Light and Silly Summer Reading

The Mask of Atreus
by A.J. Hartley
published by: Berkley Books, 2006

The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers
by Lilian Jackson Braun
published by: Penguin, 2007

Here's the quick review:

Stop reading The Mask of Atreus after the climax. The anti-climax is just dreadful political tripe.

Lilian Jackson Braun is phoning it in. Even an avid Cat Who fan, like me, was sorely disappointed, if not a little annoyed.

Ok, now for the longer reviews. We'll start with The Mask of Atreus. As we all know, I like archaeological thrillers. This one had great promise in the beginning, and was reasonably well written. The main character, Deborah Miller, is human, flawed, and thinks some of the things we all do in our darker mental recesses.

Deborah manages a museum for its wealthy founder, Richard Dixon. We also learn quickly that Deborah is Jewish (complete with nagging Jewish mother), and that there is a nasty fellow, who represents the League of Christian Businessmen, who is helping to fund the museum's exhibits.

Now for the murder. When Dixon turns up dead, Deborah also discovers a trove of Mycenaen treasure hidden in a secret room in Richard's mansion (which abuts the museum), and has her first confrontation with black maid, Tonya, who proves to be both suspicious, and disagreeable.

The cast of characters, and the plot threads, now follow what are pretty much formulaic requirements for these types of stories: the bullying government guys (either police, or CIA, or some other type of operative); the mysterious friend-or-foe who knows more than our heroine; the battles with crazies determined to kill our heroine; the world-wide chase conducted on a credit card and magically cooperative flights from Atlanta to Greece to Russia. And finally, the sexy suitor who doesn't feel "quite right."

When Richard Dixon's body is discovered, dead, and his roomful of unreported treasure uncovered, it is also clear that some object is missing - and that that object is not small. It appears that at least part of the treasure gone missing is a death mask, the eponymous Mask of Atreus.

The further Deborah digs into the subject, the more obvious it becomes that there was something more than just a valuable artifact taken... could it even be the remains of King Agamemnon himself?

The book races forward, and ties together threads from myriad cult myths: The Nazis interest in the ancient Greeks, missing artifacts, who is buried in Hitler's grave, secret white supremacist organizations hiding in plain sight in our midst, and rampant racism as a cause for more than we know.

After a reasonably satisfying conclusion, the author cripples the entire work with a final chapter devoted to a small political denouement that strikes me as completely unnecessary. After creating a heroine that seems to reside on the same planet as the rest of us mortals in terms of moral superiority, the writer wraps it all up with a face-off between a heroine who suddenly becomes just a little too good, and a bad guy who's just a little too bad. Too bad, is right.


I have been a fan of the Cat Who books since the late 80s when I was introduced to them by a friend who enjoyed listening to them while traveling. She loaned me the first book in the series (read by Georg Guidall), and I became an instant afficianado. I looked forward to each new release, and quickly caught up with the entire series - the series was written between the late 60s (just one book) and the present - and comprise over 20 books.

The main character is Jim Qwilleran, a sometime crime beat reporter from "Down Below," which could mean Chicago, or New York - it is most likely Moose County is modeled after the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but every so often the writer describes something that sounds awfully Maine-like to me.

When we're first introduced to Qwill ("with a W"), he is a down-on-his-luck, recovering-alcoholic, divorced, and uncertain man of middle years who is handsome, smart, and has an air of sadness about him.

He takes a room in a house with a fastidious art critic named Mountclemens, and thus begins a series of adventures which feature the clever discoveries of a preternatural cat, KoKo, and his partner in crime-solving, YumYum.

What is charming about the earlier books in the Cat Who series is the mix of real - Qwilleran can be sharp-tongued, prissy, and difficult; the murderers can have a good side; the situations can have a real pathos - and the fantasy - small town life never sounded so good: everyone is friendly, quaint, talented, energetic, and simple. The town (Pickax) is full of splendid old homes and modern condos, middle-aged couples who dine out every Saturday and townsfolk who meet at the diner every morning for eggs and gossip.

Each book has had a theme: Scottish heritage, cookbooks, art, mines, honeybees, etc., which the author has explored as part of the story (the writers of the Nancy Drew books did this very effectively, as well); and and in each book, KoKo has used his indirect methods of communication (knocking certain books repeatedly off the shelves, hiding specific items, sniffing or licking certain pictures) to give clues to the perpetrator of the inevitable murder.

As time went on, Qwill (who inherited millions from his "Aunt" Fanny and immediately set up a do-good foundation) acquired a job writing a twice-weekly column for the Moose County Something, (which was easy as he had the foundation establish the paper), a girlfriend (Polly Duncan, soft-spoken librarian), a host of friends, a recumbent bike, and a summer house on the lake (which sounds big enough to be Lake Michigan).

In this latest book, Braun just isn't trying. Nothing much has ever "happened" in the Cat Who books - the pleasure has always been in the details of Qwill's day to day life: what he had for lunch, his conversations, the theme story (which is often a topic Qwill is investigating for his column), and Moose County folklore picked up along the way. But in this book, even less than that happens.

Following the lead of many a murder mystery writer, Braun usually introduces us to the murderer, and has Qwill have talks with that character, as well as learning more about that character from others. In this case, we know almost nothing about either the victim (an allergic orphan), or her killer (a nasty museum curator). Polly dumps Qwilleran with a decided lack of buildup or dismissal (and not much regret on Qwill's part, he is off with a new greying babe in minutes) - sure to be upsetting to many fans. Qwill's complete lack of reaction to this momentous event - and the fact that he doesn't even go to see it when his converted apple barn summer home is torched (the man is a crime investigator, for Pete's sake!)both ring notes so false it's hard to figure out what was the point.

Taking a look at the reviews of this latest book on Amazon, there is perhaps a good reason why the newest books are so anemic. Says one reader/reviewer: "The sad fact is that if Ms. Braun were still alive, she'd be over 100 years old now. So it's pretty clear this series is being ghostwritten. I wish the publisher would just admit it. But I think as long as this series remains a cash cow for the publisher, and we all keep giving this series a third, forth, and fifth chance, they'll keep churning out more. So it's my fault, too."

And it is true, a small industry has grown up around The Cat Who books, with the release of Short and Tall Tales of Moose County, for example, the Cat Who cookbook, journals of James MacIntosh Qwilleran, and more, clearly attempts to cash in on the popularity of what was once a very amusing and pleasant series of quick-read books.

With a reader rating of only 2 out of 5 stars on Amazon, it isn't likely that people will continue shelling out $24 for Cat Who books unless the ghost writers pick up the slack and give us a little more story, and a little less formula.


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