Catt Out of the Bag, Clifford Witting, 1939

catt-out-of-the-bag-coverThe title of Catt Out of the Bag doesn’t start to make sense until the last, I think, twenty pages, and even then it comes as a drop in a torrent of revelations that might have been more intriguingly distributed throughout the book. I enjoyed Catt Out of the Bag for a lot of reasons unrelated to this pacing issue, thankfully, but it utterly defines the story.

John Rutherford is drafted into a regimented evening of Christmas caroling from which a mysterious member goes missing leading, initially, to an amateur investigation in partnership with the eccentric Raymond Cloud-Gledhill, and then a more official road-trip inquiry with Rutherford’s police-inspector uncle, uncovering all manner of skulduggery and, eventually, a satisfying and twisty conclusion. 

Clifford Witting is witty and bold and the effect is usually tremendously charming. The dialogue, in particular, is warm and accessible and natural and it bubbles along on top of the tale in a manner that makes it all sound over-heard at a boisterous gathering of good friends.

The story covers a great deal of ground, literally and figuratively, and introduces a delightful gallery of supporting characters that Witting draws with affectionate and absorbing detail.

However it’s made quite clear early on that Witting regretted starting out in the first person. Doubtless he’d have gone back and started over, but he’d already worked up so many clever fixes to the problem of a tale that occurs largely outside of the direct experience of the narrator that he just assumed that they’d keep on coming. It’s about the halfway point, I think, when he gives up entirely and just flat out relates a scene without bothering to pretend that it was told to him sometime later or off-stage or that this is, roughly, how he imagines it went.

That’s not the only trace of improvisational plotting (although it’s certainly the most glaring). The introduction, eccentricities, and initial contribution of Cloud-Gledhill suggest that he was meant to be the actual sleuth but then, at some point and without clear justification, he’s swapped out for Uncle Charlton of the Yard. Later, he’s brought back to deliver an important clue, but that mainly serves to remind the reader that he used to figure quite prominently back in the happy-go-lucky days of chapters two through five.

This is where I tie my review to what I’m currently working on — I made a very deliberate decision that Anty Boisjoly would always speak in the first person because his personality drives the narrative, but it doesn’t drive the plot. I have a lot of sympathy for Witting’s discovery that it just wasn’t working for him, and that’s why I write point by point outlines and still regularly manage to paint myself into a corner.

The Tale of the Tenpenny Tontine is the most complex Anty Boisjoly story to date and the most meticulously planned — I wrote two separate, stand-alone stories that only I will ever see just for the subtexts of two of the characters — and, while I can’t know for sure, I think that gave me a particular appreciation for the hidden foundations of Catt Out of the Bag.

Having made all those presumptions, I have great respect for the patience with which Witting reveals a maelstrom of a subtext which simmers just beneath the surface of the story — it’s a bit of a journey but the payoff is immensely satisfying.

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