“Murder Past Due” (Cat in the Stacks #1) by Miranda James (2010)

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Just when I thought there were no more surprises in the cozy cat-lit sub-genre, along came Miranda James and made her protagonist a human male. A human male with no definite romantic interest! In a genre as formulaic and stultified as the “cozy mystery,” these innovations are positively revolutionary![1]

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The setup of the novel (kindly given to my human as a present) is as follows: Librarian Charles Harris has become something of a local celebrity in the small town of Athena, Mississippi, and he owes it all to his Maine coon “Diesel”! Like all Maine coons, Diesel is a curious sort of feline – huge, social, prone to chirruping instead of meowing, and perfectly content to be walked on a leash – and with the recent loss of his wife to cancer, Charles has taken to walking Diesel all about town and bringing him along to work. People see the two together, sometimes mistaking Diesel for a dog of all things, [2] and quickly identify Charles as “the guy with the cat.”

But Charles Harris is not the only local celebrity in Athena. His former classmate (and perennial rival) Godfrey Priest grew up to become a famous, bestselling novelist and Priest too has returned to Athena with his own mysterious agenda. Unlike Harris, Priest is hardly a beloved figure – smug, self-centered and rude, he has earned his fair share of enemies in Athena and his homecoming is not met with quite the reaction he anticipated. As the agenda of Priest intersects with the personal struggles of Harris, it soon becomes obvious that Athena’s past may be catching up with everyone, and it’s up to Harris (and, nominally, Diesel) to avenge a killing and protect an innocent citizen from going to jail for a crime someone else committed.

So that’s it for the plot. Read the book if you have any further interest in the goings-on of the inhabitants of Athena, Mississippi. As for the novel itself, well it is charming, well-paced, and its deviations from the traditional “cozy-cat-lit” formula are welcome. As I mentioned, the use of a male protagonist was shocking,[3] and the lack of a real romantic interest is revelatory; likewise, Diesel is no small, cuddly lap-cat, and the author at least seems to understand the basics of his breed.

"Just throw me at the criminal, human! The impact will do all the work for us!"

“Just throw me at the criminal, human! The impact will do all the work for us!”

But, as always, this novel is not without its flaws. At times it cleaves too closely to the previously-discussed formula: the protagonist is not female and is not romantically involved, but he is middle-aged, is a widower, is a cat-owner (to his credit, of course!)[4], is a library employee, is a recent transplant to small-town Mississippi, and is the inheritor of an old house large enough that he rents rooms to tenants and employs a maid. His chromosomes and his lack of a lover are not enough to mask these tired clichés. Likewise, Diesel is really more window-dressing than character and might as well have been replaced with a parrot or a fancy hat. He seems to be included in the book primarily to cash in the popularity of cats in the mystery genre. And again we have an odd technological anachronism: the cell phone featured in the text and on the cover ill befits a book published in 2010! And it’s supposed to be a young man’s phone! Who made these decisions?

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But alas! There is more – much more – about which I feel I must kvetch.

Ladies, we need to have a talk. You see, your complaints that female characters in popular media are, more often than not, shallow, unrealistic vehicles for male-wish-fulfillment? These complaints are entirely valid. This is a very real problem. And it stems from the stranglehold which male humans have traditionally had over most forms of media. But in the same way that male human writers tend to write female human characters badly, you ladies have the very same issue in reverse! Your male characters have a nasty habit of thinking, speaking, and acting either: A) like females in male costume; B) like shallow, unrealistic vehicles for female-wish-fulfillment; or C) some admixture of the two. EG: When heterosexual human males are upset, they do not get together and cuddle one another – as they do in this novel – nor do they cuddle with men they barely know, ESPECIALLY not when one of the males is over 50 and the other is barely 19. This is not how adult human heterosexual males generally handle distress. Not even in other cultures in which homoeroticism is socially mandated![5]

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Similarly, when a male learns that his arrogant, cruel, manipulative, philandering lifelong-rival – a man who persists in mocking and belittling him three decades after their last encounter – has, over the years, slept with most of the women the human male knows (all of them willingly, and impregnating at least one) his first response is not going to be “Oh, those poor women!” It simply doesn’t happen. Yet the author of this book seems to think that’s the first reaction a man will have! Ladies, even the most charitable man will likely feel only a cold contempt or disgust for his rival AND his rival’s sexual conquests, especially when ALL of those conquests were entirely and gleefully voluntary and most of those conquests were women ALREADY MARRIED OR ENGAGED TO OTHER MEN. Even more so when these women knew full well that the man was arrogant, cruel, manipulative, etc. when they chose to “hook up”/commit adultery with him. Generally, his first response will be: “Gosh, those poor men!” Or, if he had personally disliked the cuckolds earlier: “Gosh, I guess that explains why so-and-so has become so bitter and angry – I should stop judging him so harshly!” He will assume that these women were shallow and selfish, throwing away their marital vows and/or self-respect simply because his rival was good-looking and rich (as he is in this novel). And he will not – WILL! NOT! – start considering one of these now-divorced adulteresses as a romantic interest after having found out that she joyfully and repeatedly cheated on her ex-husband with this rival! Especially not after she has dismissed the fact that her adultery ruined her marriage by airily saying that she and her husband were already having “problems” when she cheated on him! That sort of excuse may fly among human females, but to a heterosexual human male, all of these are HUGE RED FLAGS indicating that this is not a woman to be trusted, especially not with one’s heart. Will he consider her for a one-night-stand? Entirely possible. Will he consider her as a romantic interest? No. HEAVENS no! Only the most pathologically-masochistic male, one who derives pleasure from being betrayed and cuckolded, would ever do so. Because, you see, such a woman will have proven that she is not a faithful or trustworthy person, much less romantic partner.[6]

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Yes, ladies, I will grant you that human males represent your sex terribly. But you aren’t doing much better with your representations of theirs. Neither of you seems to know much about the other beyond what you fantasize them as being!

If you humans had the free-and-easy sexual ethics of felines, these discrepancies might not be a problem, but no! You humans do pair-bond and you developed the institution of marriage and you are hard-wired psychologically to take certain stances. It’s time you started paying attention to them! And it’s high time your literature started reflecting reality on at least the most fundamental of levels.

So, what of this book? What is there to say about Miranda James’ first cat-lit book? Well, in the end, if this Murder Past Due is not perfect, and if it continues the infuriating trend of human misrepresentation of the opposite sex, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction. If authors would make more changes to the cat-related “cozy,” the genre as a whole would be drastically improved.  What can we learn from this entry? Well, variety remains the spice of life – a little variation can go a LONG way, and cat-lit could use more of it.

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UPDATE: My human did a little digging and discovered that “Miranda James” is the female pseudonym of Dean James,[7] a human male from the American South. Given that he is over 40, unmarried, and originally the author of a series of novels about a gay male vampire, I am going to take this fact (coupled with his bizarre characterizations of heterosexual males) as evidence that he is himself homosexual. As a male feline sans testicles I am certainly in no position to judge human sexuality…  But really, is it so much to ask that you humans write only what you know? Or at least consult with those you depict in your fiction to make sure you achieve some modicum of verisimilitude? Imagine if I were to write a novel about a dog which earnestly depicted said dog as a solitary mouse-hunter who padded about on soft, silent paws and meowed at the moon when not napping in sunbeams – this would be offensive and ignorant, and you would be right to chastise me for it. If only you humans would keep this sort of thing in mind when you write your own fiction!

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[1] Given that she is also the author (under another name) of a series about a gay Southern vampire who moves to small-town England and solves mysteries there, I suppose her innovations in cozy cat-lit shouldn’t be that surprising.

[2] I’ll admit I threw up a bit during at that comparison.

[3] It was not until I actually read two full chapters into the book that I realized the protagonist truly was a male human. I’ve read so many of these things that I kept substituting “Charlene” and “Charlotte” in my head every time I read “Charles” on the back cover or within the text at first. Apparently the audiobook is performed by a human female – an inexplicable decision which I imagine would only further serve to confuse listeners!

[4] And given that The Cat, The Quilt & The Corpse seemed to believe that nearly all men are anti-feline, this is refreshing.

[5] I’m looking at you, ancient Greece and modern Afghanistan…

[6] To prove that my feline perspective has not tainted my understanding of male humans, I asked my human who asked his male human friends and relations (from a variety of nations and ethnic groups) who did the same in their turn – and every last one of them was utterly bewildered by this book’s depiction of male human behaviour. So it would seem that I am a better outside-observer of humanity than the human author of this book!

[7] One suspects that this is ALSO a pseudonym.

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One thought on ““Murder Past Due” (Cat in the Stacks #1) by Miranda James (2010)

  1. Pingback: “Cat Raise the Dead” (Joe Grey #3) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy (1997) | "So Let It Be Kitten"

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