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People of the U: Dean "Miranda" James

Published on Monday, June 8, 2015

By: Gary Pettus at 601-815-9266 or gpettus@umc.edu.

Published in News Stories on June 08, 2015

Dr. Dean James distinctly remembers what he said the day his editor called. He may have set a record for consecutive OMGs - an understandable reaction from a writer who has just made it to the best-seller list of The New York Times. 

That was five years ago, and it was only the beginning for the associate professor of academic information services, whose daytime job is in the Rowland Medical Library, and whose after-hours pen name is Miranda James, creator of the mystery series, "A Cat in the Stacks." 

James, whose Ph.D. from Rice University is in medieval history and who speaks four languages - five, counting "feline" - also speaks to a large number of readers who wallow in the adventures of widowed librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine coon cat, Diesel. 

"Miranda seems to have struck a chord, especially the cat," said James, a Grenada native who worked in Houston, Texas, for 33 years before joining UMMC seven months ago. 

Cats are intimate with a genre that boasts Rita Mae Brown, famous for such works as "The Litter of the Law." 

Unlike Brown's cat, Mrs. Murphy, Diesel is more of a companion than a gumshoe throughout his owner's exploits in amateur sleuthery, beginning with the first, "Murder Past Due" (Berkley Prime Crime). 

"Diesel is sensitive to people's moods, though," said James, whose real-life companions are a female calico named Pippa, and Toby, a gray-and-white "big galoot of a cat." 

Toby (background) and Pippa
Toby (background) and Pippa

A Maine coon is also known for being "smart, affectionate, loyal and possessive," he said. 

"I intended to get one myself, but I guess the universe had other ideas." 

"Better behaved" than James' nonfiction cats, Diesel may, occasionally, nose out a clue from a suspicious purse, when his owner isn't walking the 30-plus-pound goliath on a leash around the imaginary town of Athena, Miss. 

"Maine coons are the defensive tackles of the cat world," James writes in "Murder Past Due" - although this one is named after John "the Diesel" Riggins, a retired running back. 

This formula has worked for a half-dozen "Cat in the Stacks" books; virtually every one of them is a best-seller. 

It doesn't take a detective to find the culprit at the heart of James' passion for mysteries. Actually, it does - Nancy Drew. 

A rapacious reader from the start, James, around age 10, discovered the teen tec in "The Secret of Shadow Ranch," a thriller involving a ghostly steed. He has been riding that horse ever since. 

The young James dove into other, like-minded series - "The Hardy Boys," "Trixie Belden," etc. - but Nancy Drew was his foremost love. "I guess partly because Nancy was, like me, an only child," James said. 

At age 12, he wrote his first whodunit, which like the ghost, has disappeared. 

In adulthood, he authored books that are still with us, including "By a Woman's Hand" (Berkley, 1994), with co-author Jean Swanson, and which won the Agatha Award for Best Mystery, Non-Fiction. 

He co-wrote or co-edited other books before tackling novels; but best-seller success eluded him until the Diesel engine. 

Just before that, Vicki Myron's "Dewey the Library Cat" had become a sensation; it was a true story about a cat abandoned in a library book drop.

"My publishers thought, 'Well, a series about a librarian with a cat might catch on,'" James said. "They were right."

Like Nancy Drew, Dean's Charlie Harris is an amateur. "I like to see how a murder mystery affects ordinary people," James said. "I don't want to have to learn about police procedures or guns." 

In deference to his primarily female audience, James writes under the name Miranda - plucking it from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." 

Besides, he said, referring to James Dean, "a name like mine tends to get lost in the Internet, with a dead movie star getting most of the attention." 

Still, the fact that Miranda is a man is no longer "a closely-held secret," said James, the author of additional series, including a Miranda spinoff, "The Southern Ladies Mysteries." 

Both series are popular, attracting mostly adult readers, but "there's no blood and gore, so they're very safe for a 12-year-old to read," James said. 

Miranda James' Facebook page has more than 1,700 likes. One of his greatest fans is Beverly Linn Guy of Mickleton, N.J. 

"Dean's books always leave me smiling and so happy and eager to read the next book," Guy said in an email. "With each new book that comes out, it is … like coming home again to all of the awesome happenings in Athena!" 

Another enthusiast is New York-based writer Zac Bissonnette, author of The Times' best-seller, "How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents." 

"Dean James is ridiculously great," Bissonnette wrote in an email. 

"He's probably the greatest and most respected living writer of the great American detective novel, having achieved commercial success and the respect of his fellow writers … . 

"Not-so-bold prediction: Dean James, or rather, Miranda James, will continue to see rapidly increasing sales over the next few years."

That seems likely - James is under contract for three more Miranda books, including one due out in hardback in 2016 with a mystery wrapped in a title that may baffle Diesel's fans: "No Cats Allowed."


For more information

If you'd like to learn more about the Miranda James "A Cat in the Stacks" series, visit www.catinthestacks.com or www.facebook.com/mirandajamesauthor.

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