Review: Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James

Review: Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda JamesArsenic and Old Books by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #6
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on February 15, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Athena, Mississippi, librarian Charlie Harris is known for his good nature—and for his Maine coon cat, Diesel, that he walks on a leash. Charlie returned to his hometown to immerse himself in books, but taking the plunge into a recent acquisition will have him in over his head…   Lucinda Beckwith Long, the mayor of Athena, has donated a set of Civil War-era diaries to the archives of Athena College. The books were recently discovered among the personal effects of an ancestor of Mrs. Long’s husband. The mayor would like Charlie to preserve and to substantiate them as a part of the Long family legacy—something that could benefit her son, Andrew, as he prepares to campaign for the state senate.   Andrew’s rival for his party’s nomination is Jasper Singletary. His Southern roots are as deep as Andrew’s, and his family has been bitter enemies with the Longs since the Civil War. Jasper claims the Long clan has a history of underhanded behavior at the expense of the Singletarys. His allegations draw the interest of a local reporter who soon asks to see the diaries. But she mysteriously vanishes before Charlie has a chance to show them to her…   Now Charlie is left with a catalog of questions. Even if the diaries turn out to be fakes, they could still be worth killing for. One thing is certain: Charlie will need to be careful, because the more he reads, the closer he could be coming to his final chapter…

My Review:

I picked this to read this week because this is National Library Week. I was looking for something that related to libraries in some way, and I was in the mood for a little bit of comfort reading. Any entry in the Cat in the Stacks series always fills both of those requirements!

I think that my friend Attila the Archivist would have a field day with this one. Not only does she love cats (Diesel is always a sweetie) but the mystery revolves around some Civil War diaries that are donated to the local university archives, and there’s a lot in here about proper handling of fragile material, the necessity of preservation, and just how much time and effort goes into preparing material for the collection and ultimate use by scholars.

And all of that mostly factual (I think, I’m not an archivist) information serves as the raisins in what turns out to be this very tasty Oatmeal-Raisin Cookie of a case.

(Diesel the cat always tries to get the cookies, but raisins aren’t good for cats. His human, Charlie Harris, seems to love Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and gets tempted by them fairly often in the story.)

The archival parts of this story begin when one of the prominent local families in tiny Athena Mississippi donates four volumes of Civil War-era diaries to the university archives. The Long family has been prominent in Athena since its founding in the early 1800s, and there will be plenty of history students at the university who will look to those diaries for research papers once they are available for use.

But archivist/librarian Charlie Harris is besieged from the moment the diaries are placed in his care. A local reporter demands access before the diaries have even been properly evaluated. And one of the history professors demands exclusive access to those same diaries – even more loudly and rudely – the moment they arrive in Charlie’s hands.

Things get crazier from there, as they often do when Charlie gets involved. He seems to be a magnet for trouble – and murder. Or he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. (Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending upon one’s perspective. The local police detective seems to be of two minds about this. As one might imagine!)

The diaries are stolen. Then they’re mysteriously returned. And then, that loud and rude professor gets murdered. Charlie and those diaries find themselves in the thick of the case – and caught in the middle of a local political race that shouldn’t relate to 150-year-old diaries but somehow does just the same.

This is a case where words matter. Even words written over a century and a half ago. Or perhaps especially over those words.

Escape Rating B: I had a terrific time with this story – a terrific time that was certainly enhanced by the inclusion of a short story at the end that finally tells the tale of when Charlie met Diesel.

There are two things that I really love about this series. One is that the author is very clearly “one of us” librarians. Charlie Harris didn’t necessarily have to be a librarian, but since he is, it is important, at least to me, that he seem realistic. If he weren’t it would throw me (and probably most librarians) totally out of the story. The series is popular and ongoing, so it’s clear that the author managed to straddle the line between satisfying those of us “in the know” while still entertaining general readers.

Charlie Harris is a librarian that I’d love to have coffee with at any conference. And he’d fit right in.

The other thing is that while Diesel is most definitely large and in charge and utterly adorable, he’s just a cat. An extremely large cat – although not unrealistically so – but just a cat. He’s good at the things that cats are good at, bad at – and in the same manner – the things that cats are bad at. But he’s not more than felinely intelligent – if a bit high on the feline intelligence scale. But then, I’ve had cats of my own who were high on that scale – and also one who was extremely dim. There’s a range and Diesel fits within it.

This is my way of saying that series like The Cat Who and Sneaky Pie Brown and my personal favorite Joe Grey may be a lot of fun, but most cats should be cats and not detectives.

The case in this book turned out to be fascinating in a number of ways. One part of it was the application of the old saw about “academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small.” The corner of this mess that revolves around the tenure chase and the emotions engendered feels very realistic – even though that part of the case gets a bit far-fetched.

There’s also a lot about family history and family reputations and long-held grudges and resentments and how all of that plays out in the political arena. As well as more than a bit about the corruption of politics and just how the need to protect both a legacy and a reputation in that field can lead many people astray.

And at the heart of it all is the diary of a sometimes flighty young woman who matured at a time when the world was falling down around her. As well as the havoc she inadvertently wrecked and the strength she found to endure.

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