If reading bedtime stories to the grandkids is a cherished family tradition, Eddie Muller has an unusual tale to share this holiday season: a gritty feline sleuth searches for a stolen artifact while encountering a host of seedy underground characters prowling through a shadowy urban setting.
If that sounds like the plot from 1940s film noir cinema, you’re no dope. In his first published children’s book, “Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey,” the Turner Classic Movies host has channeled his film noir expertise onto the pages of a new book for kids aged 4 and up.
Toning down the traditionally dark stylized themes from early crime fiction thrillers was a no-brainer for Muller (Eddiemuller.com) and Running Press Kids publishers. The result is a cute mystery tale with animal characters that cleverly reference popular classic noir films, including one of the best from 1941.
“‘The Maltese Falcon’ seemed a perfect template,” said Muller from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Film noir themes revolve around the most diabolical and dastardly motivations that are not suitable for a children’s book. But many are detective stories, so the idea of a simple quest, like a treasure hunt, seemed adaptable for kids.”
Just like private detective Sam Spade’s search for the precious ‘Falcon’ statuette, Kitty Feral pursues a stolen artifact (a Marshmallow Monkey) and along the way, interacts with some interesting characters, driving the plot. (Kitty is also on a mission to locate kidnapped crime-fighting partner Mitch the Mutt).
When originally approached by (co-author) Jessica Schmidt with the idea, Muller says he jumped at the opportunity provided the artwork would emulate the style of classic noir film. Drawn by Forrest Burdett in glorious noir-ish black-and-white and distinctively skewed viewer angles, the Oregon-based artist added a splash of vivid blue highlights to Kitty who roams the dark alleys, deserted city rooftops, and eerie waterfront in search of a missing Marshmallow Monkey – a stolen sweet treat.
While obviously aimed at children, adults familiar with classic movies will enjoy the subtle references to noir films. For instance, Kitty begins the search at the Acme Book Shop – similar (but naturally less risqué) to a Humphrey Bogart scene right out of 1946’s “The Big Sleep.”
A dockside warehouse image captures a scene from “99 River Street,” a theater marquee acknowledges producer Val Lewton’s “Leopard Man,” and there are plenty of obvious references to “On the Waterfront,” “Casablanca,” “Shakedown,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
As for the book’s cast of supporting characters, rotund owl boss Casper Nighthawk and sleazy Wilmer the Weasel represent villainous Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) from “The Maltese Falcon.” Sinister leather-clad Johnny Gila is distinctly reptilian, a nod to William Talman’s title role in 1953’s “The Hitch-hiker.” “People have said he looked like a Gila monster,” notes Muller. And speaking of “Perry Mason” actors, there’s even a character representing Raymond Burr’s villainous roles (but we’ll leave that one for readers to uncover!).
As for Kitty, the character is modeled after actress Ella Raines, especially her sultry role in 1944’s “The Phantom Lady,” even though Muller doesn’t formally acknowledge Kitty’s gender in the pages.
“Kitty was clearly inspired by Raines – a smart, independent woman intent on solving a crime herself in the film, not the typical femme fatale character,” explained Muller. As a bonus, if reading the story to kids, grandparents can test the youngsters’ powers of observation by asking if they can spot something intentionally omitted from the artist’s images of Kitty!
Of course, most of the book’s film references will be beyond young readers, but Muller thinks adults reading the story to their little ones will enjoy opening up a monochromatic world not usually seen on cellphones, laptops, or while gaming. And, perhaps, some may even come to appreciate the screen imagery in classic films enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.
“Since the book came out, I’ve attended film festivals that lasted several days and people told me they were buying the book for their grandkids,” recalls Muller. “They’ve returned a second day, reporting they read it to them and that the kids loved it. So that’s really gratifying.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. See GetNickT.org.