Mew Is for Murder, By Clea Simon, Poisoned Pen, 224 pp,. $24.95
Crime novels starring cats in prominent roles are a mainstay of the mystery genre. Authors such as Lilian Jackson Braun, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Rita Mae Brown have all built thriving careers based on series featuring feline characters.
Boston-based writer and critic Clea Simon, a frequent contributor to the Globe, goes by only two names, but she is nonetheless poised to join the ranks of the more established authors of the cat-centric mystery with her debut novel, ''Mew Is for Murder."
Theda Krakow is a journalist working for a major Boston newspaper. After suffering through the breakup of her relationship and the death of her beloved cat, Theda is in a bit of a funk. Since she's recently made a career change from copy editor to freelance writer, her financial situation isn't looking so great either. She could really use a break.
She seems to be on the brink of a juicy story when she meets a neighbor with a house full of cats. Could this elderly woman be one of the fabled crazy cat ladies who populate tabloid reports and urban legends? Theda decides to find out, only to stumble on a far more complicated situation when she discovers the old lady dead the next day.
Theda is ready to leave the story behind and move on, but a young woman who works at the local coffeehouse, another neighbor, believes the death wasn't an accident and is determined to uncover proof. Theda finds herself reluctantly drawn into the case, a decision that leaves both her and the barista facing the same threat that put the cat lady in danger.
Although the plot of ''Mew Is for Murder" is entertaining enough, there isn't a lot of depth or nuance to it. Of course, that's not always a bad thing, especially for readers searching for an undemanding book to take to the beach or read by the pool. The uncomplicated story arc does come to a jarringly sudden and improbable ending at the book's climax, but things go smoothly enough up to that point.
The best thing going for Simon's story is the character of Theda, a pleasant, intelligent woman who easily gains the reader's interest and empathy. It's always refreshing to read about a female character who doesn't constantly make bad decisions and stupid choices, as so often they do in mystery novels.
As for the cats themselves, while it's true that quite a few of them pop up throughout the story, at least none of them talk, nor do they actively participate in the solving of the crime.
Although it's a likable story, ''Mew Is for Murder" is unlikely to convince the unconverted of the potential of the feline mystery. For those who are already fans of this type of book, though, Simon's debut is a solid start to what will probably be a successful series.
David J. Montgomery is a freelance book reviewer and the editor of Mystery Ink (www.mysteryinkonline.com).