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Braun, Lilian Jackson

BRAUN, Lilian Jackson

Born circa 1916, Massachusetts

Also writes as: Ward Jackson

Married Earl Bettinger, 1979

Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who… series has a loyal following of fans, and it is no wonder why to those who have enjoyed her mystery series over the years. Braun's series follow the life changes and adventures of newspaperman Jim Qwilleran, affectionately known as Qwill to characters in the series and readers alike. Qwill is an amateur detective, and with the aid of his trusty companions, two Siamese cats named Koko and Yum Yum, he solves the most complex of murders.

Braun's first work was published when she was just sixteen and did not involve cats or murder mysteries at all. Instead, she sold articles on baseball, a secret love of hers, to Baseball magazine and the Sporting News under the pseudonym Ward Jackson, believing the sports writing field would accept a man more seriously than a woman. Braun had began reading and writing at the early age of three, inspired by her mother who wanted her to be able to correspond with her grandmother who lived far away. And in fact, though she was not actually writing, she composed her first poem at the age of two: "Mother Goose is up in the sky, and these are her feathers coming down in my eye." As she has said herself, "Not bad for a two-year-old."

Braun began a career as an advertising copywriter, and her first "cat story" was a short story inspired by the unfortunate death of her Siamese named Koko, who fell from a 10-story window. Neighbors suspected foul play, and thus Braun wrote a short story, "The Sin of Madame Phloi," to memorialize her beloved cat: "I was forty years old when my husband gave me a Siamese kitten for a birthday present…. I named him Koko, after a character in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado." Braun wrote other cat short stories, many of which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Her fictional writing career truly began in 1966 with the release of The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, in which Qwill, assisted only by Koko in this first novel, solves his first mystery. The first novel introduces Qwilleran, a former crime reporter in the city, who is down and out after a bitter divorce and a history of drinking. He finds a job as a features writer with a Midwestern newspaper, the Daily Fluxion, and in tandem with his job covering the local art beat, he solves the murder of an artist. Braun was immediately recognized as a promising new mystery writer and quickly followed her first novel with two more: The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern (1967), in which Yum Yum is rescued by Qwill after being abandoned, and The Cat Who Turned On and Off (1968).

Bored with the lonely life of a writer, Braun soon began work writing columns for the Detroit Free Press on many of the hobbies that would become subjects for her fictional counterpart's writings, including antiques, interior decorating, art, and food. She remained in this position for 30 years, and after an 18-year hiatus from The Cat Who… series, picked up her pen to begin again. In 1986 she released The Cat Who Saw Red, a manuscript she had written two decades before. This newest volume in the series proved that Braun's work had lost none of its appeal. She earned a nomination for an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1986.

Braun went on to write many more mysteries starring Koko and Yum Yum and their companion, Qwill. There were 21 by early 1999, and a new one, The Cat Who Robbed the Bank, was due in 2000. Braun says that keeping the series fresh has never been a problem; she follows the changes in the lives of Qwill and the townsfolk of Pickax in Moose County, "400 miles north of everywhere," evolving the characters with each new novel. Braun writes characters "like patchwork quilts of all the people I've known," she says. Carol Barry wrote in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, "Braun's ability to introduce and sustain a strong cast of supporting characters keeps the reader eagerly awaiting the next book…. The murders are both surprising and shocking, but the dialogue, the local color, and the characters make up more of the story than the act of murder itself." Braun herself says her twist to the mystery story is the uncanny knack of the two Siamese to uncover clues, "although it is a tongue-in-cheek theme, that is my premise: that cats are smarter than people, take it or leave it." Her narration is always vivid, lending a feeling to the reader that they actually know the characters and the town of Pickax. Braun's fans are not only loyal because of the stories of the unique detective work of Qwill and his cats, but also because Braun is able to capture their attention and keep it until the end of the story and even instill anticipation for the next installment.

Braun lives with her husband, Earl Bettinger, and her two cats, Koko III and PittiSing, in the mountains of North Carolina near the town of Tryon, only promoting her books at nearby bookstores and cat shows. Braun commented in an article entitled "Why Cats?": "As subjects for mysteries, cats are clever, funny, independent, subtle, wily, profound, inscrutable, and—yes—mysterious. And there are no two alike. But if you're going to write about them, it helps to be part-cat." And as friends know, and readers would agree, Braun must be part-cat to write so well about the felines as she does.

Other Works:

The Cat Who Played Brahms (1987). The Cat Who Played Post Office (1987). The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare (1988). The Cat Who Had Fourteen Tales (1988). The Cat Who Sniffed Glue (1988). The Cat Who Went Underground (1989). The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts (1990). The Cat Who Lived High (1990). The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal (1991). The Cat Who Wasn't There (1992). The Cat Who Moved a Mountain (1992). The Cat Who Went into the Closet (1993). The Cat Who Came to Breakfast (1994). The Cat Who Blew the Whistle (1995). The Cat Who Said Cheese (1996). The Cat Who Tailed a Thief (1997). The Cat Who Sang for the Birds (1998). The Cat Who Saw Stars (1998).

Bibliography:

"The Bumbler and the Silken Sleuths: 'The Cat Who' Mysteries of Lilian Jackson Braun," in North Carolina Literary Review (1996). PW (19 Oct. 1998).

Reference Works:

Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers (1996). CA Online (1999).

—DEVRA M. SLADICS

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