With the opening night of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest fast approaching—along with the dedication of the new bookstore in town—good times are ahead for the citizens of Pickax. But the merry atmosphere is dampened by the suspicious death of an out-of-town actor and the theft of a rare book. Qwill finds himself distracted from the recent events by his finicky pal Koko, who’s been acting more fishy than feline. Has Koko gone bananas, or is he trying to let the cat out of the bag to help Qwill solve the dual mysteries?
About the Author
Date of Birth:1916
Date of Death:June 4, 2011
Place of Birth:Massachusetts
Place of Death:South Carolina
Education:Graduated from high school at age 16
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THE CAT WHO WENT BANANAS
By LILIAN JACKSON BRAUN
G.P. PUTNAM'S SONSCopyright © 2004 Lilian Jackson Braun
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJim Qwilleran was primarily a columnist for the Moose County Something, but he was more. Previously a crime reporter for major dailies across the continent, he had relocated in the north country when he inherited the vast Klingenschoen fortune. This he immediately turned over to a philanthropic foundation, claiming that he felt uncomfortable with too much money. The K Fund, as it was called, improved schools, medical facilities, and the general quality of life in Moose County, leaving Qwilleran free to mix with the people, listen to their stories, write his column, and manage the care and feeding of two Siamese cats.
The three of them lived in a converted apple barn on the edge of Pickax City. It was there that Qwilleran was preparing their breakfast one day in September, arranging red salmon attractively on two plates with a garnish of crumbled Roquefort. (They were somewhat spoiled.) They sat on top of the bar in two identical bundles of fur, supervising the flood preparation.
They were Koko and Yum Yum, well known to readers of the "Qwill Pen" column. The male was lithe, muscular, and cocky; the female smaller and softer and modest, although she could be demanding.
Both had the fawn fur, precise brown points, and blue eyes of the breed ... aswell as the Siamese tendency to voice an opinion on everything; Koko with a vehement "Yow!" and Yum Yum with a soprano "Now-ow!"
Just as Qwilleran was placing the two plates on the floor under the kitchen table, Koko's attention jerked away to a spot on the wall. A moment later the wall phone rang.
Before it could ring twice, Qwilleran said pleasantly into the mouthpiece, "Good morning."
"You're quick on the trigger, Qwill!" said the well-modulated voice of a woman he knew, Carol Lanspeak.
He explained, "I have an electronic sensor here. He tells me when the phone is going to ring and even screens incoming calls as acceptable or otherwise. What's on your mind, Carol?"
"Just wanted to ask if you're going to write the program notes for the new production."
"Actually, I have another idea I'd like to discuss with you. Will you be in the store this morning?"
"All day! How about coffee and doughnuts at ten o'clock?"
"Not today," he said regretfully. "I've just had my annual physical, and Dr. Diane lectured me on my diet."
The Lanspeaks were a fourth-generation family in Moose County, dating back to pioneer days. Larry's grandmother ran a general store, selling kerosene, calico, and penny candy. Larry's father started the department store on Main Street. Larry himself, having acting talent, went to New York and had a little success, but then he married an actress and they came back to Pickax to manage the family business and launch a theatre club. Larry's daughter was the medical doctor who advised Qwilleran to consume more broccoli, less coffee-and one banana a day.
After taking leave of the cats, Qwilleran walked downtown to Lanspeak's Department Store. From the barnyard an unpaved road led through a dense patch of woods to the Park Circle, where Main Street divided around a small park. On its rim were two churches, the courthouse, the public library, and a huge block of fieldstone that had once been the Klingenschcoen mansion.
Now it was a theatre for stage productions, and the headquarters of the Pickax theatre club. Northward, Main Street was a stretch of stone buildings more than a century old-now housing stores, offices, and the newly refurbished Mackintosh Inn.
The Lanspeaks' department store, which had started a century before, advertised "new-fashioned ideas with old-fashioned service."
Arriving there, Qwilleran walked between glass cases of jewelry, scarves, handbags, cosmetics, and blouses-to the offices in the rear, bowing to the clerks who hailed him: "Hi, Mr. Q. How's Koko, Mr. Q?"
He was known not only for his lively newspaper column and his philanthropy and his Siamese cats, but also for his magnificent pepper-and-salt moustache! It had not been equaled since Mark Twain visited Pickax in 1895. Qwilleran was a well-built six-feet-two, in his fifties, with a pleasing manner and a mellifluous voice. But it was his impressive moustache and brooding gaze that attracted attention. His photo appeared at the top of each "Qwill Pen" column.
Both Lanspeaks were working in the office.
Apart from their voice quality, there was nothing about the couple to mark them as actors. There was nothing striking about them, but onstage they could assume different personalities with professional skill. At the moment they were small-town storekeepers.
"Sit down, Qwill. I suppose you're well acquainted with our play," Larry said.
"We read it in college and went around talking like Lady Bracknell for the rest of the semester. Also, I've seen it performed a couple of times. It's a very stylish comedy. I'm curious to know why you scheduled it for this area-the boondocks, if you'll pardon the expression."
"Good question!" Larry replied. "Ask her! Wives sometimes rush in where husbands fear to tread."
Throwing a humorous smirk in his direction, Carol explained, "The club presents one classic play every year, and Larry and I happen to agree that Oscar Wilde is one of the wittiest playwrights who ever lived. The Lockmaster group did this play at the Academy of Arts two years ago. Superb! And Alden Wade, who played Jack Worthing, has just relocated in Pickax and joined the theatre club. He's terrifically talented and good-looking!"
"What brought him to Moose County?" Qwilleran asked.
"The tragic loss of his wife," Carol said. "He needed a drastic change of scene. It's definitely our gain. And since he has sold his property-a horse farm, I believe-it looks as if he intends to stay."
"That guy," Larry interrupted, "does the stylized upper-crust Jack Worthing so well that the rest of the cast is finding it contagious!"
"We had trouble casting the role of Algernon," Carol went on, "so Alden suggested Ronnie Dickson, who played the role in Lockmaster and was willing to help out, even though it's a sixty-mile round-trip drive for every rehearsal-and he hasn't missed a single one."
"Which is more than I can say for our own people," Larry added. "Now all we need to worry about is the audience. They'll be hearing perfectly straight-faced actors speaking outrageous lines. How will they react? I know a few who'll call it silly-and walk out."
Carol said, "Most people in Moose County like a laugh, but will they get the point? I'm wondering, Qwill, if you could write the program notes with that in mind."
"Precisely why I am here! I've noticed that our audiences never read the program notes before the show; they're too busy chatting with people they know in the surrounding seats. What they should know-in order to enjoy the play to the fullest-is not read until they get home. So here's my idea: Tuesday, to be exact, I'll devote the Qwill column to an explanation of the Oscar Wilde style."
"I like the idea!" Carol cried. "Everyone reads the 'Qwill Pen,' and you have a way of educating people without their knowledge."
"True!" Larry said. "The locals have a sense of humor; it's simply a matter of getting them tuned in. Give him a script of the play, Carol."
With the conference ended, Carol walked with Qwilleran to the front door, and Larry plunged into a stack of paperwork.
She asked, "Is Polly Duncan excited about changing jobs?"
"She's saddened to be leaving the library after twenty-odd years as director, but challenged by the prospect of managing a bookstore. Do you have anything to suggest as a graduation present? She has enough jewelry."
"We're expecting a shipment of lovely cashmere robes, including a heavenly shade of blue that Polly would love."
Qwilleran's footsteps never led him directly home. There was always a need to buy toothpaste at the drugstore or look at neckties in the men's shop. Today his curiosity led him to Walnut Street to view the new bookstore being bankrolled by the Klingenschoen Fund.
Across the street, a vacant lot that had long been the eyesore of Pickax City had been purchased by the K Fund. Its tall weeds and slum of abandoned buildings had been replaced by a park, and beyond that, a complex of studio apartments at rents affordable to young singles employed in stores and offices downtown. It was called Winston Park. With the coming of the bookstore, the entire commercial neighborhood was getting a face-lift.
Qwilleran wrote his Tuesday column in the style his readers liked.
Expect the unexpected, friends, when you go to see the new play. The Importance of Being Earnest is said to be the masterpiece of the nineteenth-century playwright and wit Oscar Wilde.
It's a comedy of manners-a spoof on the snobbish upper-crust society in London. According to director Carol Lanspeak, it calls for stylized acting, not realism. Their self-important posturing goes with their lofty opinions. Example:
"To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness."
The plot is wacky, if not totally insane. One young bachelor has invented a wicked brother named Ernest, another has invented an invalid relative named Bunbury. Why? You'll have to see the play.
Figuring prominently in the plot is a handbag-not a woman's purse, but a small piece of luggage, just large enough to carry.... You'll have to wait and see!
Then there's the matter of cucumber sandwiches! A young gentleman sends out invitations to an afternoon tea and orders cucumber sandwiches as refreshments. They are so good that he eats the whole plateful before the guests arrive.
I asked food writer Mildred Riker what is so special about cucumber sandwiches. She said, "To make the classic sandwich, cut a round of bread, spread it with softened butter, layer it with crisp cucumbers sliced paper-thin, and top it with another round of buttered bread. They're delicious! You can't stop eating them!"
Some of the playwright's witticisms are still being used today:
"Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London is full of women of the highest society who have remained thirty-five for years."
Every evening at eleven o'clock, Qwilleran put a cap on the day by phoning Polly Duncan, the chief woman in his life. On this night she sounded weary.
"You've been working long hours again!" he chided her.
"There's so much to do!" she cried. "I spend mornings at the library and then seven or eight hours at the bookstore."
"You must shake loose and come to the opening night of the new play. I know you like Wilde."
"Oh dear! That's the night of the library board's farewell banquet for me!"
"Well, that's important. We'll catch it later. They're doing the play for three weekends. But I'll miss you on opening night. Everyone will ask about you."
There followed scraps of the unimportant news exchanged by persons who have known each other for a long time.
"You should drink a cup of cocoa and go to bed," he finally advised. "Is there anything I can do for you tomorrow?"
"Yes," she said promptly. "You could pick up Dundee!"
Excerpted from THE CAT WHO WENT BANANAS by LILIAN JACKSON BRAUN Copyright © 2004 by Lilian Jackson Braun. Excerpted by permission.
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