Here I’m in the Library*

LibrariesIn Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing the ideal sort of crime. They quickly agree that the crime would be murder, and here’s what Hastings says about the scene of the crime:


‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’


He may have a point. One of the mainstays of older homes of the well-off was always a library. It may not be as common today but the home library has left its mark on crime fiction. I’m only going to mention a few examples; I know you can think of many more than I can.

Christie herself makes effective use of a library in The Body in the Library. One morning, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly awake to learn that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the library of their home Gossington Hall. Neither claims to know the victim, although the police are not completely satisfied about that. Nonetheless, they investigate other possibilities too. The first thing of course is to identify the dead woman. A search of missing person’s records turns up a match with Ruby Keene, an eighteen-year-old professional dancer. There are several suspects, so the police and Miss Marple begin to sift through the possibilities. Then another body is found in a charred car belonging to the last person known to see Ruby alive. Now Miss Marple has to work to find out how the two crimes are related and who could have wanted to kill both victims.

Michael Innes introduces his Inspector Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging. That story features the murder of Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College. When Umpleby is shot in his study (another classic setting!), Appleby is called in and begins to unravel the network of relationships among Umpleby and the other members of the college faculty. It turns out that as you might expect, those relationships were both complicated and at times tense. So more than one person might have had a motive for murder. One of the steps Appleby takes is a thorough search of the victim’s private residence, which includes a personal library. And sure enough, Appleby finds an important clue there. It doesn’t immediately solve the mystery of who killed Umpleby, but it provides some vital information.

Patricia Wentworth’s The Watersplash follows the story of Edward Random, who’s recently returned to the supposedly-peaceful village of Greenings after a family quarrel cut him out of the family fortune. The Random family has a complicated history with its share of infighting, and there’ve always been whispers that Uncle James’ will, which doesn’t mention Edward at all, was superseded by a later will in which Edward does inherit. But that will has never been found.  What’s more, Edward’s cousin Arthur has inherited under the official will, and is not willing to give up the family fortune. Then, William Jackson, who serves as one of the family under-gardeners and claims to have witnessed that new will, is found dead, apparently of an accidental drowning. Then there’s another death. Now Edward Random falls under suspicion of murder. Maude Silver had already been aware of the case (no spoilers as to how) and decides to find out the truth about the will and the murders. And the family library, which is currently being re-catalogued, is the scene of some very important action in the story. It also hides an important clue.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil sees Queen spending some time in Hollywood. He’s taken a house there so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks Queen’s help. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that the heart attack was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father had received. He never told her what frightened him so much about them, but she does know that his business partner Roger Priam has also gotten unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Queen is reluctantly drawn into the case because the intellectual puzzle presented by those ‘gifts’ fascinates him. So he begins to get to know the people in Leander Hill’s and Roger Priam’s lives. Very slowly he makes sense of the packages they’ve received. Then one night, Priam’s library is broken into and one of the books burned. That provides an important clue, and the library itself shows an interesting aspect of Priam’s personality. Not very long after, Roger Priam is nearly killed. Although he’s been unwilling to give Queen any information up to that point, he does talk to Queen after the attempt on his life. Queen finally establishes that Leander Hill was murdered and Roger Priam nearly murdered because of a secret from their pasts.

Lilian Jackson Braun uses personal libraries in a few of her Cat Who… stories. One of them is The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. The local community theatre group has been doing a production of Henry VIII under the direction of local high-school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance, his body is found in his car after an impromptu cast party at the home of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and soon find that Van Brook had made more than his share of enemies. So there are several suspects. One of the important clues in the case comes from VanBrook’s personal library, and there’s an interesting scene in the novel as Qwill is looking through VanBrook’s collection. For a bibliophile like Qwill, the chance to explore a library is irresistible.

And that’s the thing about libraries. They are such atmospheric settings for murder. And even when the deed itself doesn’t take place in the library, there aren’t much better hiding places for clues. Little wonder so many mystery novels have an old family library in them. What do you think? Professor Plum, in the library, with the revolver?  😉

Now I’ve given a few examples, it’s your turn…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mike + the Mechanics’ A House of Many Rooms.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth

31 responses to “Here I’m in the Library*

  1. So true Margot – just hearing the word ‘library’ fills me with expectation farnkly – thanks forthat. We’d all like to have our own, wouldn’t we? My favourite fictional one is probably the one in THE NAME OF THE ROSE!

    • Sergio – Oh, I’d love to have one of those big libraries – I really would! ‘Course, that would probably mean I’d never get to my office… 😉 – Thanks too for mentioning The Name of the Rose. That is a great library isn’t it? I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  2. I love libraries so much that I set one of my own crime novels there. Footfall is set in a fictional independent library in Cambridge and I had a whale of a time inventing all the details of its architecture and history. And of course there just had to be a body in the library . . .

    • Chrissie – Of course there did! How could you resist? And I think those university libraries are fantastic places to set murders, place clues, the whole thing. They just have so much atmosphere.

  3. Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood is set partly in a residential library – it’s very good. And I can guarantee that Christine Poulson’s Footfall is also very good: I read it recently and was very impressed, the library was so well-imagined and very atmospheric.

    • Moira – Right you are about The Hanging Wood. I love the fact that it’s a residential library, too. And Edwards’ Daniel Kind learns quite a lot there. Folks, do try Edwards’ Lake District mysteries if you’ve not done that yet.
      Thanks also for the recommendation for Footfall. It certainly has all of the ingredients that get my interest!

  4. Scriblet

    As a future librarian myself, I can’t think of a better universal setting. University libraries, old mansions, Victorian rowhouse study/library combinations, the original public libraries of Prague, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Rome, etc.

    There’s a short story waiting to be written tonight. I think I’ll call it “Death by Papercut.” Thank you for the inspiration, Margot!

    • Scriblet – Oh, I like the title already! I hope you’ll be willing to share your story on your blog, because I’m very intrigued. And honoured that something I wrote got you thinking. You’re right too that libraries are terrific settings for all kinds of stories, including crime fiction. They are so full of atmosphere, history, visual beauty and lots more. You’re fortunate you’ll be working in one.

      • Scriblet

        I’ll be sure to let you know when I finish it. It’s grown in my little head so I’m going to expand and I think I’m going to submit it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine!

        Thank you, Margot! I never would have been inspired this way without your post!

  5. I couldn’t think of a better place for a murder than in a library. In particular I’m thinking about the basement stacks at McGill where I spent so many hours. Come to think of it, it was spooky there 🙂

    • Carol – University libraries really do have that kind of atmosphere about them don’t they? But still, lucky you to get to work in McGill’s library! 🙂 – I think what’s interesting about the old-style home libraries is that they also have the imprint (yes, pun intended) of the owner’s personality. And that can add to a story.

  6. LIbraries: one of my favourite places in the world (though preferably cadaver-free). I was going to suggest The Name of the Rose too – one of my favourite library-related mysteries (in which the library itself becomes a co-participant almost in the mystery and murder). Such good recommendations for other books with library settings – must add to my list!

    • Marina Sofia – I love libraries too, and you’re right; The Name of the Rose really does have a wonderful, atmospheric library. It has a personality, if I can put it that way. I hope you’ll enjoy some of these other books if you get the chance to read them. And yes, I prefer libraries to be cadaver-free too in real life.

  7. Great examples, here and some books for me to reread (and read!)

    I thought of Lawrence Block’s “The Burglar in the Library.” Particularly enjoyed that Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery. Nice “locked-room” feel to the story.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for the example of The Burglar in the Library. Bernie Rhodenbarr’s a great character; I need to get re-acquainted with him!

  8. Elizabeth Duncan

    Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By, my 2013 release, is set in Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, North Wales. A stunning building and the only prime ministerial library in the UK.

  9. Not crime, I know, but there are some wonderful M R James ghost stories involving libraries both private (Mr Humphreys’s Inheritance) and university (The Tractate Middoth).

  10. Col

    Nothing major, current book I’m reading Dead Gone – Luca Veste has a couple of scenes in a University Library. Not too far in yet, so the setting may be of minor importance to how the plot unfolds. I’ll read on and find out. One victim is agitated and distracted whilst studying in there, so I’ll see.

    • Col – Sounds like an interesting start. And even if the library isn’t central to the plot, I am biased towards a library setting. I’ll look forward to your review when you’ve finished.

  11. The first death in David Hewson’s Nic Costa series (A season for the Dead) happens in the Vatican reading room as a man is shot dead by the guards – but was he attempting murder or provoking ‘suicide by cop’…??

    • FictionFan – Oooh, that’s a good example! Thank you. And the Vatican Reading Room is such a beautifully atmospheric (I know, I keep using that word but it’s appropriate) place for the murder. You’ve filled in a gap there, and reminded me that I must dive deeper into that series.

  12. Chrissie’s comment on MR James makes me inevitably think of his story ‘Casting the runes’ (which I believe has a library scene in it), of course adapted into the unforgettable movie Night of the Demon. Thanks for mentioning Cat Who Knew a Cardinal – a great book. Then there’s Mary Lou Kirwin’s Killer Librarian, a book I admit to owning but confess to not having read yet.

    • Bryan – Oh, yes of course! Night of the Demon! I’d forgotten about that. Thanks for mentioning it. I agree with you too about The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. One of Braun’s better novels in my opinion. I’ve not (yet) read Killer Librarian, either, so I look forward to your views on it when you’ve had a chance to read it.

    • Yes, ‘Casting the Runes’ has a scene in the old British Library Reading room, where as a postgrad I spent many hours trying to stay awake.

  13. Scriblet

    Mart, may I please include a link to this post in my post “I’m Easy. Entertain Me.?” I mentioned how wonderful and inspiring talking with other writers can be and immediately thought of how you post inspired a short story.

  14. Pingback: I’m Easy. Entertain Me. #AtoZChallenge | Scriblet

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