WHEN A MYSTERY WRITER’S DEATH BECOMES THE MYSTERY
Charlie Harris is a part-time archival librarian for Athena College in Athena, Mississippi. In his late forties, the father of two grown children, and a widower for three years, Charlie is the proud human owned by a Maine coon cat named Diesel. Still grieving the loss of his wife, Charlie is not yet interested in dating and keeps himself politely at an emotional distance from everyone except Diesel.
Coming into Charlie’s life about two years ago as a bedraggled kitten wandering the library parking lot, Diesel seems to have two particular affinities. He seems to understand the human language well beyond the sound of his own name or the phrase “Here, kitty kitty.” And he seems to sense and differentiate between human emotions, particularly sadness and anger, even when not verbally expressed. Weighing nearly 35 pounds and not yet fully grown, Diesel proudly sports a harness and leash and goes just about everywhere with Charlie. He openly seeks attention from everyone he meets but he gives back just as much or more after he “determines” the type of attention the human needs at the time.
For all that we know about Diesel, we know very little about Charlie other than what I have already mentioned. The author never physically describes Charlie, not height or hair color, not weight or eye color, not anything. Since every other character is described as he or she enters the storyline, the absence of same for Charlie seems to be deliberate on the part of the author. Thus, each reader can visualize our main protagonist in whatever form fits or feels right at the time.
While Charlie has eschewed emotional attachments since the nearly concurrent deaths of his wife and his favorite aunt, he rents out rooms to college students. As our story opens, one of the boarders, 18-year-old Justin Wardlaw, experiences three traumatic events in one day. First, he meets his previously unknown biological father for the first time. Secondly, the man he thought was his father strikes him in the face when he refuses to quit college and move back home. And, finally, he discovers the body of his biological father murdered in his hotel room.
Godfrey Priest, the murdered man, is a best-selling author of violent thrillers that have a severely misogynistic overtone. A contemporary of Charlie, he grew up in Athena with a well-deserved reputation as a physical and emotional bully. Needless to say, there are many people in town with long memories and hardened hearts as far as Godfrey Priest is concerned, making no dearth of possible suspects.
Miranda James does not portray Charlie as a suspect who must work to clear his own name. Nor does she portray him as one of those meddlesome types who feels he can do better than any police detective in existence. What she does is portray Justin as a good kid who has just been handed a very raw deal and is in dire need of help and adult support. Since Charlie is a well-respected research and archival librarian trained to find answers to oblique questions, he decides to lend those skills to Justin’s cause.
And then there is the police detective, Kanesha Berry. Detective Berry is smart and intuitive but she has the people skills of a rock and the professional personality of the rattlesnake hidden under that rock. She is also the daughter of Charlie’s longtime housekeeper, Azalea. When Azalea asks Charlie to use his skills to help her daughter succeed in spite of herself, Charlie finds himself in the position of unofficial private investigator.
James has written a solid first entry for her Cat in the Stacks series. The search for the murderer twists and turns as past deeds surface and motives multiply. Since the book is written from Charlie’s first-person POV, the reader knows no more than Charlie does at any time. And since the author writes the detective as a recalcitrant soul, fighting for control and against civilian assistance, the reader gets no help whatsoever from that quarter toward interpreting the information that Charlie gleans.
Charlie makes mistakes, both intuitive and legal. Unlike what happens in many cozies, our protagonist immediately accepts responsibility, takes his lumps and makes a concerted effort to correct his behavior. And, unlike the progression in many cozies, he doesn’t figure out the murderer’s identity before the detective does.
This novel has no obvious hook leading to another book. Nor does it end in a cliffhanger. But the murder of Godfrey Priest, and his investigation into it on Justin and Azalea’s behalf, changes Charlie. And on that point lies the premise of another book.
Cover Art from Goodreads