Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Have My Books and My Poetry to Protect Me*

If you’re an avid reader, then you’ve probably spent many contented hours in your library. I know I have. Some of my really fine “reading memories” are of going to the children’s library in the town where I grew up and of the librarian who helped me choose books. Later, I worked in the library at my middle school and the one at my high school. I’m still addicted to libraries today; in fact, whenever my family and I have moved, one of the first things I’ve done is get a new library card. And when I travel, I’m always interested in poking my nose into the local library.

I’m thinking about libraries today because of an excellent post from Elizabeth Spann Craig, who makes some very well-taken points about how useful libraries are for writers. And they are. They’re useful on so many other levels, too. They’re community gathering places, sources of a great deal of information, and for many people, a way to go online and connect with the digital world. Libraries figure in most of our lives and have been an essential part of our communities for a long, long time. So it’s no wonder we see lots of libraries in crime fiction, too.

A library plays an interesting role in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel is the Marshall family: Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena and his sixteen-year-old daughter Linda. It’s not long before trouble starts among the Marshalls. Arlena Stuart Marshall is a beautiful and notorious actress who has taken up with Patrick Redfern, another guest at the hotel. As it is, Linda Marshall is not particularly fond of her stepmother and Arlena’s new relationship doesn’t help matters. One day, a book she finds in the small village lending library gives Linda an idea of what to do about it. Linda keeps her plan to herself at first. But then, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel. Poirot works with the local police to find out who the murderer is, and in the process, discovers Linda’s secret.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, at the request of the Dean of the College. Someone’s been writing anonymous threatening letters and “poison pen” notes and committing vandalism at the college. The Dean doesn’t want the police called in, and asks Vane to help find out who’s responsible. Vane agrees and returns Shrewsbury. The College Library plays a pivotal role in the action in the novel and in the solution to the mystery. For example, some important manuscripts are taken from the library; others are defaced. There’s also other damage to the library. Vane herself is attacked as she tries to find out what’s behind these frightening events. Vane reluctantly tells her story to Lord Peter Wimsey, who helps in the investigation. As it turns out, the attack on Vane and the other damage and threatening letters have been the work of someone with a longstanding grudge.

The public library plays a role in several of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries. Braun’s sleuth is former investigative journalist James Qwilleran, who lives in Pickax, a small town “400 miles north of nowhere.” Qwilleran is single, but for many of the books in the series, he is involved with Polly Duncan, head of the local public library. So Qwilleran spends his share of time there and in more than one mystery, gets some important background information on the mysteries he investigates. The Pickax library is

“…the central intelligence agency of the community.”

New England’s Smedley Library is the scene of a murder in Terrie Curran’s All Booked Up. Professors Basil and Hortense Killingsly are “regulars” at the Smedley and do most of their reading and research there. Like the other regular patrons, they are shocked when a very rare book, a 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 books disappear, each being replaced with a copy Tottle’s work. Matters come to a head when Library Director Glen Moraise is murdered. Now the Killingsleys and the other “regulars” work together to find out who’s behind the thefts and the murder.

Oxford’s Bodleian Library is the setting for Veronica Stallwood’s Oxford Exit. Stallwood’s sleuth, novelist Kate Ivory, gets involved with a case of murder and theft at the Bodleian when her former lover Andrew Grove offers her a temporary job. Grove, who’s on the Bodleian’s security committee, is concerned about a series of thefts of rare materials and thinks that a computer hacker has been tampering with records to cover those thefts. Ivory takes the job of trying to track down the hacker in order to make ends meet while she finishes her current manuscript. At the same time as she’s trying to track down the thief, Ivory gets some disturbing news from her friend Emma, who’s teaching a writing class. One of Emma’s students has written some eerie, dark work that has Emma very concerned. As Ivory finds out, that disturbed writing is linked to the library thefts and to the unexplained death a year earlier of a Bodleian librarian.

Of course, what would a library be without a librarian? Librarians can be very helpful in finding materials and in crime fiction, they can be sleuths. For instance, in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas, from her short story collection Candied Crime, we meet local librarian Rhapsody Gershwin. She and her family live next door to Toffee Brown, a mysterious and quite eccentric newcomer to the village of Knavesborough. One day, Rhapsody notices that her neighbour’s door is open and her dog is wandering outside alone. Immediately suspecting something terrible, Rhapsody and her sister rush across to Toffee Brown’s house, only to find its occupant murdered. Rhapsody alerts her fiancé Constable Archibald Primrose and Primrose begins an investigation. But it’s Rhapsody Gershwin’s knowledge of books that helps Primrose find out who Toffee Brown really is. And it’s Rhapsody who discovers the important clue to the killer.

And then there’s Israel Armstrong, whom we meet in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. Armstrong’s a Londoner who is persuaded to take the position of librarian at Rathkeltair Borough’s Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland’s County Antrim. When Armstrong arrives, though, he finds the library boarded up with a closure notice on it. When he goes to the District Council to find some answers, he is offered the job of tending the library’s “mobile learning centre,” a euphemism for a battered bookmobile. Reluctantly, Armstrong takes the position and begins his duties, only to find that the fifteen thousand books he was supposed to take charge of are now missing. He’s ready to resign, but his supervisor won’t accept his resignation until he finds the books. Now Armstrong has to find out what’s happened to the missing books.

Martin Edwards' The Hanging Wood centers on St. Herbert's Residential Library. Oxford historian Daniel Kind is using the library to try to finish his newest book by the deadline. The library also employs Orla Payne, who asks DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team to investigate the disappearance of her cousin Callum. When Payne herself dies, it's obvious that more is going on than was suspected. I confess I haven't read this one yet (I'm eagerly awaiting the release date!), but it was too good an example not to mention. Here is an excellent review of the novel by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen.

Large or small, in the inner city, the village or the suburbs, the library is a community hub, a rich source of learning and a valuable resource. Do you have favourite “library memories?” How about “library mysteries?” If you’re a writer, how do you use the library?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock.


  1. Some of my earliest memories are of Saturday morning trips to the local library with my mum. In those days you had to pay a membership fee for the year as the library wasn't funded through government or taxes and I can remember my mum arguing to my father that the fee was not a luxury item and that if any of their expenses were to be cut back it would be his cricket club membership first. They must have found another way though because both the library and the cricket club stayed on. We certainly got our money's worth out of the library - I don't remember missing too many Saturday mornings. These days my library cards are still valued friends (I have 3 to different libraries). One of them even gets me discount tickets to any movie that is based on a book - I recently saw The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest for half price thanks to the library.

    I am reading the new Martin Edwards book right now - I love the idea of a residential library - wish we had one here :)

  2. Bernadette - I wish we had a residential library, too. Of course, if we did, I probably wouldn't see my family nearly as often as I do ;-). And I am so looking forward to reading The Hanging Wood.

    Good on your mum to insist on the importance of a library membership. I think they're a vital part of family life. And it's funny - as I read your post, I remember that Saturday was our "library day," too, when I was growing up. I am glad that today, cities fund libraries. I know that a lot of families where I live wouldn't be able to afford library membership fees. I have to admit, I get so frustrated when people complain about their taxes going for library maintenance and acquisitions. I can think of lots of sillier things that tax money goes for...

    I've got two local library memberships. They don't give movie discounts, but they do have a wealth of community resources (like workshops, etc.), lots of recent-release DVDs and music, and literacy-outreach programs. Good programs for kids, too. That's one reason it so annoys me when people want to cut library funding. But I won't rant. Really.

  3. Because I live in Mexico, there are no English libraries. It really gets me down. That's why I love my Kindle. I can go and get books when I want. I used to work at my high school library as well and loved it. It made me want to be a librarian. Well, I turned into a writer instead.

  4. Oh, the magic of libraries! I remember being allowed to walk to the library after school and have a whole afternoon choosing and reading books. I felt so free. Must have been about eight. I wrote a scene about it in one of my novels, but had to cut it. Maybe I can make it into a short story some day.

    Love Gaudy Night. It might be my favorite Dorothy Sayers.

  5. Clarissa - I didn't know you'd thought of being a librarian - that's really cool! I had thoughts of that, too, a few times. I'm happy for you that you have the Kindle because as you say, it gives you lots of reading freedom. I don't have one, but probably at some point I will get one.

    Anne - Oh, aren't libraries wonderful!? I hadn't thought of it as "free," but it's a very apt adjective. A person can explore in a library in such terrific ways. And I hope you do write a story about a child's trip to the library; I'll bet it'll be terrific!

    I agree, too: Gaudy Night is a terrific book.

  6. What a fun collection! I will have to look up some of these books. Right now I am primarily into YA but mystery is always back there tempting me :) Discovered a YA writer recently who is writin a story about library jumpers - people who "jump" around to famous libraries around the world to protect special books. Her web page (Brenda Drake) includes many pictures of these beautiful libraries - I was drooling!

  7. Margo - Thanks for the tip about Brenda Drake's page :-). I'm going to have to pay it a visit. Libraries are great places, aren't they? And a book about people who can "jump" from library to library sounds like great premise for a YA novel.

  8. I go to the library at least twice a week and have done so my entire life. It used to be full of kids working on research papers, but those days are long gone and the people there are using the computers not the books. I can truthfully say I never see teenagers in the library. Writing a paper through online sources is just different to me.

  9. Patti - No doubt about it; the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we do things, including research. The university where I teach has over 30,000 books in E-format, and access to hundreds of online scholarly journals. I use Internet resources, myself, when I do research. But I still truly love the feel of a paper book, and I think I'll always be glad I know that Dewey decimal system :-).

  10. I can remember going with a friend to the library during summer vacations and each of us loading up as many books as we could carry for our reading for the next week. I still use my local library on a regular basis, both for borrowing books relating to my writing and for pleasure. There are books out there that are cracking good reads, but which, since I'll never read them again, a library copy is the perfect solution.

  11. Elspeth - That's truly one of the many beauties of libraries, isn't it? You can find wonderful books to enjoy - even savour - without having to buy them. At least for me, that leaves me freer to sample an author I might not otherwise have done, or try a new genre. And no doubt about it - summertime is the perfect time for leisure reading :-).

  12. Some of my best childhood memories are of the children's room and the main floor of the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill. where I grew up. I can remember vowing to read every book in the children's room, as impossible as getting every one of my TBRs read in the near future. Then I graduated to the adult floor and I could have sworn I had died and ascended to heaven.

    I also loved the library at Monticello Prep School and College in Godfrey, Ill., a gorgeous room with vaulted ceiling that had been the chapel formerly. Wonderful huge stained glass window, heavy oak tables, green shaded lamps, and two stories of books. The librarian sat where the pulpit had been and I thought that quite fitting.

  13. Margot, you mustn´t spoil me so - TWO mentions in one post is far too much attention - even though I love libraries as much as you do :D

  14. Barbara - Oh, your descriptions are just so wonderful! As I read your comments, I could just see the libraries you loved so much. No wonder you felt you'd died and gone to heaven. Stained glass windows are just gorgeous, aren't they? I'm sure they added some breathtaking beauty to the Monticello library. I taught for about four years at Knox College, in Galesburg, IL; that school has one of the most beautiful libraries I've ever seen, and your descriptions reminded me of it...

    Dorte - Oh, there is no way I can give you too much attention :-). And I just love the character of Rhapsody Gershwin - I feel I would really like her as a person, so it was a pleasure to mention her.

  15. And there's another reason you should try the Mary Russell series -- she spends a lot of time in the Bodleian. :D

  16. Karen - As if I weren't already sold on that series.... :-)

  17. Thanks for the mention and for your support of libraries, Margot!

  18. Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure! Your blog post on libraries is really excellent. And what is there not to support about libraries? I mean really!

  19. Libraries are a wonderful place to spend a Saturday morning (or any day of the week). The small library in my hometown offers a summer reading program. My Mom signed me up the first year when she had to read the books to me and then every year after that I participated until I was in high school and it was no longer open to me. That's one of the reasons I love books so now.

    Great post Margot.

    Thoughts in Progress

  20. Mason - Libraries are such wonderful places, aren't they? I love it that your mother got you involved in summer reading from the time you were a very little girl. There's so much research that suggests that starting children with books at a very early age does make them more likely to be readers as adults. As a matter of fact, I read to my grand-daughter all the time (so do her parents), and she's not even three weeks old yet :-).