In 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.