‘What the Cat Saw’ — Carolyn Hart bends mystery genre (again)

Although she is a reigning queen of the traditional mystery, I like to think of Carolyn Hart as one of America’s foremost practitioners of experimental fiction.

While the writer continues her terrific Agatha Christie-style “Death on Demand” series — set on an idyllic island off the coast of South Carolina — Hart also has made two forays into a new sort of mystery that combines elements of the traditional whodunit with the supernatural.

In 2008, with “Ghost at Work,” the author began a series about a recently deceased Oklahoma woman named Bailey Ruth Raeburn that mixed the effervescent comedy of the old “Topper” movies and TV series with the expert mystery plotting that we had come to expect of Hart.

The writer made the fantastic seem all too plausible in two subsequent “Ghost” mysteries and she has done so again in her latest book “What the Cat Saw” (Berkley) which introduces a charming new crime-solving heroine — investigative journalist Nela Farley — who slowly realizes cats can communicate their thoughts to her.

Nela recognizes this gift when she agrees to fill in for her free-spirit sister Chloe after the younger woman wins a trip to Tahiti (with her boyfriend) and asks her sister to sub for her at work.

The unemployed reporter arrives in Oklahoma to work at a non-profit foundation and to care for the cat of one of the employees who died in a fall on the staircase outside her garage apartment.

On her first meeting with Jugs the cat, Nela senses “…HungryFeed meWe’re both sad…”
The young reporter is indeed sad, due to the recent combat zone death of her soldier boyfriend overseas.

Nela picks up another message from Jugs “board rolled on the second step” that doesn’t mean anything to her until she realizes that the cat’s owner — high-powered foundation executive Marian Grant — might not have accidentally fallen down her staircase but was murdered by the person who placed a skateboard there before the victim’s early morning run.

The deeper Nela gets into the workings of the Haklo Foundation and its staff, the more she believes Marian knew something that resulted in her being murdered.

Hart never pushes the cat-communication angle too far in the story, but makes it part of Nela’s amateur sleuthing. Our heroine’s gift will seem entirely plausible to those who have observed the independent but affectionate relationship between cats and their owners (Jugs is sparing in his sharing of thoughts with Nela, which seems exactly right for a cat and his new caretaker).

Fans of the “Death on Demand” series who might have reservations about a “cat mystery” will quickly realize that everything they have come to love in a Carolyn Hart book — astute characterization of a wide array of people, strong plotting and steadily rising suspense — is present in abundance in “What the Cat Saw.”

Joe Meyers