Cat mysteries have a long and honorable tradition, with the most recognizable being the series by Lilian Jackson Braun: the "Cat Who" books center around the life of former newspaper reporter James Qwilleran, and his two Siamese cats KoKo and Yum-Yum. But Braun's series was relatively light-hearted, and Simon's is ... well, you've got the message about "pet noir," right? And "deadly"? There are dangers and risks for animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe, and most of them come from the owners, not their pets.
More than dark and deadly, the Marlowe mysteries wrestle with what humans believe about other species, and why they could be dead wrong. For instance, the African grey parrot that's causing an emergency call from the local senior complex keeps repeating a frightening sequence of sounds. Is it a replay of the death of the parrot's "person," aging and infirm Polly Larkin? An accident being voiced over and over, due to the bird's own trauma? Or could there be a hint from the parrot that murder took place right in front of the bird?
Pru Marlowe isn't sure -- and that's one of the most enjoyable aspects of this hard-working and determined sleuth: Pru questions just about everything. She has to. Her very bright cat Wallis turns out to be able to "speak" to Pru through a sort of interspecies telepathy, and Wallis has scornfully made it clear to Pru that all creatures do something of the same. But not as well as Wallis can! A lot of cats are fluffy-minded, dogs are obsessed by their noses announce, the ferret that Pru sometimes consults is more bite than bright, and don't start on what squirrels and pigeons have in mind. If she's not going to consider herself crazy, then Pru's got to pay close attention to grasp this strange world of messages around her.
The thing is, parrots live a long, long time -- but they're not bright the way Pru's tabby is. So ... what exactly did the bird witness, and what does it mean about operations at the LiveWell complex, and between Polly Larkin's rather unusual grown children? Also worrying is the relative silence of guide dog that's been living next door to the deceased -- and who seems traumatized. Pru's worrying about it all while taking time for one of her regular assignments, walking a tough little dog whose self-chosen name is Growler:
He lifted his leg and then with a sigh that carried a wave of resignation, he plowed ahead toward his inhospitable home. "Women." That I got, loud and clear. "Don't see what's right in front of them."Nobody likes a snoop, either, but that's what Pru becomes, unable to let the circumstances rest until she knows the truth. In Simon's quick-paced narrative, there's plenty of suspense and a very real sense of struggle to translate what's important in the "speech" of companion animals into something Pru can make sense of.
"What, Growler?" I stopped, and since I held the other end of the leash, he had to, as well. He turned and eyed me, his button eyes cold.
"The guide dog -- the one you call 'Buster'?" he broke his silence. "She's more concerned with her person than with anyone else -- and with good reason. People die there. She smells it, and I can smell it on her."
I nodded, grateful for that damp black nose. ... It was an old folks' home, no matter what anyone called it. Death's waiting room. Did he -- or did Buster -- mean there were suspicious deaths? Deaths that shouldn't have happened -- what the coroner would cal misadventure? Or even murder?
"Watch what happens to that bird," Growler said, barking once as we came up to his door. "Nobody likes a blabbermouth."
I enjoyed the first two of Simon's pet noir series, Cat's Can't Shoot and Dogs Don't Lie; this one is at least as good, and a great diversion from the gritty urban thrillers I've also been considering this month. You don't need to have read the others in order to enjoy PARROTS PROVE DEADLY, although they build nicely in terms of Pru's discovery of her ability to receive animal voices and the stresses and fractures in her life. Great series -- thanks, Clea Simon, for this third title!
PS -- Okay, if you've read your mystery classics, you already see the coincidence of Pru's surname in a book of noir: Marlowe, right? Now, can you place Wallis? Hint: Don't let the spelling trap you. And think about a noted Boston writer, one who shared the Bay State with Clea Simon until his passing, just a couple of years back. Come on, you can do it!