Written by Phyllis A. Whitney
Illustrated by Leslie Goldstein
This edition: 3rd Printing (1962)
Without leaving his place by the wide living room window, Andy could hear angry sounds coming from across the hall. A slamming of drawers and a general banging was going on in the bedroom Andy shared with his twin brother, Adrian.
Welcome to #MysteryMay! The danger of revisiting books you read a long time ago, especially if they are mysteries, is that they may not be as good as you remember. The story might be dull, the characters stiff, the suspense and the mystery too obvious or unbelievable. Fortunately, none of this was the case with Mystery of the Green Cat.
Two families are coming together in San Francisco. Andy and Adrian lost their mother two years before but their father has remarried and has brought his new wife and her two daughters, little Carol and older, more serious Jill to live with them. Andy and Jill are a little awkward and wary about this new arrangement while Adrian is outright hostile. But amid the family drama, a mystery has arisen. Who are the reclusive old ladies living in the Victorian house above them on the hill? What secret is the Japanese girl Hana trying to protect? And what, exactly is the “little green cat” Lady Lydia keeps asking for? It’s a great mystery, dropping hints about the green cat without explaining and intriguing both Jill (the main view point character) and the reader along for the ride as we try to unravel it. And the mystery of the green cat shares its plot-space equitably with the family drama of trying to integrate step-parents and step-siblings together with some semblance of harmony, something that Adrian resists at every turn. Even though it is a mystery, at its heart, the book is about navigating and forging relationships.
Something I’d forgotten was the amount of Japanese culture presented in the story. I’d completely forgotten about it, but I do wonder if it made any kind of impact which helped me understand and enjoy anime and manga when I reached college. So many elements that I take for granted must have been brand new to me when I read Mystery of the Green Cat. And looking back at it with the advantage of greater learning and hindsight, all of the Japanese elements in the story are accurate, which perhaps is not surprising, given that the author spent her formative years in Asia.
When I read this book as a kid, I had no idea how prolific the author Phyllis A. Whitney was, nor how influential and popular she was as an American mystery writer who managed to successfully cross demographics to write for children and adults. And I think that was a strength because I never felt talked down to in the story, and the characters, while acting age-appropriate, are fleshed out and realistic. They are curious and resourceful without being geniuses, and the story is engaging without being sensational. The stakes are relatively low; there isn’t anything earth-shattering about the secret of the cat. But it just might bring some peace of mind to a sweet old lady, and this focus on tiny, personal details which makes Mystery of the Green Cat so alive and enjoyable. It’s a book both middle grade readers and adults can enjoy and appreciate.