Carole Nelson Douglas was one of 12 finalists in a Vogue magazine writing competition once won by Joan Didion and Jacqueline Kennedy, and got into a daily newspaper reporting career without a journalism degree. After becoming the first woman on the newspaper union board, first woman director of the annual Gridiron Show, and first woman on the paper’s Opinion pages, she escaped a glass ceiling by writing fiction. She was the first author to make a woman from the Sherlock Holmes stories, Irene Adler, a mystery/suspense protagonist, with the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Good Night, Mr. Holmes. Carole has won RT Book Reviews lifetime achievement awards for mystery, suspense and versatility, and many first-place Muse Medallions from the Cat Writers’Association. She is putting the first 12 Midnight Louie mysteries into eBook, starting in November. She and her husband are kept as pets by five rescue cats in Texas. She loves the decorative arts, vintage clothing, and Zumba, and no longer plays with ants.
I’m going to reveal a big secret.
I’ve had sixty novels published in such genres as mystery and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, romance and women’s fiction. And I’ve had books on bestseller lists and have won awards for all those genres.
Yet all of these books, to my mind, are basically “adventures” that combine elements of other genres.
It’s true that cross-genre books have a tough time selling to most publishers in the traditional publishing industry. The category lines were always strict, based on bookstore genre shelves, and some remain in place to this day. But I never read a genre I didn’t like, or one I wouldn’t like even better if it had added elements from other genres.
Take my long-running Midnight Louie mystery series. Some people have assumed it features a “talking” cat. But Louie, a big black street cat who has a human “roommate” he protects, Miss Temple Barr, doesn’t talk. No. He refuses to talk to inferiors, like humans. (Which implies he might talk if he put his mind to it, but Louie has grand ideas about his own abilities, and you can’t always believe him.)
He does write his own chapters about his and the human investigations. Yet he does nothing in the books a big, strong, smart alley cat couldn’t do (if he thought like Sam Spade). I’ve recently adopted a Midnight Louie III in real life who has even more tricks up his sleeve than the fictional one.
The editorial fear of “talking” cats comes from a concern that mystery readers demand hardcore reality. Yet it’s the quirky unreality of the cozy genre, the deadly knitting needles and so on, that charm. That’s why the supernatural shows up here. The trick to putting what is essentially a fantasy construct into a mystery series is to set up strict rules. Louie and the reader share knowledge of his special abilities at crime solving. The human characters have suspicions, but really, Midnight Louie is just a cat, after all. He does nothing people in the real world aren’t reporting their own cats do, from manipulating computerized function buttons to opening a door via knob or lever. Check out YouTube.
It’s Louie’s sense of purpose and gumshoe point of view that is fantasy, not his actions.
Now, with his 25th mystery, Cat in an Alien X-Ray, Louie enters a new blended-genre setting. Yes, science fiction comes to Las Vegas with cell phone photos of UFOs over the Strip going viral and a new “Area 54” attraction drawing conspiracy nuts, tourists, and murders. At the end of the adventure, readers even get Louie’s earth-shaking take on close encounters and little gray men.
Louie’s first mystery appeared in 1992 and he’s still going strong, despite mystery editors’ rules against cats with a “voice.” I hear writers still can’t sell a book with a point-of-view cat, despite the enormous popularity of cat cozies at the moment. (Louie actually started in a much smaller role in a category romance quartet. There he commented, but he didn’t take investigative action that tied into the plots.)
Why has Louie thrived? Because I didn’t give up on the idea and because, readers tell me, he’s the quintessential embodiment of cattitude. I started calling the series “cozy-noir” to indicate the books combine humor and mystery with a bit darker undercurrent of real-life issues. And there is an ongoing romance-relationship triangle, sometimes quadrangle. (Another “other genre” touch.)
When I more recently started the Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, urban fantasy series, one science fiction editor asked after my “noir” urban fantasy series. She was right. That series has a noir feel to it too, because noir is a quintessential part of mystery and crime writing history. Delilah also has an animal partner, a wolfhound-wolf cross she adopts. Quicksilver can have major paranormal abilities in that genre, but I still base them on basic “dog” characteristics. And he doesn’t “talk,” either.
How did I get this way? Well, I was born wanting to do everything, perhaps because I was an only child and had to entertain myself. I begged cardboard boxes from neighbors, collected ants, and made 3-D dioramas of twigs and moss for them to populate. I strong-armed neighborhood kids into being actors and audience for plays I wrote, directed, and performed in. Cats on My Back had a particularly successful run. I founded and reported for my own neighborhood newspaper. I begged relatives for unwanted items of family history and clothing, especially anything that glittered. And I read anything I could find—Poe, Oscar Wilde, Louisa May Alcott, Balzac, Eliot, Bronte, Dumas (and a few things at the neighbors I was not supposed to find at that age, like dark Mark Twain and The Caine Mutiny).
So it’s no mystery I became a theater and English literature major in college. Naturally, when I turned to fiction my novels ranged from contemporary to historical in setting, from the mystery-suspense arena to romance and mainstream women’s fiction to Tolkienesque and urban fantasy.
And now, with eBooks opening up a whole new world of self-publishing, writers with concepts that don’t fit into the standard “boxes” can try, and prove, that there’s always room for a cat of a different color.