We first meet Jim Qwilleran (known as Qwill) as he's being offered a job at a major metropolitan paper, the Daily Fluxion. The Fluxion doesn't currently have a position available in Qwill's main area of expertise, crime, but he accepts a position as art writer to get his foot in the door. As art writer, he is to write objective news articles about the art community. He leaves the critical reviews up to the much hated art critic, George Bonifield Montclemens III.
Qwill is invited to dine with Montclemens, and there he meets K'ao Ko Kung, a highly inquisitive and intelligent Siamese cat, accustomed to the fine cuisine that Montclemens serves him (read that: one spoiled feline). Koko (as Qwill comes to call him) has one interesting hobby. He reads the newspaper….backwards! He traces the headlines with his nose (the papers MUST be hot off the press and fresh), and Montclemens attributes the right-to-left method of Koko's reading to the Asian custom of reading right-to-left.
This dinner date at Montclemens' residence leads to an offer of an apartment for a ridiculously low rent ($50 per month) that Qwill can't refuse, so he packs up and moves right in. Unfortunately for Qwill, Montclemens sees his new tenant as not only a tenant, but an errand boy, too, and he ends up delivering copy, picking up plane tickets, and cat sitting. He doesn't mind the cat sitting, because he's come to enjoy Koko's presence and ends up having a "good ol' time" with him.
One night, shortly after Montclemens returns from a business trip, Koko comes to Qwill's door once more, and Qwill knows something is wrong. Koko leads Qwill to the scene of Montclemens' murder. Since Koko is now orphaned, Qwill ends up adopting him and taking him home.
Through his position as art writer, Qwill comes across numerous fishy situations, such as the death of an museum curator and the mysterious fall of an eccentric artist, and Koko's habit of reading backwards becomes more than helpful in providing Qwill with clues to figure out "whodunnit."