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    They Shoot Cats, Don’t They?

    Diana Killian Icon

    Forgive me if I am even less coherent than usual. I’m doing this on three and a half hours sleep and I am not one of those dames who functions efficiently when sleep-deprived. And no, it was not my guilty conscience keeping me up all night. We played a benefit yesterday evening, so the lack of ZZZzzzzzs was all in a good cause.

    Anyway, on one of the discussion lists I prowl, the Never Kill A Cat topic recently arose (much like one of those nine-lived felines, for, as I recall, we were debating the same topic last year around this time). In case you have no idea what I’m babbling about, one of the rules for mystery-writing, particularly cozy or comic mystery writing, is the rule about doing away with furry friends. The rule goes like this: DON’T.

    Don’t do it.

    Kill a cat and you’ll never work in this small English village with the horrendous crime rate again.

    This is the gospel according to a number of book buyng mystery fans who will apparently not finish a book (or even start should they receive advance warning) in which an animal is killed. Especially a pet.

    I know what you’re thinking. How come it’s okay to kill people in these same books?

    It’s not that the irony escapes these readers–or maybe it does. But their argument is that animals are dumb, helpless, innocent creatures and humans are not, and so somehow it is more cruel to kill an animal. I mean, I guess that’s their argument. Like I said, I’m only half-awake.

    Now personally I don’t like pets to be killed either. That’s in fiction and in real life. I’m pretty much of a cream puff about books where beloved animals get killed. I couldn’t BELIEVE it when Old Yeller…well, never mind. You will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t even make it through The Yearling or Where the Red Fern Grows. I learned from Lassie Come Home and Black Beauty that, really, the point of animal stories is to rip the heart out of the reader and feed it to wild dogs. The sadder the book, the higher the childhood classic quotient. And apparently I’ve always been a sap: according to my dad I used to sit and watch Lassie every week with tears streaming down my face. Granted, I was about four years old, but even so, surely I had noticed that Lassie and Timmy made it safely through every single episode?

    Actually, I’m not crazy about any beloved character biting the big one. And, after all, these literary pets are simply characters, so I put my sensitivity down to a general squeamishness and a preference for upbeat, lightish novels where good triumphs over evil and most everyone we care about makes it safely through–mostly. In other words, do not try to ramp up the excitement level in your flagging series by killing off a character I like. It will not go over well.

    Here’s the thing, though: in order to keep a certain tension and excitement alive in a crime or mystery novel, there has to be something at stake. And it can’t always be the life of the protagonist, especially in a series, because…well, let’s face it…readers are on to that. I mean, readers who have read more than three books in their life are on to that.  To me, that means any beloved character, two legged or four-footed is fair game.

    Readers, what do you think? Will you keep reading if a writer takes out a favorite character? Will you forgive the sacrifice of a cat or two? Writers, do you let your options be determined by your understanding of reader preferences? Inquiring–or at least half-awake–minds want to know

    12 Responses to “They Shoot Cats, Don’t They?”

    1. My biggest problem with killing a fictional cat (or dog or hamster or platypus)is that it’s become a lazy, cliched way of showing that the villain (and it’s always the villain doing it) is not just evil, but EEEEEEVIL.

      Oh my God! He killed Fluffy! YOU BASTARD!

      If I stop reading at that point, it’s not because I’m going, “poor kitty” it’s because I’m going “dude, this has SO been done before…”

      by JDRhoades on August 28th, 2006 at 7:00 am

    2. The pet-jep discussion annoys me mostly because I eventually sense a value judgement, but I admit the subject mostly makes me nervous because the first murder victim in my unpublished-but-hoping MS is… a horse.

      And I had one test reader who didn’t even like horses refuse to finish it for that reason. (Curiously, all the real horse people who read the story seemed okay with the horse as victim, as long as the perp was punished.)

      by Shelley on August 28th, 2006 at 8:39 am

    3. In my first completed ms, I killed a very old poodle - no lie, and it wasn’t just for the gratuitous suspense. It was actually a clue. This ms has been read to death by my first agent, editors and a few dozen readers. (It is now in a drawer, destined someday to be the filler book when I’m multi-published and too busy skiing in Aspen to fulfill my contract with something new). I kept waiting for the “You killed the dog?!” comments but they never came - not even from my son’s godfather who dresses his Weimaraner up for Halloween.

      I guess it can be done, if it’s done right. But then, the book is…er…still in a drawer…

      by Heidi Vornbrock Roosa on August 28th, 2006 at 9:32 am

    4. Diana, have you heard me tell the story of how I grew up wanting to be a medical examiner? Right up until the time I went to college and my prof told us we’d be dissecting a cat. People? No problem. Cats? No way. Needless to say, I went another route.

      If the pet-i-cide was done to further the plot and not just out of pure evil, then I’ll read on. If like JD mentioned, it’s done as a cliche, it’s a no-go.

      by Heather Webber on August 28th, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    5. You know, I feel pretty strongly about this along JD and Heather’s lines. I have read books where the death of an animal is essential to the plot, which doesn’t really bother me. However, it also depends on how the author treats the scene. Does he/she have compassion towards the animal or does it feel like he/she could care less? (Bear in mind that I have a menagerie of my own and am a noted animal softie).

      I have read other books where a beloved pet has been killed for what seems like absotively-posolutely no reason except to create pathos, and that really burns me. The two books that come immediately to mind are L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and Velda Johnston’s The Etruscan Smile. Now, both of these books were absolutely wonderful and well-written, but each contained a horrifying (at least to me) scene of the death of a beloved pet that served no purpose whatsoever and put me off the book for life. In both cases, the author has caused us to care about the pet in question, but seemed to throw their life away with no compunction and no benefit to the plot. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I’ll never read Rilla or another Johnston book again. Johnston’s crime was by far the worse, as I believe she killed the dog because she couldn’t think of another way out of the plot hole she was in. Ugh.

      Also, I’d like to point out that book authors aren’t the only ones to abuse this plot device. It happens in movies and on TV, too.

      by Laura on August 28th, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    6. Diana, I loved this line from your post today, “The sadder the book, the higher the childhood classic quotient.” So true! And apparently the same principle applies to adult “literary” fiction, except I’d substitute “more depressing” for “sadder.” It’s amazing that the suicide rate for English majors isn’t higher.

      by Sara Rosett on August 28th, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    7. This is strictly the cozy-only readers.

      No one, I repeat - NO ONE - who reads authors such as Lehane, Burke (both of them), Paretsky, Patterson, Child, Pelecanos, etc., will ever stop reading a book/author because an animal is killed.

      This gets talked about so much because the cozy-only readers are a loud and proud group. I have nothing against them or cozies, except that this no-death-to-fluffy rule is simply silly.

      And I happen to be a dog & cat lover, member of the ASPCA, giver to animal charities, etc.

      But I also happen to respect writing.

      by guyot on August 29th, 2006 at 10:00 am

    8. Rules suck.

      Kill the cat if you need to.

      by Tasha Alexander on August 29th, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    9. Personally, I’ve never killed an animal in a story. Lots of people, of course, but never an animal.

      There’s something in a lot of people’s psyches that equate Soft and Fuzzy with Better Than People. I remember a Sheriff’s election a few years ago somewhere in the south where the incumbent had had to put somebody’s hound down when it attacked him. The contender’s slogan was “Vote For Bob: He Won’t Shoot Your Dog”. Guess who won.

      Yes, the animal killing thing is a cliche, but it’s a pretty effective one. It’s an easy way to manipulate readers. Of course, there’s the chance that it will just enrage them, too. I’m with Tasha. If you need to kill the cat, kill the cat.

      There are cat cozies, how come there aren’t any cat noir stories? Booboo gets nailed to the front door as a warning, Bunnykins gets a side of poisoned halibut and Fluffy hooks up with a sleek Siamese running with the wrong crowd, does late night catnip, knocks over a Petco high on Fancy Feast. Then he gets thrown over for a younger Tom and left out to dry, framed for a murder he didn’t commit, finding later that it was the Siamese and that bastard Tom the whole time. Only realizing this as he lies in the street run over by a trash truck.

      Alone. Afraid. And full of vengeance.

      by Stephen Blackmoore on August 30th, 2006 at 12:55 pm

    10. Stephen, you are one funny guy–I want to read your cat noir. Have you got the title? How about SAY IT WITH CATNIP.

      J.D., love–and agree with–the “He killed Fluffy!” bit. What I resent (besides being told what I can or cannot write) is being manipulated. I’m one of those people who starts making smart-ass comments at deathbed scenes–er, ot the real ones, the FAKE ones. I am not going to cry at some deliberate attempt to yank my emotions out into the sun.

      Shelley, I think people who work with animals are a little less sappy about them. Not that I didn’t cry for a week over our horse–and I still can’t bear to think about a litter of puppies that didn’t make it.

      by Diana Killian on August 30th, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    11. Laura, I am in agreement. So often the shock factor of killing a beloved pet is simply lazy writing. Heck, half the time it’s the same reason for killing off a spouse or SO. What’s the deal with creating expendable main characters? Oh, and speaking of films, ever notice how few grandparents make it safely through films–regardless of genre? It’s safer to be a fluffy cat than a sweet old apple-cheeked granny.

      Paul, yep, it is most definitely a cozy thing. A cozy thang? Anyway, possibly it’s these kinds of “rules” that earn the cozy genre so little respect.

      Heidi, I’m still giggling over the very old poodle. Doesn’t that count as a mercy killing? For all involved?

      Heather, I’m trying to picture you as an ME. Talk about breaking stereotypes! Hollywood, take note!

      Sara, once we all make it through the Middle English years, we’re usually considered past the suicide risk–then it’s just the danger of illegal hot plates and cafeteria cooking.

      Tasha, you are only allowed to drink on Fridays! I thought we discussed this!

      by Diana Killian on August 30th, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    12. Shelley, I think people who work with animals are a little less sappy about them.

      It also occurred to me that the horse people might have considered the horse a full member of the supporting cast, and thus a possible victim. Is it possible that don’t-kill-Fluffy readers see the animals as symbolic of something and that is what bothers them? I think I need to give this more thought. But it’s a fact that the readers who reacted to horses as individual members of the cast were upset that a character they liked was killed, not that “an animal” was.

      Me, what I hate are the stories and movies where the dog gets put in mortal jeopardy but is only wounded, not killed. PAYBACK, a terrible Mel Gibson movie, did this–it featured all this sadistic violence toward humans and then chickened out on the dog, showing Mel’s sentimental cowardice. Or at least that’s how I took it and have never gone to another Mel movie from that day to this. It could have been a really cool noir movie and he ruined it, and the dog business illustrated how.

      by Shelley on August 31st, 2006 at 10:35 am

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