Monday, March 30, 2015

Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James

Reviewed by Jeanne

Librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat Diesel are hard at work in the college archives when Mayor Lucinda Long drops off a treasure:  the Civil War diaries of a Long ancestor.  They're a gift for the archive.  Charlie is delighted with such a piece of local history, but his pleasure is short lived when he is accosted separately by two different women, both demanding instant access to the fragile old books.  The first woman is a reporter who seems to feel that the diaries will play a role in an upcoming election, while the second is a history professor anxious for tenure.  Charlie's explanation that the books will be unavailable for public viewing until they have been properly assessed for damage does nothing to mollify either woman, both of whom seem determined to be the first to view them.

When Charlie returns from lunch, he finds the question of access may be beside the point: his office has been broken into and the diaries are gone.  What could possibly be in those 150 year old books?  Is it something someone wants to find-- or something someone wants to keep hidden? As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead  It isn't even past."

Arsenic and Old Books is the sixth in the line of the Cat in the Stacks  mysteries  by Miranda James but the first to appear in hardcover.  Charlie Harris is a good-natured, gentle man who returned to Mississippi to take care of an elderly aunt after he became a widower.  He has a romance going with Helen Louise, the local baker, and has two grown children who are in and out of his house as is the long-time housekeeper, Azalea. Of course, Diesel steals most of the scenes: like his master, he's a good-natured gentle giant of a cat who loves his food.  He's over thirty pounds and usually startles folks with his size.  While Diesel doesn't solve any mysteries, he makes this cozy-- well, a bit cozier.  

The series is long on Southern charm, descriptions of food, and interaction with Diesel, but James does keep track of the mystery as well.  Many of the solutions to the mysteries lie in the connections between long-time residents and the history of the place, making this a very good cozy mystery.  I thought this one had an especially good flow, and kept the pages turning while I tried to figure out what was in those diaries.  If you haven't read any of the previous books in the series, this would be a good place to start. It also features a bonus short story telling how Charlie met Diesel.

Interesting aside:  Miranda James is the pen name of Dean James, who does work in a library and lives in Mississippi. He has just begun a spin off series The Southern Ladies Mysteries featuring two elderly sisters who have appeared in some of the Cat in the Stacks books.  The first title is Bless Her Dead Little Heart.

"If you ask me, the Maine Coon needs to be a lot furrier. Just my two treats' worth!"

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