So we left our hero (all right then me!) with the usual thriller series cliff-hanger dilemma at the end of the previous post. Helpless in the face of an avalanche of bibliomysteries, how will he manage to convert several hundred references to books about libraries and librarians into the entertaining read that is his mission with nothing much to help him apart from a dubious sense of humour and a alarmingly short attention span.
Actually as in all those Saturday lunchtime fake peril serials dealing with this kind of problem isn’t as difficult as it sounds. For many years as a library manager I was faced at least once a year with the results of advertising for library assistants where applications can run to 3 figures so popular and broadly specified are those roles. The process for getting that mini avalanche down to maneagable proportions goes something like this;-
The first round of rejections in staff selection is easy; first to go are all the applicants who clearly were applying for anything they could find with no real attention to the title of the post or the skills it asked for, and especially those who were too lazy or stupid to bother to change the application from the previous job they applied for and so are applying to your library offering top quality customer skills, excellent communication and a range of hygiene qualifications that they are certain will interest me in offering them a career in fast food retail. Then, out go all the applications that were sent off to avoid losing unemployment benefit offering the bare minimum of information, a blank page where former employment should go and with a single sentence in the why do you want this job box. “I am keen to find work”. But not as keen as I am to hang on to my benefit! Next its all the ones who didn’t bother to use the spell checker, or who thought a handwritten application would be fine despite being in the age ubiqitous keyboards and keypads and social media but forgot that it even if it is handwritten it also had to be legible and still needed a spell checker, or Mum as it is often, more commonly, known and finally out go all the burned-out teachers, stressed-out architects and redundant senior executives all of whom are looking for a new direction in life and think libraries would be good because they like books! In fact anyone whose main motivation in applying for the job is because they like books is out. You wouldn’t take on a shop assistant because they said they liked cornflakes would you? So I applied the same ruthless approach though with different criteria obviously, to the wharehouse full of bibliomysteries. Helpfully the wonderful people at GLIS Simmons have provided brief but very helpful annotations to all of their collection which we will use as the bibliographic equivalent of the details on an applicaton form. All I need to do now is to find some pretexts, no matter how spurious or flimsy, and unrestrained by equal opportunities, to reduce the size of the book mountain.
First of all out went all the books that were nothing to do with libraries or librarians. As the definition of bibliomystery was widely drawn to include books about books, books about reading and writers, books about booksellers, about publishers, antiquarian book dealers and even the Dead Sea Scrolls this reduced the list by a surprisingly large number. Then out went those where the link to libraries was tenuous or tangential. So, “murder victim’s girlfriend is a librarian” – gone; “murder clues found in library” – gone; “murder in a library foyer” – gone; or even more tenuous still “on the library steps” even if it is the New York Public Library – gone; “one of the characters on the hijacked bus is a librarian” – gone – well she won’t be doing much cataloguing for a while will she, and so on. It was even easier to remove books where the library link seemed almost desperate. For example “at some point in the narrative, Mrs. Mallory always winds up in a library” –good for her but still gone; or “a public typewriter in a local library is one of the clues” – definitely gone. And just because it is famous you surely wouldn’t want to keep John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the list for one sentence; “Smiley is called from his desk in the reading room of London Library in St. James Square where he was composing a monograph on the German baroque poet Opitz” so that’s gone as well and anyway reference to obscure German poets is just showing off.
The resulting list was now down to just under 200 titles featuring a librarian, albeit sometimes tenuously, and around 150 are set, one way or another in a library. Just over 30 stories feature college or university libraries where, most popular for nefarious activities, appear to be The Bodleian at Oxford and Harvard University Library with three citations each. Quite what Cambridge and Yale who don’t appear to feature at all have done to avoid dead bodies or murderous professors I don’t know. Perhaps they are a bit more fussy about who they let in! Another 30 or so stories are set in public libraries of which the most popular for foul deeds is New York Public Library (NYPL) which features six times and that doesn’t include that nasty incident mentioned earlier on the steps outside! NYPL also features in other novels too that don’t make the bibliomysteries collection but fortunately I just happen to have read . In a small cameo that triggers profound events, a 14 year old girl left in the NYPL to await her parents who have an appointment with a doctor to discuss her condition decides to use the library to look up some of the words used about her by the doctor and as a consequence runs away from home and inadvertently causes the death of her father as he desperately tries to bring her home, This could be the plot of an entire short story but in the context of Jeffrey Eudenide’s Greek American family saga Middlesex despite the devastating effect of the brief library interlude is almost incidental.
Overall in the bibliomysteries collection the diversity of libraries featured is admirable. There is clearly no discrimination in bibliomysteries; you can end up dead in any kind of library. There is a Buddhist library, the Hebrew University Library, cathedral and monastery libraries and even the Vatican Library. There are palace libraries, libraries in ancient Rome, libraries in private gentlemen’s clubs, a Jacobite Library, and a whaling musuem library. Who knew you needed a library about whaling and who would expect to find a dead body there? As for the librarians they appear as a victim on about 18 occasions and there are about the same number of random users also murdered in or in the vicinity of a library; the librarian is the murderer, the thief or other perpertrator of whatever crime the plot revolves around in about 10 titles and although murder is by far the most popular crime to commit in libraries there are plenty of others including stolen books, vandalised books, political skullduggery including espionage and even, sadly, accusation of child molestation and at least one library that is blown up. I do hope the current UK government isn’t reading this because that is likely to give them ideas!
As you might expect many librarians who feature in these novels are used as a convenient shorthand for sad and lonely characters but there is also a pretty diverse collection of other characterisations. As well as the inevitable “bored and boring” librarian there is at least one “virginal” librarian and there are also “seductive” librarians, “libidinous “ librarians, “philandering librarians”, “feminist “ librarians, “distraught” librarians and even one “deeply ambitious” librarian.There can’t be many of them so he’s obviously the murderer then. Oh and there is a librarian with the distinctly unlikely name of Trixie.
For some curious reason cats provide a regular theme in these, mainly US, bibliomysteries. Garrison Allen’s spinsterly heroine and her cat (called Mycroft, naturally), like Miss Marple, demonstrates just how many times the police need the help of an nosy, female, amateur investigator in small towns and Shirley Rousseau Murphy has at least eight “cat” titled mysteries where the eponymous cat is the library cat. But star billing in feline sleuthing must go to Lillian Jackson Braun who also features the word cat in the titles of all of her novels and she has written far more, in fact about 26 as far as I can see.
The librarian is often only a peripheral character in many of these books although the librarian from the Garrison Allen series deserves special mention as she is “quite simply, the sexiest librarian in all Christendom”. And whilst we are on cats and if you are a feline fan you may want to know about a ‘heart-warming’ and ‘feel-good feline biography’ that doesn’t make the bibliomysteries list which is Dewey: The Small-town Library-Cat Who Touched the World a story by Vicki Myron. It features a newly appointed town librarian in Spencer a remote farming community in Iowa, hoping to put a series of personal tragedies behind her whilst also coping with a farming community in crisis as librarians are so often called upon to do; their cataloguing and shelving skills can be of inestimable help with a jammed combine harvester. On a freezing morning she finds a kitten close to death from the cold in the library book drop. The cat survives and becomes both the symbol of and a metaphor for the town’s revival. Dewey as she was inevitably christened gets up to hilarious antics as cats do but also has a knack rather like Lassie or Skippy for knowing when humans need help. It all sounds like a script for a failed cable TV series but is apparently a true story; not only that but Dewey’s fame spread across the country and around the world but it seems to have passed me by until researching for this book and I am eternally grateful that it did. Sadly I have discovered no books about libraries featuring dogs so you will have to make do with Lassie…or Scooby Doo!
The collection compiled by GLIS Simmons is an amazingly impressive and varied collection of library related references and I would be very surprised if any other professions can boast such a record as the scene of, or involvement in, such a wide range of crimes. Even if there is one I would be quite astonished if anyone had bothered to try and locate and to document them in the detail that GLIS Simmons have so admirably and diligently done. Then again most other professions are thinking those librarians need to get out more. But now I understand the scope of the problem at least I can make some decisions about what I would and would not be prepared to read in the interests of producing this blog. We will make a start on looking at come of them next time.