The Cat, the Professor, and the Poison by Leann Sweeney starts with Jillian’s helping out the local animal rescue group with a mother cat unable to care for her premature newborns when she gets invited to a farmhouse that has been finding strange cats suddenly arriving unbidden. Going to visit that house, Jillian feeds and examines the cats and then follows a calico mother cat who leads her for 20 minutes to her litter, behavior unusual for a nursing mother. But when Jillian finally finds the litter, she looks up and sees a horror in front of her. Over 50 cats fill the yard behind a farmhouse, with troughs dug in the yard to serve as litter boxes. Then, a man known to her as “the professor” from when he tried to steal a neighbor’s cow for milk to feed his cats comes out and dumps some food and then some strange red liquid goopy concoction for the cats to eat. It is the worst thing Jillian has ever seen. Of course she immediately calls her close friend Candace, a police officer in love with forensics, and the pair go out to the farm to investigate. Soon after Candace enters the house, she runs out and gets on the ground, retching. The professor is now dead from what they soon identify as strychnine poisoning, and most of the cats have been taken.
As a 40-some widow of over a year now, with a late husband 14 years older than herself, Jillian never had children but has a 29-year-old step-daughter, Kara, who has never exhibited any interest in her father’s wife. But one day Kara knocks on Jillian’s door after having lost her job as a journalist in Houston. The pair face some genuine exercises in building a new relationship.
Soon after this upsetting incident, Jillian comes home to find a man dressed all in black, complete with black ski mask and only light blue, cruel eyes showing. The man grabs her roughly and threatens Jillian’s cats, the worst kind of warning he could have given this cat- fanatical woman. Letting her go, he tells her once again to stay out of his business and leaves. Half an hour later, when Kara comes home, she finds her step-mother on her floor with her arms and legs still trussed in zip ties, prompting a call to Candace and orders by the chief of police for Candace not to leave Jillian’s side until the case gets solved.
The pair gets involved for the second time in a murder case, this time with Kara’s help, sometimes welcomed and sometimes begrudged by Candace. They follow various trails, often following the trail led by some of the cats in the books. Getting to know the professor’s family, they suspect the ex-wife and two sons of hiding the truth from the authorities.
I enjoyed the previous book in this series, The Cat, the Quilt, and the Corpse, but this book is even stronger. I liked the way that Jillian came across as a very real person, showing genuine fear of the intruder and not acting completely intrepid, as so many main characters in cozy mysteries do. They often show no fear and show the idiot cops how detection is really done. But in this book, Jillian shows real intelligence about anything related to her area of expertise, cats, but it’s not ashamed to admit that she knows nothing about law enforcement, guns, or social media apps like Twitter, which plays a minor role in the case. And when her friend (and maybe a little bit more than a friend?) Tom, a former policeman and now security specialist, hands her a gun, she shrinks from it, afraid even to touch it, a response I could totally identify with. And speaking of guns, I appreciated an assessment made by Candace about Kara, to whom she has lent her weapon, that it may even be more dangerous for a civilian to be armed in certain situations because just going to the gun range periodically will not make them experts against truly proficient criminals with guns. Too often mystery books seem to put guns in the hands of amateurs, who use the guns to take out all the bad guys in one clip.
I also really enjoyed the way Sweeney used the cats to move the plot and involve Jillian. She takes part in this police case not because she is nosy, the usual means of incorporating civilians in cozy mysteries, but because her concern for the cats drags her kicking and screaming into the situation. Otherwise, she would like nothing better than to stay out of police work.
Vanessa Johansson does a terrific job of narrating this book. She makes all the characters come alive, but especially that of Jillian, who narrates the book. She made me really believe that this character might get out of her car during a hostage situation in order to help out a cat, which was probably the weakest plot point but which Johansson forced me to accept as just part of Jillian’s nature. Johansson has a nice, soothing Southern accent befitting the Southern setting of the book. I thought the producers made an excellent selection in choosing her to narrate this book.
The Cat, the Professor, and the Poison really fascinated me and kept me drawn to listening to the book. Being a dog person, I admit that I approached this series with a little skepticism, but the first book was on sale on Audible, so why not give it a try? I’m glad I did because I was treated to a great new series, one which I am now investing in completing! I give this book 5 stars!
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