I know of Lynne Truss from her wonderful non-fiction writing guide ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. The fact that this made me determined to get my hands on her new novel says much more about Truss’s writing than about my innate interest in punctuation.
I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Cat Out of Hell’ made me laugh out loud, to the extent that I was too scared to take it on public transport with me because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my sniggers at a socially-acceptable volume level. It is a hilarious murder mystery romp, and if that sounds unlikely, you just need to trust to Truss’s intelligence and impeccable comic timing.
My first disclaimer is that I do really like cats, but I feel that this book will work even if you don’t, as long as your dislike of them comes from a suspicion that they think they’re better than everyone else rather than complete disinterest in all animals. The second disclaimer is that I was brought up on Narnia books as a child and started loving Terry Pratchett as a teenager – I have absolutely no trouble with talking animal books. I know that for some people this is a deal breaker so if you have strong feelings on the subject you should be warned, but my first belly laugh came very early on, from a stage direction during a Becket-like conversation between Wiggy and Roger, entitled ‘screenplay 1’: ‘Roger gives him a pained look. He is a cat, of course. In fact I probably should have mentioned this at the top of the scene – NB: Remember to go back and do that. Roger is a cat. Otherwise, if not clear Roger is a talking cat, the scene might be somewhat less interesting‘.
When I said that the screen play near the start of the book reminded me (slightly) of Beckett, I was getting drawn into the other joy of this novel. It’s a literary feast, crammed with references to great books, after all, the (human) protagonist is a librarian who ‘likes Tennyson, and calls his dog after Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes. He even remembers key passages from Jane Eyre in moments of crisis.’ As for the cat protagonists ‘Both Roger and the Captain were Nine Lifers – with all the concomitant Nietzschean overtones. They had both travelled romantically through the remains of ancient civilisations, often by moonlight, reading and reciting poetry; they had hodnobbed with the Durrells…’ They also reenact scenes from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in their free time. These kinds of pretentious literary references can be hard to pull off, but Truss does so with aplomb. Partly this is aided by a superb undercurrent of unspoken bookish influences. The opening of the story, an isolated windswept sea-side cottage is the classic setting for a Victorian ghost-story, and the hints back to E A Poe go far beyond simply having a cat in the story. There are evil cats, premature burials and purloined leaflets, there is also (I’m convinced) a sneaky Catch-22 moment. For a week after reading I kept on thinking of more and more obvious and subtle pointers to other great books; ‘Cat out of Hell’ isn’t just a horror-comedy, it’s also a wonderfully geeky spot-the-book game for a literature-loving reader.
I don’t want to give away the story itself, it starts with a death (wife) and disappearance (sister). To unravel the connections will take the combined skills of the book-loving Alec and the foppish Wiggy, assisted and hindered by supercilious cats and absence minded-professors. This is undoubtedly one of my top reads of the year so far, and is a book I know I will return to time and again – whenever I need a good laugh with my favourite novels or with talking cats in general.