Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, Sarah Todd Taylor answers one of our most interesting conundrums ever, so pour yourself a saucer of milk and say hello to Max.
How To Solve a Crime When Your Detective Can Only Miaow
When I set out to write crime fiction, I certainly did not intend to have a detective with four paws and a beautiful fluffy tail. What I did know was that I wanted to write a set of detective novels for children set in the world of theatre, to combine my loves of theatre and puzzles. I spent many years treading the boards and working backstage on shows and the theatre seemed like a natural setting for mystery – a place where everyone is pretending to be something they are not. I just needed a detective.
At first, my detective was going to be a member of the chorus. I imagined her watching the petty rivalries of the big stars play out, spotting the strange goings-on backstage and working out the truth before the big reveal. But somehow the character never really grew to life, until one day I found myself thinking about theatre cats.
Theatres, museums and other large public buildings have often had cats. They are, after all, a natural solution to mouse problems. And the more I thought about cats, the more I pictured my detective as a cat, someone who could climb into the fly gallery and watch the action unfold, who could sneak into dressing rooms and not be noticed, who could leap from windowsill to windowsill to follow a vital clue.
And as I thought more and more about this, Max was born – Max the cat who starts the story thrown out on the street by his snobby owner and who finds a new life, and a new family, working backstage at London’s biggest theatre, as their Chief Mouser and resident detective.
I decided early on that Max was going to be ALL cat. I grew up around cats, and they are utterly hilarious and such great characters. So I didn’t want Max to just be a human character in cat form. Yes, he solves crimes, but I try to make him behave as much like a cat as possible. He is fussy and loves naps and absolutely hates getting his fur wet or being caught doing anything undignified – just like a cat. And just like every other cat, he doesn’t talk (or rather, he does, and very eloquently too – it’s not his fault that humans don’t bother to learn Cat). This left me with one very big issue – how do you communicate to the humans that you have solved a crime if all they hear is ‘miaow’?
Here’s the thing about writing – whatever it is that gives you your biggest problem, is often what can make your book work best. Since the humans can’t understand what Max is saying to them, he has to express himself with action. So Max has to find ways to show the humans who the criminal is. It’s the ultimate ‘show don’t tell’ as a writer, and it’s been a challenge, but I’m so grateful for it, because what I’ve found from talking to my young readers is that they absolutely love how much Max is action driven. Not letting Max speak to humans has forced me to find inventive ways for him to find clues and to unmask the villains.
But it also, in the first drafts, made him a little lonely, and meant that a lot of his puzzling out the crime was internal. That wasn’t as much fun, and everyone who read the first book in early drafts said the same thing. They read the chapter where he meets an alley cat called Oscar who introduces him to his new home in the Theatre Royal and then slinks off into the night, and they asked for more Oscar. Oscar is the Watson to Max’s Holmes, the Hastings to his Poirot (and he ‘is’ rather like Poirot, with his fussiness and his obsession with grooming). Giving Oscar a bigger role, as Max’s sounding board, confidante and friend, gave Max more of a voice. Finally he had someone to talk to, someone to joke with and bounce ideas off. It became less of an issue that Max couldn’t talk to the humans, because he had Oscar to talk to.
So writing a detective who can’t communicate verbally with humans to get the dastardly villains arrested at the end of the story, has thrown up many challenges, but Max helps me meet them with a lot of action, and a little help from his best friend.
Read more about Sarah Todd Taylor on her website.