By Chantal Groot
Read it! It’s got a rave review quote from the King, apps [Name Withheld], who has known me since the late 1990s, those dying halcyon days of the EXTREME youth generation, when we devoured anything and everything dark and violent because Fuck Society™. Stephen King was/is the King of Horror, Master of Psychological Thriller, inspirer of decent-to-great film adaptations and mediocre-to-godawful miniseries. [Name Withheld] mistakes my lack of instantaneous response for apathy (unaware that I am illegally texting while cycling) and goes for broke: It’s a murder mystery narrated by a cat.
Well now … Sold. Bought. Being the well-integrated heathen I am, I keep on pedalling with sub-stellar situational awareness as I add Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street to my (404 Not Found) shopping basket. The cat bathing in the streetlight on the hardcover—very Grizabella-esque—tempts me. The €26,99 price tag is repulsive, like a peanut butter pickle. At €15,89-plus-shipping, the cat-less paperback is more palatable, like strawberry sandwiches.
A talking cat! I had missed the unapologetic supernatural mystery novels of my childhood. From R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps to King’s own extensive universes (MCU who?), I like a dash of the uncanny in everything I read. Finally, an excuse to throw a good old crime airport novel into the institutional literary works! These past 15 years of on-again/off-again/no-on-again/now-am-broke-back-to-work-again English literary studies have gotten me down, and abandoned me on, the canonized path of Literature™. Apart from one hearty course on detective fiction in my second year at university that was right up the nostalgia alley—Thank you, Professor Pascoe!—my academic blinkers, and limited free time, refused to let me veer away from the titles approved by the syllabi. Essays must be weighty in their writing. Wordcount, marginally met. To the student essayist, literary works are more easily dissected, intersected, and vivisected—Pynchon, stop avoiding me, I said I was sorry—when they have enough meat on them to feed (into) the cause célèbre du jour, because contemporary social relevancy is a guaranteed grade booster. You can make a meal out of anything, granted, but certain literary genres are considered lesser cuts of leaner meats that, traditionally, shouldn’t dress a respectable academic’s table set.
As previously established, I’m not respectable. And this is not an academic paper per se. There isn’t even a minimum wordcount. Just a 2K maximum. Just a quote-creative-critical essay-unquote, which I have decided to interpret as an experimental personal essay to best explain why, while I initially appreciated Ward’s novel, I was ultimately let down by it. This won’t be an eloquent piece of scholarship. It may just end up on the back pages of some student magazine, tailing its betters like a sickly new-born wildebeest trying not to be abandoned by the intellectual herd. This is not a let-me-titillate-your-interest review. This is a chugging train of thought, creatively featured (and vice versa), and although it takes a while to get to the point, there are no intermediate stops between here and my biggest issue with The Last House on Needless Street.
It’s not just about the cat.
It’s about what that cat could have been.
It’s about potential.
It’s about the town loner, Ted, and his pet cat, Olivia, and their strange coexistence alongside Ted’s daughter, Lauren, in the last and creepiest house on Needless Street. A little girl was kidnapped, presumed murdered, in the area years ago. Ted was suspected, never arrested. The little girl’s big sister, Dee, moves into the second-to-last house on Needless Street to spy on Ted, convinced of his guilt. Ted says he’s innocent, but what’s he doing in the forest where gods dwell? Why does he keep finding a child’s white flipflop about his house? There’s also the Chihuahua Lady down the road who goes missing; a tired detective on the case since forever; Ted’s bug-eyed therapist; and the spectre of Ted’s mother everywhere. There’s something going on in the attic and/or basement, and a strange voice on the tape recorder. Speaking of voices, Olivia the cat narrates every so many chapters and occasionally consults the Bible. Well, she’s not really a cat. Or, rather, not a real cat, depending on who is talking. Nor does she talk. Actually, she does, but not … Why does the rug keep changing colour? What’s going on in this
book house book?!
The genres of mystery, horror, thriller and crime are so entwined it is impossible to pry them apart without leaving tell-tale signs of the others’ influences. Horror is to mystery as fear is to the unknown. Crime fiction engages mystery to thrill. In the down-to-earth stories, the mystery of the crime has a worldly resolution. No one ever questioned why Scooby-Doo was the only talking dog in the show’s universe, yet it was apparently too out-there for the monster of the week to be anything more than a hoax in (wo)man form. The whodidit in a whodunit is an unknown but ultimately, assuredly, a naturally occurring species. Typically, human. Occasionally a Parisian “Ourang-Outan” or a phosphorous hound. The mystery, the supernatural, is played up, but the payoff is satisfying in its commonsensical conclusion. Of course, it wasn’t an ancient family curse, my dear Watson: it was [SPOILER]! But wasn’t it gripping to follow along as the exact details of how, when and why were revealed? And satisfying to see the pieces fall into their logical place, the delight of reconsidering the relevance of throwaway objects and observations that came and went unnoticed your first time round? Readers want the author to be clever, to fool them up until the big reveal. Some are truly intelligent enough to predict the outcome. For the rest of us, we eagerly anticipate how all these seemingly loose threads will be neatly tied and delivered in a climactic bow of well-crafted intent and execution. That is what mystery novels are all about!
At the other end of the topical trope spectrum, however, we have …
It wAs All jUsT a dReAm~~~☻
The betrayal. The literary copout. The clashing colours. You hate to see it.
I will not insult Ward’s name and character by teasing whether Last House turns out to be nothing more than a dream sequence. It doesn’t. Technically. There are real world consequences. There is a murder. Several, in fact. There are bodies and dead loved ones uncovered. There is a killer, maybe two. Shoot, why not, who knows, maybe none … ?
In Ward and [Name Withheld]’s defences, I was the one who assumed that a narrating cat was, unquestionably, a talking cat. In my defence, about two-thirds of a way through the story, Olivia does begin talking with Lauren. Both cases collapse in the end, however, when it is revealed that Olivia isn’t talking to a person in Lauren. Nor is she a cat, physically. There is a strong argument to be made that she’s real enough to Ted and, more importantly, to the reader. She remains my favourite character. Her narration is a steady stream of inconsistent red herrings that keep the plot intriguing, even as that little pit of wary suspicion begins to ferment in your guts. You see where this is going but hold out hope that a clever twist is coming soon, because, surely, it’s not one of those again … ?
“Haven’t ready anything this exciting since Gone Girl!” says Stephen King, says the cover.
As an old school King fan, I should have clocked from the beginning why the acclaimed Master of Psychological Thriller praised it. King used this trope (cliché?) in Secret Window, Secret Garden back in 1990. He wasn’t the first, nor the last. Bloch did it in print in Psycho (1959); Hitchcock on film (1960). Ellis did it in American Psycho (1991, filmed 2000). Palahniuk in Fight Club (1996, filmed 1999). Harris in Red Dragon (1981, filmed 1986 and 2002). Lehane, Shutter Island (2003, filmed 2010). Hell, Shyamalan went all-out in his 2016 cinematic comeback Split. Even Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde combined 19th century medicine and mystery to explain the character dissonance still commonly call multiple personalities disorder (MPD) though the correct medical term is dissociative identity disorder (DID).
Y’all, I’m tired.
Also, [SPOILER]. Again.
No, it wasn’t all just a dream. It’s just in Ted’s head. Twist!(?)
Ted has DID. Olivia the cat is one of his alters. Lauren the daughter is another alt. Olivia can talk to Lauren because Lauren lives inside her (or vice versa). Same being, just on different levels, bound to Ted’s tortured psyche fuelled by repressed childhood traumas.
The dead little girl is real, at least. That’s her flipflop under the fridge. Whodunit?
This is not a rant about the vilification of mental health—unintentional or not—in pop culture and fiction. This isn’t even an essay about it. Just a paragraph, and a mediated one at that. I will point out that the afterword on page 325 of my cat-less paperback edition details Ward’s extensive research on DID during her writing process, consulting with professionals and patients alike. There is even a bibliography for those who wish to educate themselves further on the subject. The novel does not demonize Ted for his condition. Instead, it offers a fictionalized experience of how one might develop DID and draws attention to how societal prejudices unfairly malign sufferers. A murder mystery with a (non)talking (not)cat does not presume its place alongside the ICD-10s and DSM-5s of psychiatric taxonomy. To the stay-in-your-lane’ers—I see you lurking—I readily acknowledge that, not having DID, I cannot give account for Last House’s accuracy in its depiction. As someone with Asperger’s, though, I know how polarizing a response any work of fiction which delves into mental health can evoke. More importantly, I know that, among the Twitterverse outrage that insist the non-Aspie’s get nothing right about us, there are always meeker voices that go, “But … this does reflect my personal experience with AS.” They shouldn’t be made to feel invalidated if they recognize themselves, for once, in media.
But all that is an ethical impasse for someone else’s 2K word essay.
My biggest issue with Ward deploying the old psychological unreliability trick is that, despite King’s claim of the novel “[keeping] its mind-blowing secrets to the very end”, you can see at least one coming way too early. There are too many observational discrepancies between narrators sharing the same spaces. Too many lapses in consciousness brought mimetically to the reader’s attention, but not to that of the characters. The problem with the popularity of psychological thrillers is that we as readers know all the signs, regardless of whether they’re medically accurate. As much as I wanted Olivia (and her loquaciousness) to be real, the writing was on the wall within the first few chapters. For a mystery setup, it can only lead to an anti-climax.
… Still, I liked it. Not loved it, but liked it. Even loaned my cheap copy to mum. This article’s title is misleading in its backhandedness. Last House’s saving grace is that Ward appreciates and respects the devil she’s put in the details. If it’s not Ted, then who did it? Why did Olivia and Lauren assume these specific forms? What’s on those old tapes, other than Ted’s pickle and strawberry recipes? I won’t spoil the book’s other revelations, but one in particular did draw a tickled “Oh shit!” out of me. I had been too preoccupied anticipating the non-surprising reveal of Ted’s mental health to notice the less glaring gaps; the ones Ward had minded. Having spent 1932 of my 2K max wordcount ho-humming the obvious—which, coming to think of it, may have been deliberate on Ward’s part from the beginning—I can only end this with a begrudging “Touché, Cat!”
… But, seriously though, if you’re interested in murder mysteries with feline protagonists, I cannot recommend the Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown series enough!
Chantal Groot has a background in English literature (BA, and currently MA) and creative writing. She believes that regardless of form, writing is itself an art and is best expressed as imaginatively as possible. As such, she does not subscribe to any reviewing formalism and prefer instead to combine the criticality of literary evaluation with the creativity of an aspiring writer, with an added touch of personal anecdotes for good measure.
- Ward, Catriona. The Last House on Needless Street. London, Viper, 2021.