I have said this a million times before, but it bears repeating. Librarians go with cats. And librarians and cats make the best amateur detectives. They’re both all about the research, after all.
There are, of course, a lot of mystery fiction series that feature librarians and cats. I’m going to tell you why I like Miranda James’ The Cat in the Stacks series so much before getting to the latest entry in the series:
• Charlie Harris is the librarian. To be specific, he’s the archivist for a small college in Athena, Mississippi and a volunteer for the public library. That’s right, he. I love the twist that the main character in this series is a male librarian.
• Diesel is Charlie’s cat. Charlie’s very large, very vocal cat. Diesel is a Maine Coon. He’s also a rescue cat. And he’s normal. No magical powers, no mystery-solving skills. Just an ordinary cat—curious, loyal (Maine Coons tend to be), begs for food, butters people up. Diesel mostly functions as an ice-breaker here, and his lone detective skill is his ability to judge character—if he doesn’t like someone, Charlie takes note.
• The setting. I’ve never lived in the south, and I really don’t want to (I much prefer our blizzards to the heat down there, sorry) but if I had to, I’d want to live in a place like Athena. James nails the whole small town thing, and the small college, too (I went to a teeny college—this is just right).
• The secondary characters are great. I like that James explores Charlie’s relationships with his adult children, Laura (an actress) and Sean (a lawyer-to-be), with his housekeeper and her daughter (one of the local cops), with the two boarders who also live with him, and with his lady friend (Charlie is widowed, and it’s refreshing to see an author take romance for older adults seriously).
The best word I can think of to describe Charlie is courtly. He is the very essence of a Southern gentleman, and so is Diesel. I really like that Charlie is a rather reluctant detective–he doesn’t “look into things” out of any need for adventure or any preening sense of vanity. He does so only when asked, and because it’s the right thing to do. Charlie is a gentle soul who dislikes confrontation and prefers to live his life quietly. That’s not to say he isn’t curious about these things. The man is a librarian, after all. But he also has ethics–there is a rather touching scene near the end of the book where Charlie confesses to the Ducote sisters that he “had to be thorough” in his investigations and so he looked into their histories. If he hadn’t told them, they’d have never known. But Charlie would have.
So, Out of Circulation. This is the 4th entry into this series, and it starts out with a scene so familiar to me that I had flashbacks: Charlie is hosting the Friends of the Library Board members, who are planning a big fundraising gala and politely shredding each other in the process. Been there. Oh have I been there. We meet The Ducote Sisters, Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce, in their 80’s and the Grand Dames of Athena Society. We meet Vera Cassity, who wants to be a Grand Dame of Athena Society but who was, alas, born on the wrong side of the tracks and merely married her money. We meet Sissy Beauchamp, born to be a Grand Dame but currently engaging in a very public affair with Vera’s husband Morty. The rest I leave to your imagination, except to note that it turns out that Charlie’s housekeeper, Azalea, hates Vera with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Needless to say, Charlie doesn’t really enjoy his meeting.
And the fundraising gala takes a turn for the worst when someone pushes the pushy Vera down a flight of stairs. Everyone has a motive, including Azalea, and the Police Chief uses this opportunity to put the screws to Kanesha, Azalea’s daughter, who is a threat to his job. He insists Azalea is the best suspect and removes Kanesha from the case, tying her hands. So she turns to Charlie to investigate, and since Charlie certainly is fond of his housekeeper and her cooking, he agrees. And the Ducote sisters, who are rather ticked off that someone ruined their party, also want Charlie to look into things and he can’t offend them.
This particular entry in the series has a number of nice plot turns that keep things jumping, including Vera sending Charlie a picture of her mother just a day before she’s killed. It turns out that the past may hold the key to this mystery, and Charlie has the key to the archives.
This is a great little series that features wonderful characters, but equally important to me is that the books are well-written, with solidly structured plots, good dialogue, well-drawn secondary characters, and smartly set-up mysteries. This entry is no exception. James cleverly uses the gala—a masquerade—to tell a lot about his circle of suspects just by describing their costumes, and uses Vera’s Scarlett O’Hara costume to great advantage when staging her murder, just as she uses the board meeting to introduce us to the tensions that run very near the surface in the town between “old money” and “new money”. What she does not do, however, is make Vera so unredeemable that the reader hopes Charlie never finds out who killed her. Instead she creates just enough sympathy for the character through Charlie’s discoveries that you want to see justice served.
Out of Circulation is good cozy writing at its finest. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, you can certainly start with this one and you won’t be at all lost with the characters or the setting—James is great about making the series accessible to newcomers. And you’ll like Charlie and Diesel so much you’ll want to go back and read the first three, I’ll bet.