For several years, the British Library has been republishing classic British crime and mystery stories, under the general editorship of crime writer Martin Edwards. On this side of the Atlantic, a similar program has been underway under the title of American Mystery Classics and published by the reigning dean of the American mystery genre, Otto Penzler.
One of those classic mysteries is The Cat Saw Murder by Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973). First published in 1939, when Hitchens was using the pen name of D.B. Olson, the novel is one of the earliest mystery series involving cats (today its own sub-genre). This new edition of the story, published this year, includes an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.
Seventy-year-old Rachel Murdock is called by her niece, Lila, who’s vaguely seeking help. Lila has gotten herself into some kind of trouble but won’t be specific. Miss Rachel decides to visit Lila, who is staying at an apartment house in a California seaside resort town. Lila even arranges for Miss Rachel, as she’s known, to have her own set of rooms. And the elderly lady brings the family black cat, Samantha, with her. The cat has the distinction of being the heiress of one of Miss Rachel’s sisters.
Miss Rachel, a fan of mystery books and movies, is slightly thrilled to visit her niece. That is, until she’s drugged and the niece murdered in a particularly gruesome way with an ax. Detective Inspector Stephen Mayhew arrives to investigate, and, once she recovers, Miss Rachel finds herself something of a consultant to the inspector. And almost all of the suspects seem perfectly capable of ruthlessly wielding an ax.
The story contains elements of the locked room mystery, and the standard bumbling-detective- aided-by-someone-like-Miss-Marple story. Generally, Mayhew and Miss Rachel arrive at major clues and developments at the same time. And Miss Rachel, despite her age, is still athletic enough to do some attic crawling and even breaking and entering.
A native of Texas, Hitchens lived much of her life in California. She wrote poetry in college but embarked upon a nursing and teaching career before she became a full-time writer. She wrote numerous mysteries, both standalone stories and in series. The Miss Rachel cat series has 12 books, and Inspector Mayhew is featured in two books apart from Miss Rachel.
The Cat Saw Murder is a well-written story, even with a couple of late plot developments to bring the story to a close. T times, it seems almost like a contemporary mystery story. Miss Rachel is clearly a self-sufficient woman with a first-rate mind, and she will solve the mystery before the police inspector.
Why Delores Hitchens’ Less-Than-Glamorous Detective is the Hero We Need – Steph Cha at CrimeReads