten any word on what’s happened in these later years. I feel a little resentful at this point. It makes the whole thing look like it was nothing but a job and it’s done now. I’m sure it was to the publishing house but it really didn’t seem that way in the interviews I’ve read given by the author. She certainly made it sound like much more than just a job for her, but then again that’s what very good marketing strategies can do :-).

      Reply
  4. Annie

    Regarding Lilian Jackson Braun information, some can be found at “The Tryon Daily Bulletin” website. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks… I have seen the information about her passing since I wrote the article here. I’m hoping to get in here and do some updating to my article in the near future.

      Reply
  5. Janice

    I started reading Braun’s books, just this year. I never read them before. I read all of them in order and just read The Cat Who had Sixty Whiskers, 2007. I also thought that it seemed as though someone else wrote that book. I was sad to find out that Qwill would be without Polly, who suddenly stayed in Paris while visiting. Her condo was sold to someone named Barbara who is now starting to hang around Qwill, her two cats given to another, and she was going to stay for three years in Paris!!! And, Qwill’s barn/residence was burned down!!!! I was hoping this was not the end and, as with prior books, things always went back to the norm after some kind of turmoil occurred. So, I went looking for the next book to hopefully find out that circumstances brought Polly back to Moose County, at the very least, and Qwill and Polly were an item again. Maybe Qwill would actually ask Polly to move in with him in his condo. I was shocked to find out that there would be no more books and no ending than the one we were left, a very sad ending. And, yes, I, too, felt as though these characters were real and I was visiting them each time I read Braun’s next book. I truly hope that The Cat Who Smelled Smoke would be released someday BUT only if the norm returns to Qwill’s life, leaving all Braun’s reader a bit happier.

    Reply
  6. Cheryl

    I’ve just started to read “The Cat Who…” series and love them! Is there any updated news on the final book that wasn’t written? Is someone going to finish it? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      I haven’t heard a thing about any plans of anyone taking up “The Cat Who..” series and finishing the last book or continuing the series in some way. I would love it if that could happen but not feeling very optimistic 🙁 I love the books.

      Reply
  7. Terri

    Thanks for the great article. I too have often felt the same way. I could feel the characters change a bit toward the last couple books. I was very disappointed with the ending. I remember closing the book and feeling rather stunned. Based on the information you found about her protection of the story, I doubt that she had a ghost writer. I think it was most likely her age and issues with memory. I am re-reading the series. I am constantly impressed with her use of the English language, and her description of the various themes. You know you are hooked when you finish a series and feel as if your friends have moved away. “The Writer Who.. knew how to capture an audience. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Bethany

    Love these books. I am currently rereading them in order. I came across a curiosity. I have one copy of 3 complete novels together but according to the official list of the order of the books, they are not in order! It has “The Cat Who Moved a Mountain”, “The Cat Who Blew the Whistle” and “The Cat Who Said Cheese”. But according the official list there are 3 other books after Moved a Mountain and before Blew the Whistle. Any idea why those 3 were published as one? I want to read them in order but now I’m not sure what the order is.

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      I wouldn’t go by that copy of the novels together. Here’s a link to a list of the novels and when they were published https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilian_Jackson_Braun Enjoy! I love these stories. I really wish the last novel she published had been a bit better and that the one that got cancelled would have made it to publication. I wish we could have known what Lilian had in mind for wrapping things up there.

      Reply
  9. Linda

    Thank you for publishing this article. I have been a bit upset about Polly not coming back and was searching the web for the next story–hoping that there was one I missed that would have a continuation of life in Moose County with Polly returning soon. Such a sad ending of a series that I love. I now listen to them most nights on audio to put me to sleep. I love the voice of George Guidall. Thanks for the update on Lillian Jackson Braun.

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      It is so sad that the story didn’t get finished out. I had hoped there had been something secreted away that would still end up publishing but I guess enough time has passed to make it clear that’s not going to happen.

      Reply
  10. G

    I was about half-way through The Cat Who Went Up The Creek and realized that I was bored by it. It seemed very dry, more like reporting than storytelling, at which Braun excelled. I read the next two books, and same thing – none of the humor, quirks, or warmth of characters I had come to expect. The last one I read was The Cat Who Talked Turkey.

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      Yes, I had roughly the same experience. Found myself just rushing through the last few novels in the series. I miss them terribly even now.

      Reply
  11. Janet

    Thank you for your article. I hope any one of us has the ability to write as well as she wrote those last books in her 90’s. I know there is a difference but believe that it was the result of a fine writer growing very old and perhaps frail. I cherish all the books and use my imagination to finish the story. No Polly. Quill getting out of the creepy apple barn with a woman who trusts in his beliefs about his cats and finally getting to feel completely loved.

    Reply
  12. Brian Tully

    I just finished rereading the “The Cat who” series. I still feel the loss and in completion
    . I don’t write well so I hope someone else takes up the torch.

    Reply
  13. Mitzi

    Is Earl still alive? Could somebody, with permission, end the series with the way the fans would like it to end?

    Reply
  14. Jo

    Has anyone surmised the city Qwill moved from or the state and area He moved to?

    Reply
  15. Lyn McConchie

    Lilian stopped writing, as she explained privately to a lady I knew who was an old friend of hers,was because the publisher of her first three books stopped accepting them, saying that cat books were going out of fashion. And the reason she produced so many in the initial burst when they starting selling again, was that she had continued to write them. I agree hugely on the subject of the last book. It was half her usual length, the characters seemed to have all gone crazy, and the writing was abysmal
    (And yes, if you have a passion, make it happen. I finally started writing books in my forties. I’ve since had 43 published and have five more contracted. I decided that I didn’t want to die muttering that I’d always thought I could do it, and wondering why I’d been too afraid to try. It’s my experience from the deaths of older friends that regrets tend to be for what you didn’t do, rather than what you did.

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      What an inspiring comment 🙂 ..and I always thought she’d continued writing during that period between her first 3 published books and when she started up again later in her life. For me the tip off was how she worked in the advances in technology here and there. It seemed awkward. I wish she’d been able to complete the series more effectively but what a joy to have the many others!

      Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      Hi Lyn, Thanks for your comment on my article here about Lilian Jackson Braun. I still listen to the recorded versions of these books and I guess I’ll never get enough of them. So so wish the series had come to a better completion and I wish Lilian’s story behind all of her stories could be known. I think that would make her fans feel a little bit better if they could have some understanding about what lead up to that last book – goodness. My daughter-in-law is really interested in getting her books published. I’d love it if you could share any guidance I could pass along to her, I have no idea how to advise about it. Wow 43 published books and five more contracts, started writing books in your 40’s… maybe someday I’ll take a crack at it too, who knows. Thank you again for coming by and sharing your thoughts here at White Oak Attic. ~Lisa Isbell

      Reply
  16. ada

    It would be interesting to know if Mr Bettinger owns the rights, or if they have been sold. Seroes by other authors have been continued, both mysteries, and other gentes, for example sci-fi, with mixed results, sometimes disappointing.

    Reply
  17. Paula Jarvis

    CORRECTION: Lilian Jackson Braun worked for the Detroit Free Press, not the Detroit News.

    Reply
  18. Kaye Patchett

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve had those same questions for years. I assumed she’d willfully destroyed the series for reasons of her own, by making the characters act so wrongly (Polly taking off for Canada without so much as a goodbye? Come on!) – now it appears he simply aged. I’m re’reading the series for the second time. It remains my all-time favorite.

    Reply
  19. Teraza

    Agree with all the comments, gutted that it ended so bizarrely. And no cat lover would dump her cats, Paris or no!

    Reply
  20. Valerie Roberts

    I so wish the stories could go on. A ghost writer, maybe.

    Reply
  21. Rebecca

    It is heartwarming to know there are people still interested in “ The Cat Who..” books. Since the 1980’s, I’ve read the series several times and the stories have always been fun and wonderful stress relievers. Although there was a decline in her writing and the last book felt somewhat like a betrayal, Ms. Braun’s books have given me an immeasurable amount of pleasure. There has not been a writer like her, since. Thank you so much for your article.

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      Yeah, I still love these books!! Have started gathering them on Audible now so I can listen to them once in a while as I work or as I’m drifting off to sleep. Like visiting with old friends and family. Still so sad how the series didn’t get to wrap up too well. I wish she had arranged for someone to help her with that and I burn with curiosity about the last announced novel that got canceled. I get that all of this was hers to do with as she liked but I so wish she wouldn’t have left us all hanging without a good conclusion 🙂

      Reply
  22. Penny

    Thank you for a great article. Your comment about reading her books was like visiting friends resonated with me. I so enjoyed spending time in the world she created. The mystery part was like icing on the cake. The last book – everyone was so out of character. I could not imagine that Polly would ever consider leaving her cats! I just think of it as a nightmare that didn’t really happen 🙂

    Reply
    • Lisa Isbell

      Yep, as I said, I felt like someone else wrote the last novel unless she was setting it up to be a dream/nightmare for the next book that never published. Oh the curiosity I have about what was going to go into that book. I hate it ended like it did. I remember being so excited watching for the next book to hit the shelves at the book store over the long past years…

      Reply
  23. Lora

    I am re-reading the series for the 3rd time and so glad I found this site. It is disappointing that none of her friends or heirs will share anything personal about this wonderful and talented author who blessed so many lives with her gift. It would mean so much, but maybe this is the way she wanted it or she had no one she felt she could trust.

    Reply
  24. Weenita Howzen

    So nice to see fans are still commenting! Qwill’s world has saved me from this “real” world’s insanity several times; I’m rereading the whole series for the third time just to escape into a more comfortable milieu with familiar characters. I wonder what it would take to see the Cat Who concept become a Netflix series? A movie?
    Thank you, Lilian Jackson Braun, for all of it… especially the erudite wit! Now if we could only do justice by continuing it in some form. The world needs the view from Moose County.

    Reply
  25. Barbara

    I always envision Qwill as an age 50 Tom Selleck. I have read the series over and over. It’s like comfort food or Christmas movies.

    Reply
  26. Beatrice Birdsong

    I am very fortunate. Shortly after I started reading this series I was able to contact Lillian Jackson Braun thru a bookstore in her area. I now have two of her books that are autographed and addressed to my two cats-Charlotte and Smokie who are no longer with us. My current cat, Miss Cindy, wants to know why she does not have a book addressed to her. Typical cat!

    Reply
  27. Laurie Lynne

    Love all of her books. I, too, am re-reading the entire series in order. They give a sense normalcy during these chaotic times. Her description of Moose County makes me want to live there. The closest I’ve been able to come in looking at maps and with the hints throughout her books are that Moose County is just over a river into Canada and yet it’s 400 miles north of Detroit.

    Reply
  28. Brenda Taylor

    I would love to continue the series. Does anyone know from whom I would need permission. I have a plot in mind, but where do I turn from here?

    Reply
  29. Brenda Taylor

    How would I go about getting permission to continue the Cat Who… series? Who would I need permission from?

    Reply
  30. joseph paul illg

    Been reading and rereading LB I was educated by an extended family of high powered scientists They were ,for all intents , of MOOSE COUNTY Going through various libraries i gained insight into their life perspectives …how ? by way of reading hand written margin notes found with the cat who series LB had digested a lot of invertebrate zoology that is born out /expressed in a unique way not to be replicated by ghost writers.

    Reply
  31. Jill

    As to an earlier comment yes I am going to pretend that the last book was a dream, and that Miss Lillian was unable 2 correct everything in the next book. I never even got through the last one oh, it was so upsetting, and I’m so thankful to have read this thread so I can go back and start over again.

    Reply
  32. Sylvia L White

    I, too, have always pictured Qwill as Tom Selleck; what a great TV series “The Cat Who…” books would be! Just finished re-reading all of them. I forgot how disappointing the last one was.

    Reply
  33. Sara Topcu

    I always thought Qwilleran would like exactly like Hal Linden. Drooping sexy eyes and a fabuous moustache.

    Reply
  34. Louise Rivera

    I have listened to ALL of the “Cat Who” series. I stumbled upon them when I was desperately looking for more audio series.
    While I figured I would not end up liking such a silly looking series….. BOY WAS I WRONG!!!
    I have listened to EVERY book a minimum of 10 times, and it could even be higher count.

    Reply

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