Out of Circulation, Miranda James
This is the fourth book in Miranda James' "Cat in the Stacks" series. Miranda is actually Dean James, whom I have known for many years through Houston's Murder by the Book. The series features Charlie Harris, who moved from Houston back to his home town of Athena, Mississippi, after the death of his wife. He lives in the old family home inherited from his aunt Dottie, which he shares with his son and daughter, as well as two boarders. Another resident, the cat in question, is Diesel, a Maine Coon, a breed known for its size, intelligence, chattiness, and charm. Sometimes mistaken for a bobcat at first glance, Diesel goes almost everywhere with Charlie, even to work. Charlie is a special collections librarian and archivist at Athena College, and one day a week he volunteers at the local public library. Dean himself is a librarian, so the details of Charlie's work are always right, though I don't know any archives that would actually allow a cat in their stacks. In the acknowledgements for this book, he thanks two local archivists, colleagues of mine, "for their expert advice on archives and rare books."
This book is really all about libraries and archives. It opens at a difficult meeting in Charlie's home, where the board of the Friends of the Athena Public Library has gathered to plan their annual fundraising gala. One member, Vera Cassity, wants to wrest control - of more than just the gala - away from the Ducote sisters, Miss An'gel and Miss Dickce, the last of a prominent old Athena family. Quick-tempered and brash, Vera has made more enemies than friends in the town, and in the days leading up to the gala, she picks fights with people all over the place. She swoops into the college archives and tries to bully Charlie into giving her access to the Ducote family papers, obviously hoping to dig up some dirt on the sisters. Since it is a closed collection, he refuses, and she retaliates with threats to get him fired and Diesel impounded. I wasn't the least surprised when she is murdered during the library gala at the Ducote mansion, pushed down a steep staircase. Charlie's long-time housekeeper, Azalea Berry, becomes the chief suspect, and her daughter Kanesha asks his help in finding the real killer. A chief deputy in the sheriff's office, Kanesha is of course barred from the investigation while her mother is a suspect.
The library gala was a hoot to read about, at least up until Vera is killed. It is a costume party, with guests coming as their favorite literary characters - and I suspect some of Dean's. Charlie is Hercule Poirot, with his date as Ariadne Oliver (a character I had to google). The Ducote sisters are Elizabeth Peters fans. Miss An'gel dresses as Amelia Peabody Emerson, complete with pith helmet and tool belt, and her sister as Jacqueline Kirby. Charlie's daughter Laura and her boyfriend Frank come as Nancy Drew and Ned Nickerson, his son Sean with his girlfriend as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. There are other guests dressed as Jack Reacher, Mma Precious Ramotswe, and Scarlett O'Hara (the victim Vera). I was giggling all through those chapters and trying to decide what my costume would have been.
As part of his investigations, Charlie reluctantly decides that he has to check out the Ducote sisters as well as other possible suspects, including Vera's husband Morty, who according to the town's grapevine has been carrying on an affair with a neighbor, Sissy Beauchamp. For the Ducotes, that means looking through the family papers in the college archives. There he discovers a diary, with a long-held family secret. The sisters themselves don't even know it's there, let alone what it might tell them. But it's in talking to people, asking questions and putting information together, that Charlie discovers the solution, and the murderer.
This is a fun series, and I enjoy both the characters and the setting. The fifth book, The Silence of the Library, which has just been published, has already made The New York Times' best-seller lists. When I stopped in at MBTB to get a copy on Saturday, Dean was there and very graciously signed a copy for me. Since Deborah Crombie's new book has been pushed back to September, I may use my TBR-dare new-book exemption to read it instead.