Thursday, January 19, 2012
DEAN JAMES--FILE M FOR MURDER
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Dean James is the author of over twenty books, both mystery fiction and non-fiction. He has won the Agatha and Macavity Awards for his non-fiction and has twice been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical work. Formerly the general manager of Murder by the Book in Houston, he is currently a librarian in the Texas Medical Center. Writing as Miranda James, he is the New York Times bestselling author of the "Cat in the Stacks" mysteries, as well as mysteries under his own name and the pseudonyms Jimmie Ruth Evans and Honor Hartman.
Dean is also one of my oldest friends in the book business. I'm thrilled with the success of his new series, AND with the newest installment featuring librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel, FILE M FOR MURDER, which publishes January 31st.
When I asked Dean about the pseudonym, he told me that "Dean James" was very hard to find on the web, thanks to the dead movie star. He chose "Miranda" because she's the heroine of his favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest. But here's our proper interview--
DEBS: Dean, you've written a very well-received series featuring Simon Kirby-Jones, a delightful Southern gentlemen transplanted to a fictional English village--a delightful Southern gentleman who is gay, and a vampire.
Now, in the Cat in the Stacks series, you've done a bit of gender bending. Writing as Miranda James, you've given us a male protagonist, a Southerner, Charlie Harris, who has gone home. A librarian who lived and worked in Houston for many years, Charlie, now widowed, has gone back to his home town of Athena, Mississippi, where he works part time in the college library and volunteers in the public library.
Is Athena a fictional town? Is it like the town you grew up in?
DEAN: Athena is mostly fictional, though it is based -- very, very loosely -- on Oxford, Mississippi, which is about 80 miles northeast of where I grew up on a farm in Grenada County. I've tried to imbue it with the kind of feeling that I remember from my youth in Mississippi, a small -- but not too small -- town where long-time residents know one another, where there's a strong sense of community and a sense of history.
DEBS: Athena is not idyllic--there are secrets and grudges and politics--but you've written about this small Mississippi town with such affection that I feel I want to go there for a visit. Has there been a sense of homecoming for you?
DEAN: Yes, there is a strong sense of homecoming for me. I've lived away from Mississippi for a little over three decades now. I do manage to get back occasionally to visit family there, but writing about Mississippi allows me to go home again in a special way. I can write about the good things I remember about growing up there. Mississippi has often been the butt of jokes and cynosure in the national consciousness, but despite its problems, it is a beautiful place full of some amazing people. With the kind of books I write I try to focus as much as possible on the positive.
DEBS: While I don't envy Charlie the loss of his wife to cancer, I am smitten with Charlie's new life in Athena. Living in the big, charming, old house he inherited from his Aunt Dottie, he takes in very civilized boarders. There's such a sense of this house as a welcoming place, with a kitchen where there is always iced tea and friends are always welcome at the table. Were you drawing on your own memories?
DEAN: The house I grew up in was much smaller than Charlie's house in Athena, but in my imagination, Aunt Dottie's house is one I would love to have lived in as a child and even now. I love the sense of history that a house like that possesses. Built solid and strong, meant to last for generations, where family traditions are kept up, where memories of loved ones never fade.
DEBS: A research librarian makes a very natural detective--Charlie has spent his career finding things out and he's very good at it, although that doesn't always please Sheriff's Deputy Kanesha Berry, Charlie's housekeeper's daughter. Charlie doesn't seek out murders. He's a decent man who simply wants to help people he cares about. But in writing an amateur sleuth in a small town, how do you avoid Cabot's Cove syndrome? (And I certainly hope to see many more books about Charlie.)
DEAN: I hope to see many more about Charlie myself! An amateur sleuth always faces the problem of stumbling over dead bodies, and we all know that isn't truly realistic outside the realms of fiction. I try to give Charlie a logical reason to be involved in the situation which brings the murder about, but eventually that becomes difficult to maintain for any writer. The authorities will certainly begin to look askance at anyone who's involved in that many homicides, albeit as mostly a bystander! But I tend to rely on what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief." Readers of amateur sleuth stories are willing to grant this, I think, because they often find it easier to imagine themselves in the shoes of an amateur detective, rather than those of an official detective, i.e., a homicide cop. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and I've never lost that sense of vicarious pleasure that I gained from following in the footsteps of Nancy, Frank and Joe as they solved one baffling mystery after another.
DEBS: I've left the best for last. The series isn't called The Cat in the Stacks Mysteries without good reason. When Charlie moved back to Athena, he adopted an abandoned Maine Coon kitten whom he named Diesel, because of his loud purr. Diesel is now full grown and weighs thirty-six pounds! (My own boy kitties weigh around twelve to fourteen pounds, and I can't imagine having a thirty-six pound cat jump in my lap!) Diesel is a wonderful cat. He's intelligent, loyal, and a very good judge of human character. He also wears a leash and harness and goes everywhere with Charlie. (I asked Dean to choose a picture of a Maine Coon that looked like Diesel as he imagines him.)
Why did you choose that particular breed of cat? Do you have personal experience with Maine Coons?
And will Charlie someday find out who abandoned Diesel, and why?
DEAN: When I knew I was going to write a series about a librarian and his cat, I simply knew that the cat would be a Maine Coon and that his name would be Diesel. The Diesel in my books is actually based on the first Maine Coon I ever saw in the flesh, and he was a big kitty, close to forty pounds. That is atypical of the breed, because most male Maine Coons are on average about twenty-two to twenty-five pounds. But I was so taken with the gentle giant that I met, I knew I had to "borrow" him for my series. I have a cat that I think may be at least part Maine Coon, but I didn't realize that until I started writing the series.
Reader response to Diesel has been amazing, and he even has his own page on FaceBook, as Diesel Harris. As for Charlie finding out who abandoned Diesel, the answer is "maybe." I might write that story one of these days, but until then, I think it's okay simply to think of Diesel as a special gift to Charlie from the universe at a time when he needed a friend like Diesel the most.
DEBS: Oh, and one more thing--is Charlie Harris by any chance named after your good friend Charlaine Harris?
DEAN: Yes, he is. He's also named for two other "CH" friends: Carolyn Haines and Carolyn Hart. Not only are these three women among my favorite writers, they're also dear friends who have been unfailing in their support and encouragement. Naming my hero as a I did is a small way of saying thanks to them for all they've done for me.
DEBS: I'm sure all the CHs love Charlie as much as I do. And Dean, if Diesel were real, I have to confess I'd be tempted to steal him.
Readers, you can say "hi" to Diesel here.
And Dean will be dropping in on Jungle Red today to chat and answer questions, and will have a copy of File M for Murder to give away to one of our commentors.