by John Grant
This time last week I was shoplifting in my local Barnes &
Noble, as is my habit on Thursdays. I picked up my usual supplies
of books to resell on Amazon Webster's Complete
Dictionary, Readers' Digest Atlas of the World, etc.
plus, as usual, a little something for myself. This week
my indulgence was, or so I thought, a somber academic treatise on
the important matter of flogging and flagellation of naked nubile
women through the ages, a subject of particular interest to me.
Not that I find it in any way titillating, I hope you understand;
at least, not very.
On my return home, as I unpacked my "purchases" from the
front of my jeans, I discovered that I had made a terrible
mistake with that final acquisition of mine. The book that
emerged redolently from its hiding-place was a novel entitled
The Cat Who Had Nine Tails by an author called Lilian
Well, at least I could hawk it on Amazon along with the
others, I thought as I scanned the blurb with mild distaste.
It proved to be a detective novel, whose twist is that a cat
provides the hero with material assistance in solving a series of
inexplicable murders. Having nothing to do until the parole
officer phoned, I began to read the book.
To my great disappointment it wasn't at all what I had
expected. I had assumed, as might any rational reader, that at
some point there would be a juicy (but sensitively described)
evisceration, and that the hero would then read the entrails of
the useful cat to get guidance as to the criminal's identity,
modus operandi, motives, weaponry, etc. You must know the sort of
stuff I'm talking about:
"A double carbuncle on the vermiform appendix, Watson! That
can only mean the murderer shot Sir Rudolf Golightly in the
airtight time-locked safe using a dart tipped with a form of
curare that is only found in the ink used in Sumatra in 1898
to print a rare set of Tarot cards decorated with Three
Little Piggies motifs! Find such a deck with one card
missing and we'll have found our killer!"
"Holmes, there's a perfectly good sanitarium in Kent I've
heard about . . ."
Instead, what Ms Braun chose to serve up was a milquetoast
tale in which two Siamese cats miaow at appropriate moments such
that our exceedingly dense and obdurately non-nubile, fully
clothed male protagonist jumps to illogical conclusions that just
happen to guide him to the solution of the crime:
"That's it! Poo-Bah and Tiddles made a heck of a racket
while I was opening a can of tuna for them! Why didn't I
think of Flossy Bunwhacket before? She had the means, she
had the motive, she gets the money! And, most damningly of
all, she works as a piano tuna!"
You may be wondering why I chose to persevere with this dry
tome after I'd discovered that it had so little to offer the
connoisseur of such prose artistes as Mr James Patterson and Mr
Thomas Harris (I'd have thought the solution was pretty obvious
once we'd learned that Ms Bunwhacket was a vegetarian, and so
left behind an enormous clue in that she failed to devour
so much as a pituitary gland of her victim), but I had my
One compelling reason, in fact.
On the back cover it said: "48 MILLION COPIES SOLD
As you may imagine, I was on the phone to my good friend and
business manager Dave Knuckle immediately, locating him
eventually on his mobile in a cornfield somewhere, where he had
interrupted his journey back to Folsom.
"I had to give up the Shocking Science Wonder Stories
gig," he hominy clenched through gritted teeth before I had a
chance to speak. "There was a typographical error in a column of
mine about IQ testing and George W. Bush took great exception to
being described as an adherent of the Church of Jesus Christ of
"That wasn't what I phoned for, Dave," I said, and I hastily
explained to him about Ms Braun's seemingly hypersuccessful
career as a writer of dull yarns featuring cats as assistant
sleuths. "She must have made heaps of loot," I concluded, "and so
I'd like to follow her literary example. I'm sure I speak for my
bank manager as well here."
"Ah, yes," mused Dave. There was a little interference on the
line, so that for a few moments it sounded as if someone were
worming their way along a ditch. "Pet detectives. A very popular
subgenre. Ms Braun's not the only one damn these blasted
manacles! doing cats, and other writers have done books
about doggie detectives. I think there's also a series with a
parrot sleuth, too, but don't quote me on that. Shit! A
tarantula's just crawled down the back of my neck. Look, Alan,
I'm going to have to call you back later, OK? There's a law-
enforcement officer shooting a bazooka at me."
With that he hung up. Once I'd got over his rudeness,
assisted by a healthy swig of Nite Relief Sure Fire Mango Flavor
Cold Cure, I realized there'd been the kernel of an idea in what
he'd been saying. To put it in a nutshell, which is where kernels
are quite often found: there was greenbacks to be had from pet
The trouble was that so many other writers had got there
first, appropriating so many different species for their own
selfish ends. Cats had already been done to death (as it were);
likewise dogs and possibly parrots. If I wanted to be sure of
grabbing a niche in this lucrative market I was going to have to
choose a different type of pet.
Well, best to write about what you know, as we writers always
say, and so I began to survey the animals populating my own
apartment, Chateau Smithee.
This proved a less rewarding line of research than I had
hoped, since my landlord has refused to let me keep pets ever
since my lice colonized his iguana.
Item: A dead mouse. At least, I think Mickey is
dead, because he hasn't moved for three weeks and his tail has
Item: A stuffed owl. I won Hooter as a prize in the
masquerade at Dragon*Con last year in the category Best Charlie
Chaplin Impersonation. I've never quite understood why I won it,
to tell you the truth, because at the time I was being a rather
striking Mr Spock.
For obvious reasons, I'm hoping to win a stuffed owl at the
next Dragon*Con masquerade, too.
Item: About a million cockroaches.
This itemized list did not at first seem very promising, and
for a while even my Nintendo Gameboy (boosted from the bargain
bin at RadioShack; I can never resist a bargain) couldn't console
me. I racked my brains for other pets my putative Sherlock
might plausibly have. Freddie the Maltese Falcon? Ratso the
Ratiocinative Raccoon? Simon the Stick Insect, Scourge of
Malfeasants? Pete "Scarface" Piranha? The latter sounded modestly
promising, actually, because the hero could pop Pete into the
culprit's bath to serve as both judge and executioner, but . . .
It was at that moment, dear reader, that a cockroach ran
across my toes.
And inspiration struck!
An individual cockroach may not seem a very likely candidate
as a pet detective to enrapture readers by the billion. There's a
credibility gap: cockroaches are not very intelligent. To be
sure, they can outwit armies of exterminators all called Bubba
and Hoss carting the latest hi-tech equipment and charging you a
fortune to blast enough internationally prohibited chemical
weaponry around the interior of your apartment to make Saddam
Hussein orgasmic, but that doesn't mean to say they're
bright. And they score pretty low on the cuddliness
quotient as well: you may find it appealing to snuggle
down at nights with a cockroach purring in peaceful companionship
in your arms, but the one time I tried it I had to make a
midnight dash to Emergency so a doctor could extract the little
bastard from my ear.
So forget about Colin Cockroach, Sleuth to the Stars.
On the other hand, even if an individual cockroach
couldn't be exploited for my literary ends, think about a
host of them, such as were currently chirruping their way
through my stash of Little Debbie Frosted Cinnamon Muffinettes
. . .
Could they not develop a group mind?
In fact, the more I thought about this idea, the more it
seemed to explain the repeated failures of Bubba and Hoss from
Vermin R Us.
Communication between my gestalt-minded Golden Horde
and the hero would be a difficulty, but not an insuperable one.
Morse Code would suffice, with a dash being represented by a
scuttle and a dot by a pounce. Mobility would be another problem:
people (except in New York) might turn to stare if, everywhere my
hero went, he were carrying a highly mobile sack over his
shoulder, and likewise if he were being a sort of latter-day
cockroach Pied Piper, followed wherever he went by a furtively
glistening russet sidewalk.
Wait a moment! I dropped my lifesize Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Action Figure in awe at my own genius. As Buffy deflated slowly
at my feet, my mind raced ahead. What if the composite mind of
the hero's cockroach tribe were in telepathic communication
That solved both of my dilemmoids and opened up whole new
chasms of possibilities for plotting! The cockroaches could stay
at home while hardbitten private dick Harry Potter (we want these
books to be stocked in Barnes & Noble, right?) explored the
crimes far afield, their focused mental beams directing him to
each new clue and finally to the perp!
I ran to my computer (486GHz, 4400Gb hard drive, 900Gb RAM,
double DVD-RW drive) and tried to find enough memory left over
from games to open up MS Word. Already I could see all this in my
mind's eyes. Lilian Jackson Braun's cat had only nine tails, hm?
Hell, my psychokinetic cockroaches had thousands.
The first novel would be called Harry Potter and the
Cockroaches of the Rings. "Somewhere on a lonely Dartmoor,
amid the mists of the millennia, a spectral creature howled
. . ."
Just then there came a fizzle and a splat, and a small puff
of smoke emerged from the back of my computer.
The screen went dead.
It was at that moment, dear reader, that I realized I'd not
so much devised the basic premise for a whole series of
bestselling pet detective novels as stumbled upon an Awesome
More about this Awesome Truth next week.
If my masters will permit . . .