When Elaine Viets's editor suggested she write about cats for the 13th installment in the Dead-End Job Mystery series, the author tried to sell her on other ideas instead--to no avail.
"I didn't want to write a silly cat novel," explained Viets. "But she was right. Cats are the new vampires. Cats can be interpreted in so many ways--funny, serious, mystical, practical, even magical realism." Her take on the theme is Catnapped! (NAL/Obsidian, $24.95, 9780451466303, May 6), which centers on the colorful world of show cats. When a south Florida socialite's pet goes missing at the same time a murder occurs, P.I. Helen Hawthorne goes undercover to find the kitty-napper and the killer.
Inspiration for the story came in part from Viets's cat companion, Mystery. Like Mystery, the missing feline in Catnapped! is a Chartreux, a French breed known for its thick gray coat and copper-hued eyes. Mystery is also the namesake of another show cat featured in the story, although in real life she was defrocked after just one outing for biting a judge and then put up for adoption. A drawing of Mystery adorns the front cover of Catnapped! Viets's other cat, Harry, a striped tabby and former stray, plays a part in her Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series.
Viets turned to mystery writing after a 25-year career as a newspaper reporter and syndicated columnist. Then came "one of those rat years" when everything went wrong. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer, the stock market crashed and took the couple's savings with it, and the publisher for whom Viets had been writing a series cancelled its mystery imprint.
To help make ends meet, Viets took a job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. "I learned that people treat an underpaid clerk differently than someone making six figures," she said. "I kept track of the good and bad things in that job." She drew on her experiences for the second book in the Dead-End Job series, Murder Between the Covers, which takes place at a fictitious independent bookstore. The main character, Helen Hawthorne, loves the job but wishes--prophetically--that someone would murder her dreadful boss.
When the series began, Helen was on the run from her unfaithful ex-husband, to whom a judge had promised one-half of her future income. Rather than hand over a dime, she went on the lam and found employment wherever she could, taking a different low-paying job in every book. (Fellow mystery writer Tim Dorsey described the series as "Janet Evanovich meets The Fugitive.")
Described as a satiric look at a serious subject, the series spotlights minimum wage employment. For the first 10 books, Viets worked every job that Helen did, gathering material for the novels. "When I wore a hotel maid's smock, as I did in Murder with Reservations, or a clerk's name tag, as in Shop till You Drop, I wore a cloak of invisibility," she said. "No one saw or heard me, and they would say and do astonishing things, because the help doesn't exist."
Helen is no longer on the lam and co-owns a private investigation business, but Viets still does in-depth research on the jobs presented in the books (now undercover gigs for Helen). For Catnapped!, Viets worked with a director of the Cat Fanciers' Association and even learned how to wash long-haired show cats. "A cat bath starts with Goop--the hand cleaner--and includes two shampoos, a conditioner and, if it's a white cat, a blue rinse. Then the cats are dried with a special dryer," she explained. "I'm grateful I have self-cleaning cats."
Viets will share details about cat shows and show cats at the Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Md., on May 3. She is one of several authors participating on the panel "Behind the Curtain: An Inside Look at Unusual Settings." Other events include appearances at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., on May 8 and at Well Read Bookstore & Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.--Viets's home city--on May 16. A portion of the proceeds at both gatherings will benefit local no-kill animal shelters. Two paws up to that! --Shannon McKenna Schmidt