They’re all over the mystery section, climbing across the shelves, settling their furry behinds onto cute cartoon paperback covers, twining their way through tea shops and bookstores, and lounging on overstuffed armchairs in vacation island bed and breakfasts. I’m speaking, of course, of the stars of the coziest of cozy mysteries: The cat mystery, starring cats as, at the very least, companions to sleuths and sometimes even detectives themselves. In the Cat in the Stacks series by Miranda James, for instance, a widower librarian simply keeps company with a Maine Coon while solving mysteries around a small southern college town. In the Witch Cats of Cambridge, by Clea Simon, the cats communicate with one another and consider themselves essentially in charge of their sleuthing person. One series is even co-written by a cat.
Cat mysteries are, in fact, a subgenre within a subgenre. They are a type of cozy mystery, which—as Maine Clambake Mysteries author Barbara Ross explained to me—are themselves a subset of the “traditional mystery.” That’s the Agatha Christie-style whodunit, which works almost like a puzzle, set in a closed world where “the suspects, victim, perpetrator, and sleuth are in general known to one another,” Ross explained. Cozies are traditional mysteries that lean heavily on things that are, well, cozy—baked goods and bookstores and knitting and small vacation towns and arts-and-crafts. (This is not the land of the voraciously drinking, endlessly and contemptuously womanizing hard-boiled detective or the equally tough mysteries that subvert those.) They avoid explicit sex or violence. “You will definitely have a murder, and it might be quite an awful one, but you’re not going to linger on the gore,” Ross explained.
There is a bit of a disconnect between the cozy’s association with comfort and comfortable things and their enthusiastic embrace of murder, even if sanitized. But that’s part of the point; Hillary Kelly at Vulture wrote about how she discovered the genre while her daughter was in the NICU, finding them deeply comforting. That’s a fairly common story for the books. “I get a lot of emails, like: ‘I read your book sitting by my mother’s bedside in a hospital.’ ‘I read your book in a chemotherapy chair,’” said Ross. “There’s something comforting about, even as you read it and even as you experience that tension, knowing that it’s going to work out in the end.” Hillary Clinton was spotted reading a historical cozy series, one of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mysteries, on the campaign trail against Donald Trump.
Within the wider world of the cozy, there is the cat cozy. These specifically were pioneered by Lilian Jackson Braun, who launched the “Cat Who” series in the mid-1960s, took a couple of decades off, then returned in the 1980s after she retired and continued writing them regularly almost until she died in 2011. She was joined in the 1990s by Rita Mae Brown—whom you may know as the author of the classic lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle—who began “cowriting” her Mrs. Murphy series with her own cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. The cat mystery became a thing unto itself, a world within the broader universe of cozy mysteries. Now, as Ross pointed out, when you drill down into cozy mysteries on Amazon, they’re divided into three big buckets: crafts and hobbies, culinary, and animals—which frequently means cats. “Cats sell, that’s what we hear,” Liz Mugavero, who writes the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, as well as the Cat Cafe Mysteries under the name Cate Conte, told me. “Cat things sell, and people love cats, even more so in cozies than dogs, I think.”
There’s no consensus on a single reason for the close connection between cats and murder. Are cats the ultimate in coziness? Are they the ultimate in murder? One theory relies on the old cliché that cat owners will recognize as basically true: Cats are self-contained but fundamentally curious, and therefore innately congenial with amateur sleuths. “You can imagine them thinking things out and offering another option and going, yes, but did you notice this?” explained Simon. And, as she also pointed out, people with cats are likely chatty with their cats anyway and would probably use them as a sounding board for any mysterious deaths they might encounter.
“You’re always going to go home and tell your cat what happened,” Simon said. She theorized that maybe they’re following in the footsteps of an iconic detective duo, Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson. But don’t get arrogant and assume that the human is the brilliant detective: “Maybe we’re more the Watson, and the cats are more like Sherlock Holmes.”
The cat cozy is such a large category that there are, in fact, fundamentally different possible approaches to the story. “What’s interesting to me, as a non-cat cozy writer, is there’s this whole huge spectrum of cat mysteries,” Ross said. “There are ones where the cats talk and solve the mysteries and the cat is the detective, ones where the cat is just a companion and everything in between.”
Simon started out writing the latter and has switched to the former. (“Why not have a little bit of fancy?” she figured.) Mugavero writes the latter, and for her, it’s about reflecting what she cares about: animals “have a central part in people’s lives, and that’s what I’m trying to bring into my books because it’s a huge part of my life.” Mugavero frequently weaves in animal rescue themes, like many cat cozy writers. “I wanted to use this opportunity to get a message out to a broader audience,” she explained.
Either way, cats fit well with the conventions of the cozy, pointed out reviewer John Valeri, who explained that frequently series start with somebody who’s just arrived in a new town, often fresh off a breakup, “and so the cat sort of is their intimate connection with a being.” Who else are they going to talk to in person, besides their cat? Especially when they know that somebody in their picturesque new town is a murderer?
There are no-nos beyond the gruesome murders, though. For one thing, while cats sell, it’s risky to put a cat on the cover of a cozy without a cat as an actual character, or at least a presence, because buyers expect that cat to appear. Without a cat character, you’ve made a promise you can’t deliver. But the absolute cardinal rule, everyone I spoke to agreed, is that you “never, ever, ever” harm a cat. Kill anybody any way you want, but don’t mess with the cat.