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Cat's Paw: Of cats, cottagecore, and murder — A Golden Age whodunnit from the first same-sex mystery writer couple

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American Mystery Classics  

© 2022 American Mystery Classics
240 pages

Content warning: Murder, death, suicide

Written in 1931, Cat's Paw is one of a series of formulaic detective novels in which bad things happened to rich people (love it!). The most interesting thing, though, is that it was authored by a Lesbian couple — if the cat in the title doesn't give it away.

Other than that, the book sticks closely to the script of the time. We have the classic ugly detective assisted by a dum-dum assistant who adores him like a baby loves a jingly keychain. There's a mysteriously rich man, Martin Greenough, who rules like a tyrant over his poorer relatives, threatens to cut them all out of his will, then promptly gets murdered. There are lots of brooding interiors, Gothic architectural details, and of course the dozens of mysterious servants who apparently exist at all times but never get questioned or acknowledged. The two Queerest parts of the book are the incompetent police and a gender-bending cat named Lucy.

Roger Scarlett is the pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, polyamorous Lesbians who swanned about in New England in the age of the Boston marriage (a long-term loving relationship between two women). After retiring from the publishing industry, they withdrew to a stone cottage in Connecticut, where they were known to love to chop firewood and keep their stoves well-stocked — predicting both the cottagecore and Lesbian lumberjacks who haunt the fantasies of every Sapphic to this day.

Between chopping wood, adopting cats, and wearing tweed, they also found time to pen a few mystery novels, mostly because, after working in the publishing industry, they knew they could write better than what was out there. They authored five novels in total, before becoming too distracted to continue by their trips to Europe and seducing their old professors (in Dorothy's case).

I'm now going to spoil Cat's Paw, because it came out a hundred years ago. The mistress did it. (For everyone as confused as me, being I'm not up-to-date on my 1930s New England lingo, any unmarried woman who's in a relationship with an unmarried man she's not engaged to is a "mistress." This is apparently a great scandal.)

I admit I might have had a bit of a Golden Age—detective hard-on when everyone else had that British-obsessed phase in middle school. Some kids loved Monty Python's spam; other kids loved Scotland Yard's bacon. The infuriating thing about a lot of these novels is that, to keep the mystery hidden, a character will be written one way and then — so it can be a "shocking reveal" — they'll do something out of character that the plot will then hand-wave as being inevitable because of some regressive stereotype about their gender, race, class, etc.

In this, the police at the beginning are initially like, "Gotta be the mistress. She's an unmarried woman who's in a relationship? What's next, murder?" She then gets cleared, because he's about to marry her and turn her into a "proper" woman... but then at the end, it's her after all, because she's actually in love with the nephew. She somehow shoots Mart with no one noticing, even though the house has previously been described as having paper-thin floors and walls.

There are a million other ridiculous details, such as the white cat with bloody paws, which again no one notices. She also kills him two days before she was going to marry him and inherit everything? She could have just waited a couple weeks, done the job, and married who she pleased. She's at all other points described as calculated, smooth, and content in her own life — until of course the authors need a murderer and are like, "Well, she's a woman of loose morals — might as well stick the gun in her hand too."

The most interesting part of this text is that it seemed to be written by an author who has a deep interest in women and relatively little in men. I can clearly see the women characters, who all had distinct foibles (for better or for worse). There's a mousy, kleptomaniac housewife, a dashing sister, a diplomatic mistress, and a soft-hearted fiancé. As for the men, there were four of them — and I can't say much about them, other than they're all doormats sucking their uncle's well-heeled teat. Like The Fast and the Furious, sometimes creators are at their best when they don't bother with the gender they're clearly not interested in.