Thursday, November 6, 2014

Librarian Lit: Cat in the Stacks

Miranda James, Murder Past Due (Berkley Prime Crime: New York, 2010)

A couple of months ago, I had the brilliant idea that everyone in the Reference Department should read some sort of cozy mystery and report on it. It should come as no surprise that your friendly neighborhood librarians are a pack of avid readers, but we each tend to have areas of interest to which we are particularly devoted, and the genre of cozy mysteries tend not to be among them. I thought it might be a good way to get us a little way out of our collective comfort zone and help us relate to a variety of literature that is very popular with our patrons.
It sounded like a good idea at the time and I will say that there are others among my colleagues who viewed it as such when we first discussed it. Yet now I find myself abandoned and alone in this endeavor. Not that I wish to cast aspersions on my fellow librarians. We all have very long reading lists, comprising much that is obligatory in addition to what we read for strictly for pleasure. (The cozy mystery idea morphed into a broad "Librarian Lit" endeavor instead.) But having taken this decision I was determined to pursue it to the end, and so I present to you my views on Murder Past Due, the first in Miranda James’s series of Cat in the Stacks mysteries.

Set in the fictional town of Athena, Mississippi, these mysteries center of the exploits of Charlie Harris, a mild-mannered part-time archivist and owner of a Maine Coon cat, and other denizens of the town. In Murder Past Due, our hero is confronted with the return (and then suspicious death) of an old nemesis from his high school days, with which he must cope while navigating the vicissitudes of small time university library politics, a grumpy teenager, and a cat the size of a small dog.
This mystery (and one assumes those that follow in the series) are very much along the lines of the Andy Griffith Show: Small town people are not perfect, but they tend not to swear and they are basically good folk, unlike city slickers, who are prone to all the stereotypical ills of their kind. There is, it must be said, something distinctly comforting about all of this. As a person who grew up in a small college town (Walla Walla, Washington), there is much in James’s setting and storytelling that reminds me of the idyllic days of my youth (minus the gigantic cat anyway). The author deftly mixes in background details, and even the very distinctive personality of her hero’s feline companion to tell a story in a way that interests without horrifying.

There is a sense in which reading books like this is like eating a Nilla wafer: it’s pleasant without being challenging or overwhelming. But sometimes that is exactly what you want. Not all art has to be high art, and not all mysteries have to be grim to be interesting or entertaining. James understands her readers well, and packs her writing with the kind of scenery and detail calculated to be comforting.
Ultimately, the resolution of the case is, at the same time, a reaffirmation of the values that were disturbed by the crime in the first place. James’s story brings a sense of certainty and closure that most readers will find comforting. It is neither high art, nor has it a pretension to be. Instead it is meant to be a pleasant read which most mystery lovers will find satisfying and in this it succeeds admirably.

~John F.

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