Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

Review: Murder in Retrospect, or, Five Little Pigs

Appropriate that I decided to get back to my travelogues this week: the next book in the queue to be discussed here is what I read in the library that day: Murder in Retrospect!

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

Author: Agatha Christie

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.96 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A young woman about to marry hires Hercules Poirot to clear the name of her mother, who was convicted of poisoning her husband some years ago.

Recommended audience: Mystery buffs

In-depth thoughts: As I mentioned before, this book was a selection for my Facebook book club. I was surprised to learn that many of the members had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, or even seen one of the innumerable screen adaptations! I went through a huge Agatha Christie binge in middle school. This was about the same time I went through a big band jazz binge as well, so I guess I was a little old lady in a 13-year-old’s body.

Even during my pubescent enthusiasm, I never tackled all of the novels and short stories. (Our school library only had so many books, after all.) Murder in Retrospect (or Five Little Pigs, whichever title you prefer) was one that I hadn’t originally read, so I was excited to read it. I had a nice afternoon in the Bethlehem Public Library doing just that: reading. I finished it in one sitting.

I still love a good Agatha Christie novel, even today, but I have to admit that this one was a little disappointing. There are lots of recurring secondary characters that make a Poirot novel what it is—Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp—and none of them make an appearance. The nature of the mystery also means that the bulk of the book is everyone repeating their testimony of the same day. This is, of course, part and parcel of any mystery, but because this is a cold case (or rather, an already-closed case), there’s nothing else for Poirot to go on, nor is there any sense of urgency.  Without any clues to inspect, without any banter with Hastings or Japp, and without the possibility of bringing the true murderer to justice, Murder in Retrospect is more repetitive and less fun than the Christie novels I read when I was younger.

If you’re a mystery buff, you can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie novel. Even a bad Christie novel is still pretty fun; I’ve always like Christie’s writing style just as much as her mysteries. The repetition in this story might be helpful for English students, but there is also the danger that outdated vocabulary might pose something of a hurdle.  (I can’t recall anything particular as I sit down to write this, but with a book initially published in 1942, I’m sure there are a couple of outdated vocabulary choices.)

Overall, I’m a completionist when it comes to writers I like, so I’m glad I read it. I don’t think Murder in Retrospect will be a novel I pick up again, though.