Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I'm Writing About the Book I Read*

If you’re an avid reader, then you know how powerful books can be. They teach, they pass on all sorts of information from generation to generation and they get readers thinking. Well-written books transcend particular places and times and books are an important way for people to communicate. Whether they’re in paper or electronic form, books are an important force to be reckoned with. They’re also a natural element in crime fiction. After all, lots of crime fiction is in book form, either as part of collections of stories or as novels. Besides that, though, books are useful places to hide secrets and clues, and they can contain information that’s just dangerous enough to be worth a murder. They can also be quite valuable, and there are people who are willing to kill for that reason, too.

In fact “Books” is the first word in Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, the last novel featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The Beresfords have just moved to the village of Hollowquay, where they plan to retire. As they settle into their new home, they discover a large collection of books left in the house by previous owners. In one of them, Tuppence discovers a cryptic message left by twelve-year-old Alexander Parkinson many years earlier. The message suggests that Mary Jordan, a German-born maid living in the village, did not die naturally. This makes Tuppence curious, so she begins to ask questions. When it turns out that Alexander himself died not long after Mary Jordan did, it seems clear to Tuppence and later Tommy that this might have been a case of murder. The two investigate, each in a different way, and find out that both deaths were connected with long-dead secrets and World War I espionage.

A book features in the solution of Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, too. In that novel, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. Spence is no longer sure that Bentley is guilty, and asks Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and visits the quiet village of Broadhinny. Once there, Poirot discovers that just about everyone in this small village has something to hide, and that Mrs. McGinty was an inquisitive person. Little by little, Poirot uncovers the villagers’ histories, and finds out that Mrs. McGinty’s murder is directly related to someone’s past. One of the clues that Poirot uses to identify the killer is an inscription written on the flyleaf of a book. That clue points directly to the murderer.

Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool also makes use of a book to hide an important clue. That’s the story of the murder of Flossie Rubrick, MP for part of South Island, New Zealand. One morning, she goes out to the sheep pens on the family sheep station to practice a speech – and never comes back. Weeks later, her body is found stuffed into a bale of hay. A year after the discovery of the body, the possibility is raised that Flossie’s death may be linked to international espionage, so her nephew asks Sir Roderick Alleyn to investigate. Alleyn travels to New Zealand and finds that the members of Flossie Rubrick’s household have all been keeping secrets, including spying. The discovery of a leatherbound diary gives Alleyn important information about the family background, and helps point him towards the murderer.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a collector of rare books, and has a thorough knowledge of literature. And in fact, in Clouds of Witness, a book provides an important clue. Lord Peter’s elder brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, is arrested for the murder of Denis Cathcart, his brother-in-law-to-be. There’s evidence against him, too; he’d quarreled with Cathcart, and the fatal bullet was shot from Gerald Wimsey’s gun. Wimsey and Inspector Parker look into the case. As they investigate, they seem to follow one “dead end” clue after another. It’s not until Wimsey makes an important connection to a copy of a book that Cathcart had that he’s able to make sense of the clues and figure out who really killed Cathcart and why.

Sometimes, books and manuscripts can provide excellent motives for murder, too. For instance, in Robert Barnard's Death of a Mystery Writer, Inspector Meredith investigates the poisoning death of Sir Oliver Farleigh-Stubbs, a popular mystery novelist. Sir Oliver is as unpleasant as he is successful, so when it’s clear that he’s been murdered, there are plenty of suspects, including members of his family and people at the publishing house that represented his work Not long after Sir Oliver’s death, it’s discovered that he left behind an unfinished manuscript which has disappeared. Sir Oliver’s death has made that manuscript very valuable, so now Inspector Meredith has to trace the missing manuscript and find out who took it and how it ties in with Sir Oliver’s death.

Terrie Curran’s All Booked Up also focuses on rare books. Professors Basil and Hortense Killingsly are “regulars” at New England’s Smedley Library. A series of strange events gets them involved in murder when an extremely rare 15th-century edition of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon goes missing from the library. A copy of Tottle's Songs and Sonnets is found in its place. Then, other rare volumes begin to disappear; they, too, are replaced by copies of the Tottle work. As the Killingslys and some of library staff and other “regulars” try to figure out what’s happened, library director Glen Moraise is found dead. Now this rather oddball group of people has to work together to find out who’s responsible for the thefts and murder.

A missing rare cookbook is at the heart of the mystery in Lorna Barrett’s Murder is Binding, the first of her Book Town series. Tricia Miles has just moved from New York City to Stoneham, New Hampshire, where Tricia has opened up Haven’t Got A Clue, a mystery bookshop. One night, Doris Gleason, who owns The Cookery, the bookshop next door, is found stabbed to death in her shop. A valuable cookbook is missing, and Tricia is immediately suspected of the crime. She and Doris Gleason had been at odds, and Doris wasn’t exactly a pleasant person to begin with. In order to clear her name, Tricia decides to find out for herself who murdered Doris Gleason and how the missing cookbook fits in.

In Kel Robertson’s
Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police Officer Brad Chen investigates the murders of former politician Alec Dennet and editor Lorraine Starck. Dennet was writing his memoirs, and it was widely believed that he was going to publicly embarrass some very important people. When the manuscript goes missing, Chen goes in search of it and the killer. Along the way, he meets up with several unpleasant gangs of people who are just as interested in the manuscript as he is.

There’s an interesting example of a book getting a sleuth involved in a case in Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead. Inspector Morse is confined to a hospital room with a bleeding ulcer. In order to pass the time, he makes use of the hospital’s library and comes upon Murder on the Oxford Canal. This book tells the story of the 1859 death of Joanna Franks, whose body was found floating in the canal. Two men were arrested and eventually hung for the murder. As Morse reads the book, though, he comes to the conclusion that the convicted men were innocent. So, in classic Morse fashion, he uses his convalescence to look into the case and try to find out who killed Joanna Franks and why.

And then there's Rob Kitchin's The Rule Book. In that novel,
D.S. Colm McEvoy is called in to investigate when the body of a brutally-murdered young girl is found. Next to the body is the first chapter in what seems to be an instruction manual for committing serial murders. Nearby are six business cards advertising the book. The killer promises that a new chapter of the book will be released each day - along with a new body. And as a second, and then a third body are discovered, it seems that the killer means to keep his promise. So McEvoy and his team have to work as quickly as they can to discover the killer before there are more deaths.

There are, of course, lots of other books where a manuscript, a novel, or a rare edition figures into the plot. Who knew books could be so dangerous ; ) ? Which crime fiction novels have you enjoyed that center on books?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Talking Heads' The Book I Read.


  1. How about John Dunning's wonderful series about Denver bookseller and ex-cop Cliff Janeway?
    Not only are they excellent mysteries, the novels offer insight into the world of book collecting and dealing.
    In fact

  2. John - Oh, that's definitely a fine contribution - thanks : ). I like series where the reader can actually learn something as well as try to solve the mystery. The Janeway series is a strong example of that combination.

  3. I love that Edward Martin's series has books always being featured. in fact, his latest book dealt with death in the rare book collector's industry.


  4. Clarissa - Thanks so very much for mentioning Martin Edwards' wonderful Lake District series. You are absolutely right that books are always featured in those novels, and yes, The Serpent Pool has an excellent emphasis on books and the world of book collection. Folks, if you haven't tried the Lake District mysteries, I heartily recommend them. You'll want to start with The Coffin Trail and savour the whole series.

  5. No books come to mind to add to this list. However, you have peaked my interest in several of these interesting stories. Enjoyed your post, very different take on books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you : ). Like you, I find books fascinating, so it is interesting, isn't it, to think about the role they play in, well, books.

  7. Loved your post. I love BiblioMysteries. Mystery Readers Journal has had two issues devoted to them...

  8. There is the Sherlock Holmes story (Illustrious Client?) where he had to get hold of the diary that would lead to getting the girl break off with the man she had set her heart on. And in the Secret of the Chimneys, there are the memoirs to be delivered to the publisher. And I am sure there are very many more- books keep sprouting up everywhere.

    Yet another great post, Margot.

  9. Apart from a couple of your examples, I like that Barnaby novel where a circle of local writers invite a famous author to visit them. I especially liked the woman who wrote children´s books about a cute dragon. The others tease her and do not respect her work, but she is the only one who has some kind of success.

    Andrew Taylor´s debut, Caroline Minuscule (1982), is also very much about a book, of course. It may seem a bit dated today, but it has some charm, e.g. the rascally protagonist.

  10. Janet - Thank you : ). Aren't Biblio-mysteries great? Folks, if you're not familiar with Mystery Readers Journal, do check it out.

    Rayna - Thank you! You are spot-on about that Sherlock Holmes story - The Illustrious Client it is, and it's a good example of what I'm getting at. Thanks : ). And yes, of course, the memoirs in Agatha Christie's The Secret of Chimneys is another example of the way books really do show up all over crime fiction.

    Dorte - Oh, I enjoyed Written in Blood, very much! And you're right; books figure heavily in that one. I liked the children's literature author, too; she's an interesting character. And thanks for the reminder of Caroline Miniscule. I haven't read that one in quite a while. I should give that a re-read.

  11. I loved the way books played a role in Josephine Tey's classic "The Daughter of Time". It was my first lesson in what has been written as history might not necessarily be true. Even historians have prejudices! It also taught me to remember when something was written as it can prove to be a wonderful mirror on the attitudes of the time. This is why I have quite a collection of books written in the '30s and '40s!

  12. Elspeth - Thank you for mentioning Josephine Tey; a truly talented writer. I think that's one of the most interesting things about books (and history). They are written from a certain perspective, and they have to be read that way. One of the things I love best about history is reading primary-source documents from a few perspectives; that lets the reader get a much broader view of history. It's a fascinating way to get a sense of what really happened.