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 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.
Midnight Louie: Four Literary Lives Down . . . and Counting
Carole Nelson Douglas: Sixty-two Novels Down . . . and Counting
Bulletin! Cat in a Zebra Zoot Suit, just out, will not end the alphabet-titled Midnight Louie, feline PI, mystery series. Cat in an Alphabet Endgame will be the 28th and last entry in 2016. Readers have been bemoaning the end of the series, but my association with “Mr. Midnight” will never end.
Of my 62 published novels, 32 feature Louie. What appeal does this hairy-chested, hard-boiled street-cat-about Las Vegas have? For one thing, he’s a cat for all mystery seasons. He’s been favorably compared to Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Columbo, Nathan Detroit, and James Bond! For another, he’s real. For yet another, we’re both survivors.
1973: We “meet cute” through that vintage match-making format, the daily newspaper’s classified ads. I was a reporter, and he was up for sale. An apartment-dwelling woman who rescued him (and flew him across country in a borrowed puppy crate) will give the rambling survivor to a good home for a dollar. The ad alone cost $30. Intrigued, I interviewed the lady. Then, when writing the article, inspired, I let the big black stray cat people called “Midnight Louie” narrate his own story of being rescued from an upscale Palo Alto motel where his enterprising diet of costly koi fish was about to have him sent from the pond to the pound. Louie was a savvy scam artist whose ankle rubs conned female motel guests into letting him into their rooms on chilly nights. He used ’70s phrases like “love-in” and fancied himself the ladies’ bodyguard and protector.
1982-84: My first two high-fantasy novels become “sleeper” bestsellers, which means without any publisher promotion.
1984: I quit a well-compensated union-guaranteed-’til-death newspaper writing/editing career in Minnesota for freelance fiction-writing and move to Texas to write a SF thriller called Probe and a 60-,000-word category contemporary romance. (That is where Sandra Brown, Iris Johansen and Janet Evanovich et. al. started.)
1985: Needing to optimize income as the fantasy debacle unfolded, I sell a new concept to the romance editor: a linked quartet of romance books within a category romance line, a miniseries, with mystery elements and Midnight Louie as an intermittent narrator, but not IDed as a cat until the last sentence of the fourth book. The Louie Quartet is accepted for an October pub date. Only that month the line’s top three bestselling romance authors come out with . . . a totally new concept, a linked miniseries of romance books.
1989: After three years of broken promises I am finally paid for the four accepted but unpublished Quartet books, but only thanks to a stratagem worthy of John Grisham I maneuvered with the executive assistant of a Park Avenue lawyer. By then the series-within-a-category-line concept is wildly popular romance-industry-wide and breaking out authors and making tons of authors and publishers tons of money.
1990: The “you will be happy with how they’re published” editor finally publishes the Midnight Louie Quartet without showing me the galleys . . . drawn, quartered, with Louie and the mystery elements cut to blazes, four books stuffed into two paperbacks, given off-market covers, and put last on the publishers’ list despite a major chain buyer and the main genre reviewer fighting for the series. Why? The editor needs to bury the advance money she paid for them that won’t be recovered, and their miniseries nature.
Well, obviously, you can do that to a powerless author you’ve kept unpaid and unpublished for four years. . . but you can’t do that to a twenty-pound black alley cat who likes his “night life shaken not stirred.” That’s Louie, always front and center to rescue the ladies, just like a film noir private eye. “Call me Muscle in midnight black.” So . . .
1992. Catnap, the first Midnight Louie, PI, mystery debuts with Midnight Louie as an intermittent narrator in Las Vegas. It’s set at the American Booksellers Convention and involves the murder of an editor. There will be 13 reprints. (It’s now retitled Cat in an Alphabet Soup to update the title sequence not used for the first two series books.)
The series follows four human crime-solvers: two pro, two amateur; two male, two female—an ex-priest, a tenacious PR whiz, a magician and undercover antiterrorism agent, and a hard-boiled female homicide lieutenant as they solve crimes and the puzzles of their own lives, through a parade of serious social and even political issues mixed with satire and the madcap fun and mob elements of Las Vegas. It’s all about family, with or without a capital F, even Louie’s. It’s about what you need to cast off, and what you must reconcile.
2000-2001. I put out the Midnight Louie Quartet, Louie narrations and mystery elements restored and some mild sexy bits cut, via a small press. It’s their mystery bestseller.
2003 and 2006. I use the new Print on Demand process to publish two Midnight Louie stories illustrated by Brad Foster, a talented local artist, and sell direct to readers of my newsletter.
2013: I finally go all-out indie and pass on a serious-money contract for three more Louies. We’ll go it alone together from now on.
2016 and beyond: Midnight Louie seems inclined to spin himself off again. Where else will you ever find such a useful mouthpiece? he asks me. He doesn’t sign himself Midnight Louie, Esq. for nothing. Any law degree he claims is strictly street smarts.
Why has Midnight Louie had such a long literary life? Why have I been writing about him for a quarter of a century? It’s what Ray Bradbury said. He never lost the enthusiasms of his boyhood and always drew on them: books, the Red Planet, dinosaurs, carnivals.
Mine were books and cats. Midnight Louie echoes writers I read when young, among them, Aesop’s fables. Don Marquis, a newspaper columnist who found amusing social criticism from archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat on his typewriter every morning. Damon Runyon, whose Great Depression-era fables of down-and-never-out Broadway bookies, gamblers, chorus girls, and bag ladies celebrated the “little guy and doll” with aspirations to gentility in “Guys and Dolls” and drew Louie and me to the similar Las Vegas setting, where he performs as both a homage and critique of the American male noir detective we all love, but now seems “more than somewhat” (a Runyon catchphrase) sexist. A few dozen alley cats I’ve rescued. And, of course, the “real and original” Midnight Louie to whom I’ve dedicated some of the books. He was never my pet, or anybody’s, but he wrested the keyboard from me the first, and last, time we met, and has never released my imagination since.