by Dawn Goldsmith
This article was previously published in Crescent Blues.
Walk into your favorite library. Breathe in the odors: paper and ink. The musty scent of thought translated into words. Generations of ideas, ideologies, fears, evils and of course truth and goodness all orderly shelved according to Dewey’s decimal system.
The atmosphere borders on a sanctuary and the librarians resemble priests–the keepers of the word. Even bookstores seem to demand hushed tones, as if something precious resides inside.
Do these hallowed halls look like potential murder scenes to you? Could the quiet librarians and booksellers we know and love commit atrocious crimes? You betcha.
These dusty rooms and sweet-faced book lovers make up one of the most popular sub-genres for mystery readers: bibliomysteries. When it comes to sales, libraries and librarians, writers, book buyers and dealers rank right up there with cats and locked rooms. Books and wrongful death–what a combination! Better than peanut butter and chocolate candy bars. What bibliophile could resist?
You won’t find this genre listed in the Library of Congress guidelines that libraries follow. Janet Randolph, editor of Mystery Readers Journal, introduced me to the term. I Googled it and found that I arrived late to the game. Mystery writers and readers, whether they know it or not, have been enjoying bibliomysteries for generations. Agatha Christie’s 1925 mystery, The Secret of Chimneys, features a climactic scene in a private library. Without documentation, I can’t be sure, but it may count as the earliest example of the genre.
Jeff Abbott, author of a series starring reluctant sleuth Jordan Poteet, didn’t realize this series fit the bibliomystery mold. In a recent email exchange he wrote, “Only one of my books actually involved a murder in a library, and that was Do Onto Others, written over ten years ago, not exactly current.”
But according to Candy Schwartz of the Library of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, bibliomysteries include “mysteries in which books, manuscripts, libraries of any kind, archives, publishing houses, or bookstores occupy a central role, or mysteries in which librarians, archivists, booksellers, etc. are protagonists or antagonists (and preferably the location or occupation is important to the plot or theme).”
Abbott deferred to Schwartz’s definition and agreed that Poteet, a former publisher and current librarian, fits the profile for a bibliomystery protagonist. But why did Abbott choose to make his main character a librarian?
“I wanted to kill off a book burner in that first novel, Do Unto Others; a librarian seemed a natural hero to face off against that sort of antagonist.” Abbott added, “And I’ve always thought librarians were underappreciated.”
Real life librarians seem to love Jordan Poteet, even though as Abbott points out, “he isn’t a model librarian. Jordan got into a physical fight with a patron who attacked him and then later had sex in the library with his girlfriend.” He theorizes: “Librarians seemed to love him, because he had that recklessness; it went against stereotype.”
Due to writing and touring commitments, Abbott has closed the book on that series. But copies of the Agatha Macavity Award-winning Do Unto Others (1994), Only Good Yankees (1995), Distant Blood (1996) and Promises of Home (1997) can still be found in on-line and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Abbott’s own favorite bibliomysteries include John LeCarre’s The Russia House and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. But many other popular mystery authors dabbled in this category–Rex Stout, Bartholomew Gill, Ralph McInerny, Lilian Jackson Braun among them. Charlaine Harris’s series featuring former librarian Aurora “Roe” Teagarden qualifies, as does Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night and another Eco novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. And who knew that Marianne MacDonald’s Dido Hoare performed front and center in a bibliomystery series?
Schwartz added that mysteries about journalists, authors or literary figures or academic mysteries are not bibliomysteries, “unless libraries, books, manuscripts, archives, and so on, are important to the plot.”
Would that make The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown a bibliomystery? My local librarian at the Oviedo Public Library, Dave Witter, believes we could make a case for inclusion in that category. After all, the protagonist is a symbologist whose life rises and sets on research. He uses libraries and books and such resources found in libraries to corral the knowledge that allows him to decipher the clues and puzzles.
The accumulation of knowledge that allows Brown’s hero to crack the mystery of The Da Vinci Code may also explain why the sanctuaries of the book make such delightful killing fields. Betty Rosenberg wrote in The Letter Killeth: “Libraries are delightfully appropriate sites for mystery and murder. The atmosphere of quiet mustiness lends itself to the ominous. But more suggestive are the secrets and lore imprinted in the books, waiting to be misused.”
In an interview for Salon.com in 2000, mystery writer P.D. James, author of the bibliomystery Original Sin, said, “I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it.”
The deed might be awful, but you’ve got to give most bibliomystery writers points for originality of method. In addition to the usual guns, knives and garrotes, they most ingeniously employ paper cutters, poisoned pages in book (perfect for a finger-licker), a well shoved book stack, Encyclopaedia Britannica, busts of famous authors, both American (Louisa May Alcott) and English (William Wordsworth). Not to mention the ever-popular card catalog drawer rod. The new age of multi-media libraries only added to their options–strangulation by mouse cord, electrocution while surfing the OCLC or perhaps a bookstore murder using the endless coffee flavorings in the café.
Libraries and bookstores are my vacation homes. I can’t wait to step inside and soak up the atmosphere as well as pick out an armload of books to take with me. Now that I have discovered a sub-genre built around my favorite institutions and ephemera, I feel like I’ve uncovered the mother lode written just for book lovers like me.
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