Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen

Sammy Keyes and PKQMy nieces have really enjoyed the Sammy Keyes mystery series, so they let me borrow one of their books when they came to visit. I read Sammy Keyes And the Psycho Kitty Queen, which I think is the 9th book in the series. Although you certainly don’t need to read the books in order, there are aspects of the larger plot that would have had more impact if I’d read the others first. Enough information was given that I didn’t feel particularly lost or confused, but I didn’t fully understand the implications, either.

Sammy, our thirteen year old heroine and detective, realizes that a lot of cats are going missing and then turning up dead in the garbage. She and her friend Holly set out to solve the crimes, while juggling maternal drama, a crush, a fascination with professional wrestling, and a nemesis.

This was my first introduction to Sammy’s off-kilter world, and overall it was an enjoyable book, although it took me a while to get a sense of the setting. The tenses switch between past and present—possibly an editor’s oversight, possibly on purpose to build the first person tone of a thirteen year old girl. I couldn’t quite tell, but I occasionally found it distracting. It feels like this book is a turning point in the series—several characters change enough that things will never be quite the same.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Gender Stereotypes

Sammy isn’t a girly girl, although she’s not portrayed as a tomboy, either. She’s just a kid who likes to skateboard and who learns enough professional wrestling moves to beat up three girls who attack her. Her friend Holly is repeatedly described as “tough,” and it seems that she’s earned that reputation in other books because she doesn’t do much to overtly earn it in this book. Holly also rides a skateboard–this is the main way Sammy and Holly get around. Neither girl is squeamish, dealing with disgusting dead cats because it needs to be done.

Sammy’s nemesis, Heather, is a fairly classic mean girl. She has two minions who go everywhere with her and follow her commands. She’ll do anything she can to destroy Sammy, even if it means hurting her physically. There’s a restraining order on her while they’re at school!


Heather is pretty awful, physically attacking Sammy on several occasions. Luckily, she’s not particularly good at it. Sammy beats up her and her friends, giving black eyes and possibly breaking fingers. Sammy gets clawed in the neck by one girl but certainly gets the better of the fight.

There are dead cats several times throughout the book, and sometimes it’s a bit graphic—such as a piece of another animal’s ear in the dead cat’s mouth. Someone is definitely killing them, then abandoning the bodies in the trash. There’s a rumor that a restaurant sells cat meat. The bad guys would pretty clearly kill anyone who threatened to expose them.

A note from my nieces: Apparently most of the Sammy Keyes books aren’t quite this dark. My 10 year old niece found this one unusually creepy.


Holly used to be homeless, although she now lives with the two women who run the Pup Parlor—they’re a pretty stable family now. Sammy lives with her grandmother in a senior high rise where kids aren’t allowed—she goes in and out through the fire escape. Her mother is in Hollywood, starring in a soap opera. Sammy feels abandoned by her mother who apparently decided being a parent was holding her back from her true potential. Sammy has no idea who her father is, even though she asks repeatedly for her mom to tell her. Sammy feels her mom can’t do anything except mess up her life.

Heather has a brother, Casey, who is friends with Sammy (potential love interest?) and sides with Sammy over his sister. Their parents are divorced. The father—who Casey lives with—seems nice. The mother—who Heather lives with—seems just as cruel as her daughter.

Older People

Often in books about kids, the old people are annoying or disgusting or played for laughs. Sammy’s grandma is great—she cares about Sammy, but also trusts her instincts. She isn’t annoyingly overprotective or standing in the way of everything Sammy tries to do.

Sammy’s confidant is a 72 year old man, Hudson. She sits on his porch and he gives her cake and tea. He offers great insight into other people and offers Sammy solid advice. There’s a hint that there might be future romance between Hudson and Sammy’s grandma.

Names, Labels, and Mental Health

As the title suggests, there’s a crazy cat lady at the center of the mystery. She’s a former rodeo queen who continues to wear her old tiara, and she lives with tons of cats. I know it’s easy for a teenager to throw the term “psycho” around, but it does seem like Miss Kitty is a bit unbalanced. Eventually Sammy gains a little sympathy for her, but through most of the book there’s a contentious relationship between them—Miss Kitty even turns a hose on Sammy at one point, without much provocation. Some people may be bothered, though, by how lightly and easily “crazy” and “psycho” are thrown around.

The history teacher is called the “Noise Nazi.”


Casey gives Sammy a horseshoe charm that he found, and after that her luck changes dramatically. She remains skeptical because that’s her nature, but things do seem to change for the better.

Sammy doesn’t believe in astrology, but she lets a friend who’s an astrologist make a star chart for her—it seems this holds clues to the connection between Sammy and her nemesis that will probably become clear in later novels in the series.


There are tons of secrets in this book. Some seem inherent to the series, like Sammy’s mom refuses to tell her who her dad is, and her grandmother won’t tell because it’s not her secret to share–this is one that might get old over time. Overall, though, it doesn’t feel like one of those situations where kids have to keep secrets or the plot falls apart.

Early on, Sammy learns that her mother has been keeping another big secret from her—she faked the year on Sammy’s birth certificate so that Sammy could start kindergarten a year early. This backfired, as Sammy had to repeat kindergarten, which is something that has always bothered her. This also means that Sammy has to repeat being 13, which doesn’t make her happy at all. Sammy also sees it as proof of the lengths her mother would go to so she wouldn’t have to take care of Sammy.

Sammy has been trying to keep the secret that she lives illegally in the senior high rise. At the end of the book, she realizes that Officer Borsch—the local cop she’s had a few run-ins with—has actually known about her living situation for a while. He’s not going to tell, so she can stop being quite so stressed about it. He also makes it clear that he trusts her, even if she’s occasionally a pain.

Officer Borsch nearly gets himself killed because he secretly goes undercover, hoping to break open a case on his own. Sammy and Holly have to save him, but they keep that secret, knowing that it would be hard for him to explain why two young girls had to save him.

Holly and Sammy sneak out of Holly’s house in the middle of the night to solve the case and they get in over their heads pretty quickly (although they also save the cop and they do solve the case). They decide that they’re going to keep quiet about this or they’ll never be allowed to have another sleepover. However, at the end of the book, Sammy realizes that she’s going to have to tell her grandma because her grandma is no dummy and will figure out that something was up.


My 14 year old niece is enjoying rereading these books now that her 10 year old sister has discovered them and is devouring them. Sammy is a fun character to hang out with and the book was amusing. This mystery contains reminders that it’s all too easy to judge people before you have all the information.

Although it’s not necessary, it’s probably preferable to start the series from the beginning (Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief) and read it roughly in order—there’s some metaplot stuff going on that will make more sense that way.

I think these are good for ages 10-13 or so. There’s a bit of a modern-day, quirky Nancy Drew feeling to the series. They may be a good step after kids have outgrown the Cam Jansen mysteries.

Sammy Keyes And the Psycho Kitty Queen by Wendelin Van Draanen
Published in 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House
Part of the Sammy Keyes series
Read my nieces’ library book


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