Noted mystery author Braun of Tryon dies

Published 1:37 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lilian Jackson Braun Bettinger, a prolific best-selling author of “The Cat Who” mystery series for more than 40 years, died of natural causes at Hospice House of the Carolina Foothills in Landrum on Saturday, June 4. She was 97 and had lived in Tryon for the past 23 years.

Lilian Jackson Braun with some of the 29 books in her “The Cat Who” mystery series. Braun died Saturday, June 4. (photo submitted)

Her death was announced by her husband, Earl Bettinger, always referred to in her book dedications as “The Husband Who.”
Braun wrote 31 books (two collections of short stories and 29 “The Cat Who” books).
Dutton published her first book, “The Cat Who Could Read Backwards,” in 1966. The New York Times labeled her “the new detective of the year.” Two more followed with critical acclaim (“The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern” and “The Cat Who Turned On and Off”). There was an 18-year hiatus between the third and fourth books.
“By the time I had written the fourth one, tastes in mysteries had changed. They wanted sex and violence, not kitty-cat stories.  Gore was not my style, so I just forgot about ‘The Cat Who.’ I had a full-time job on a newspaper and it was exciting and I had a wonderful social life, so who needed it?”
She resumed the series, with the encouragement of her husband, Earl Bettinger, after her retirement from the Detroit Free Press.
Berkley Publishing Group reintroduced Braun to the public with the publication of the fourth in the series, “The Cat Who Saw Red” in 1986. Within two years, Berkeley released four new novels and reprinted the three mysteries from the 1960s. G.P. Putnam’s Sons has since published 21 “The Cat Who” novels, one each year through 2007.
“The Cat Who” novels, considered light, humorous mysteries, have been translated into 16 languages, distributed worldwide and sold in the millions. Her books were standards on the New York Times bestseller list.  Beginning in 1990, her books reached the prestigious list for 20 consecutive years.
Through 29 books, avid readers followed the lives of Jim Qwilleran and his mystery-solving Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum, and the quirky characters of Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.
“Booklist” commented on “The Cat Who” series, “With its familiar characters, cozy plots and happy endings, this series remains as comforting as a warm cat in your lap on a rainy day.”
Braun often said her characters and settings were composites of people and places she knew. She made her protagonist a male with a moustache so that people would not think her fiction was autobiographical.
Often asked where the fictional Moose County really was, Braun would say, “In my head. It can be anywhere you want it to be.“
Of her mystery-solving Siamese cat, Koko, she said, “When your detective is a cat you are somewhat limited. He doesn’t speak English, doesn’t leap tall buildings like Supercat, he just does what a normal cat would do. But there are things he does that draw attention to clues that solve the mystery. So you have to begin with something a cat will do that will reveal a clue, and develop it from there. Of course, when you are writing about a cat solving mysteries you can’t be entirely serious.”
She wrote all of her books in longhand and then typed them herself. They were published with limited editing.
“I don’t pay any attention to the publishing business,” Braun said. “I just write my kitty-cat stories.”
Braun (who once wrote “A dog has his day, but cats have 365”) retired from writing in 2007 after the publication of “The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers.”
Lilian Jackson Braun Bettinger was born on June 20, 1913 in Willimansette, Chicopee Falls, Mass. Her father, Charles Jackson, was an inventor and industrial manufacturing troubleshooter. Her mother, Clara Ward Jackson, was a homemaker. Her father’s work took them to Rhode Island, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Detroit, Mich. Braun lived in Michigan until retiring to North Carolina.
Braun inherited her mother’s storytelling talent.
“My mother could describe a trip to the grocery story and make it sound hilarious,” she said.
Writing was a lifelong passion. “I always wrote, first for fun, then for an advertising job, then for a newspaper and then for ‘The Cat Who’ readers,” she said.
After a short stint as a waitress (lasting less than a week), Braun went to work for Detroit department stores, beginning as a copywriter and ending as the director of public relations.
She took time off to write her first three books and then accepted a position as the “The Good Living” editor for the Detroit Free Press. She wrote feature articles on interior design, art and architecture, as well as reviews of kitchen gadgets and other household products. She remained with The Detroit Free Press for almost 30 years, retiring in 1978.
While working in advertising, Braun designed a house for her parents. She secured the loan, provided the architects with the design and had the house custom built in Dearborn, Mich. It was the first time her parents lived in their own home. They resided there until their deaths.
In 2005, the Polk County Public Library in Columbus held a tribute to Braun for her lifetime achievement and community involvement. It was an evening of song, limericks, readings and tributes. Braun served as the honorary writer in residence for the library as well as honorary chairperson of the 2005 library card sign-up campaign, for which she created the tag line, “A library card is the beginning of a lifelong adventure.”
Braun was preceded in death by her husband, Louis Paul Braun, sister, Florence Jackson, and brother, Lloyd Jackson. She is survived by her husband of 32 years, Earl Bettinger.
According to her obituary (see page 11), no memorial services will be held. Donations may be made to Hospice House of the Carolina Foothills in Landrum.

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