If you’re a crime fiction fan (or for the matter of that, if you are a fan of any genre of fiction), you’re probably also a fan of reading. In fact, that’s one of the things that all of us have in common, regardless of the diversity in our reading tastes. Our love of reading binds us as we read each other’s blogs, discuss books and share our new reading finds. What’s really interesting is that we also have that love of reading in common with some crime fiction sleuths. That makes sense, if you think about it. Most authors are also lovers of books and reading, and it’s logical that an author’s passions would seep through into her or his work.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a reader. In The Clocks, for instance, he works with special agent Colin Lamb to solve a strange case. The body of an unidentified man has been found in a house in a small residential neighbourhood. The owner of the house doesn’t know the man, and the young woman who finds the body also doesn’t know who he is. Lamb and Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle have some very unusual clues to work with, so Lamb brings the case to Poirot, since it’s not a “typical” murder (if there is such a thing). When Lamb visits Poirot, he finds Poirot immersed in a number of detective novels written by different authors. He’s working on a book of his own about detective fiction and is using those resources. Although that sub-plot is not really central to solving the crime, it does add an interesting layer to the novel, and allows us to see another side of Poirot. It’s also worth noting that in more than one of Christie’s novels, Poirot makes reference to Shakespeare and other writers.
Another crime-fictional bibliophile is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey especially loves rare volumes. He reads voraciously and collects editions that appeal to him. And in novels such as Clouds of Witness and Have His Carcase, Wimsey’s knowledge of books and reading is instrumental in solving the mysteries at hand. He’s able to make connections that particular novels suggest to him, and this gives him insight into the cases that he is solving.
P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh is also a lover of books and reading. In many of the cases that feature him there are references to things he’s read. In fact, Dalgliesh himself is an author. He’s a poet whose work has gotten some critical acclaim. In A Taste For Death, for instance, Dalgliesh and his team investigate the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, who’s found dead in a local church. Shortly before Berowne’s death, he happens to meet Dalgliesh and one of the things that they discuss is Dalgliesh’s writing. Berowne’s mother, Lady Ursula, also knows of Dalgliesh’s reputation and that reputation is part of what makes her open to talking with Dalgliesh about her son’s murder. You could argue that Lady Ursula has a special respect for Dalgliesh because he is as literate as he is, and because he has a reputation as a writer.
And then there’s Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, former investigative reporter James Qwilleran. He inherited his love of reading from his mother, and has even written a book himself. Once he moves to Pickax, “400 miles north of nowhere,” he becomes a fan of Edd’s Editions, a local secondhand/rare bookshop. Qwilleran rarely visits the shop without making at least one purchase, and he’s built quite a collection of books. The main woman in Qwilleran’s life for much of the series is Polly Duncan. In many of the novels that feature Qwilleran, she is the head of the Pickax library. Later, she takes up the challenge of opening and running a bookstore. She and Qwilleran share a passion for reading and books. They even read aloud to each other, and this love of literacy runs throughout the series.
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza has also created a literacy-loving detective. He is Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police. Espinosa is a reflective detective who has a fantasy of getting out of police work and running a bookstore. He has a large collection of books and is an avid reader. What’s really interesting, though, is that Espinosa doesn’t consider himself a bibliophile. Here’s what he says about his love of literacy in A Window in Copacabana:
“It wasn’t really the books themselves he liked – he wasn’t a bibliophile and his books didn’t even have proper shelves…It was narratives he sought in books, well-told stories.”
Espinosa is more interested in an engrossing story than he is in a particular edition, and he’s got lots of company. Many lovers of reading aren’t as particular about one or another edition as they are about the stories within.
Hǻkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren is also a bibliophile and a reader. In fact, in later novels that feature him, Van Veeteren has purchased ownership in a bookshop. He still keeps his hand in, you might say, when it comes to investigating crime. But he also loves books and reading. So does Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He loves to read the classics, although that’s not the only sort of book he reads, and since his wife Paola Falier teaches English literature, the two of them have interesting discussions about books and authors. Brunetti’s love of reading comes through in many of Leon’s novels. For instance, in About Face, he and Paola are invited to her parents’ home for a small dinner party. One of the other guests is the enigmatic Franca Marinello, who’s married to a potential business associate of Paola’s father. She and Brunetti fall into conversation about books and they find a shared interest in the work of Cicero, among other authors. Later, it turns out that Franca and her husband may be involved in a murder that Brunetti is investigating, and it’s interesting to see how that shared love of reading plays a role in the interactions Brunetti has with her.
Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s sleuth Rhapsody Gershwin is also a bibliophile and an avid reader. She’s a librarian in the village of Knavesborough, and her knowledge of books comes in handy in the cases she investigates. For instance, in The Cosy Knave, she and her fiancé Constable Archibald Penrose investigate the stabbing death of Rose Walnut-Whip. They’re just starting when there’s another death: Jack Warburton, who was once Rose’s fiancé, is pushed off a local tower. Rhapsody Gershwin’s feel for books and reading doesn’t provide the main clue to these murders, but it does add a layer of depth to her character. Her familiarity with the library and its contents also makes her a very effective researcher.
It’s nice to know, isn’t it, that some of our favourite fictional sleuths share our love of reading. For instance, there’s Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who would rather read (and tend his orchids) that solve cases at times. It just goes to show that the love of reading is so strong that it’s as much a part of the fictional world as it is the real world.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blind Melon’s No Rain.