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.