It was in a rush of inspiration, in a not normally inspiring setting—a commuter train to London—that Martin Penny began his YA novel, TAILs: The Animal Investigators of London. This is the Oxfam bookshop manager-turned-author’s first novel aimed at a younger audience, and has a Roald Dahl feel, as it uses humour and heroism to tackle complex themes.
The initial idea for TAILs was very loosely based on the “Croydon Cat Killer”, a media-driven cause célèbre and bogeyman of the mid-2010s—though rest assured Martin’s upbeat and fun tale strays far from the source material. It was Penny’s publisher who came up with the initial idea for TAILs and asked Penny to write it. Penny says: “I was hesitant at first, maybe because of the themes. But I was travelling up and down to London at the time, and on one of those trips, I took a notebook and pen with me and it started to come out very quickly.” He hopes this will be the first of a series of books featuring his animal sleuths.
The book centres around Yowl, a fearless and clever young tabby who unites a group of Croydon animals—like Big Red the fox, a squirrel called Secret and Hoot the owl—to try to nab the culprit, despite their differences. Over Zoom from his home in Turkey, Penny says: “Yowl was based on my cat, Piggy, who I had when I moved away from home. I’m not sure she was as brave as Yowl, but the mannerisms were based on her.”
Penny, who ran Oxfam’s flagship London bookshop for 12 years, has been living in Turkey for the past five years, with his wife and two sons, aged 10 and 12. The boys were the book’s first editors: “I ran TAILs past my two children as I was writing it, I got the youngest one to highlight every word he didn’t understand. Based on their feedback, I adjusted it and toned it down and left some of it as it was.”
Penny, an animal lover, insists the book is not graphic or replete with repeatable acts that might keep readers away—in fact, he believes the book reaffirms the incredible value of animal life, and highlights the need to prevent cruelty.
In 2018, The Metropolitan Police concluded that there was no evidence of human involvement in the Croydon Cat Killer case—blaming it primarily on foxes—and ended its investigation. That decision was met with much public anger; certainly Penny has his doubts. “There were a lot of cats discovered that had marks on them that don’t sound like they came from other animals. Maybe we will never know, but I thought it was an interesting idea to try to catch the killer in a book.”
TAILs: The Animal Investigators of London (9781913606398, £14.99) is published by Eyewear Publishing on 29th April.