The Great Catsby, by Linda Stewart – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and

The Great Catsby, by Linda Stewart
NYC, Cheshire House Books, September 2013, trade paperback $10.95 (143 [+ 1] pages).

This is the fourth novel in Stewart’s Sam the Cat series, officially children’s fantasies but often Edgar and Agatha Award mystery-fiction nominees. Stewart’s first, Sam the Cat: Detective (February 1993), was a generic hard-boiled mystery fantasy-parody, with Sam, one of a mystery-bookshop’s cats (the other is Sue, Sam’s sassy secretary), hired by an apartment building’s housecat to find their real human burglar and keep the apartment’s custodian from being framed. The next two novels, The Big Catnap (August 2000) and The Maltese Kitten (December 2002), were specific pastiches of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929), with Sam standing in for Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, who practically defined the crime-noir private eye genre. Not exactly kids’ stuff. The Maltese Kitten also won the Cat Writers’ Association’s 2003 Muse Award in the Best Juvenile Fiction category.

Stewart seemed to run out of famous crime-noir mysteries to parody after 2002. But, eleven years later, here is The Great Catsby. Presumably you know what this is a pastiche of, even if you haven’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic. Not exactly a hard-boiled mystery, and still not exactly kids’ stuff; but it does get the series moving again.

“The first time I saw Catsby he was sitting atop a diving board and staring across a swimming pool at a lantern hung from a tree. It was one of those green paper Japanese lanterns and it flashed, in the local distance, like the light of an alien star. Of course I didn’t know he was Catsby then, or anything else about him. By his looks, he was nothing special – just a pleasantly yellow fellow with a curve at the tip of his tail. What impressed me had been his gaze – an almost laser-like concentration – and the stillness that seemed to surround him the way a halo surrounds a saint.” (p. 1)

Sam is involuntarily vacationing in the resort village of East Ham on Long Island, where the owner of his mystery bookshop has been invited by his sister – “she of the hideous jangling bracelets and reeking perfume – [who] had alas convinced him, through constant nagging, that “country air” would be good for ‘the cat’.” (p. 2)

Sam, who plays Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, decides that as long as he is in East Ham, he will visit his cousin Pansy, the housecat of the nearby mansion of J. J. Smythington. “My cousin Pansy lay on a sofa nearly blending into its arm, as she whispered urgently to a stranger – a young Persian of palest yellow who looked indulgent and slightly bored.” (p. 8) When Pansy momentarily leaves the room, the Persian, Georgia, tells Sam that Pansy is engaged to another cat, Tom, whom she suspects of having another lover.

download (2)So: East Ham, J. J. (Jay Jay), and two languid female playgirls, one engaged to a male named Tom. (This is both a Gatsby reference and a “tomcat” joke.) Since this is a mystery series, Pansy is frightened that someone is plotting to murder her as a warning to her human owner, Rex Trout. That isn’t in Fitzgerald, but it does give Sam the excuse to prowl around the neighborhood, and meet Catsby. It turns out that Pansy and Catsby are old acquaintances who haven’t seen each other for years. Catsby is mysteriously wealthy:

“‘And I’ve got some catnip,’ he said. ‘And then I’ve a man at PetCo who makes me these.’ He strutted proudly up to the toy chest and let its contents spill to the floor. It was overflowing with fluffy balls.” (p. 21)

In passing, they see a human model, Zelda Stardust. Most of the human celebrities whom they see vacationing in East Ham are modern references, not Gatsybian, such as Glorious Sternum, Barbara Strident, and Steven Spellbinder; probably wisely, since this is being marketed as a children’s book and the average child hasn’t yet read The Great Gatsby. Sam, at a swank human party at Catsby’s human’s home, runs into Georgia who takes him aside. “Her destination was off in a corner beside a fountain and under a tree where a platter of lobster sat on the lawn like a fish out of water. ‘It’s Catsby’s banquet,’ she whispered gaily. ‘He steals it slowly to leave for his friends.’” (p. 26)

Catsby and his human, J.J., are both figures of mystery:

“Georgia toyed with a fishy claw. ‘Nobody knows,’ she said, ‘about Catsby. Or J.J. either.’ She licked at a shell. ‘I’ve heard some stories but none of them match.’

‘And what are the stories?’

‘And why do you care?’” (p. 26)

download (1)Pansy’s human disappears, leaving his mansion ransacked and shot up. Pansy no longer has to worry about being murdered to scare him, but now Sam is on the case. There are seven suspects. All of the humans have dirty secrets, which their cats know. Sam investigates, with the help of Pansy and Catsby.

The Great Catsby turns into more of a regular whodunit than a literary reference, though there are still references scattered here & there (that children won’t get), to more than Fitzgerald’s classic:

“‘No. Just ordinary everyday crime-busting business. I was wondering –’

‘Then wonder a little closer,’ Georgia said. She was tapping at the sun-spattered cushion at her side. ‘You can jump,’ she said huskily, and cocked her pretty head. ‘You do know how to jump, Sam, don’t you?’” (p. 90)

The cover by Sam Ryskind illustrates the opening scene: see above. The Great Catsby is more for readers of light mysteries than for Fitzgerald fans or literary scholars, but it’s clever and a pleasant read. Cat fanciers will certainly appreciate it. It’s good to have Sam, the Cat Detective, back with us.

– Fred Patten