When most of us think of books, we think of the pleasure of reading. That’s treasure enough in itself. But books can serve other purposes, too. For instance, they’re very good hiding places for things. Don’t believe me? All you need to do is take a quick look through crime fiction.
For example, in Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black, philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm report that a valuable stamp – a one-penny black, with Queen Victoria’s signature on it – has been stolen from their collection. On the same day, a man rushes into a nearby bookshop followed by police. The man disappears through the back of the store before the police can catch him. Then, the next day, the bookshop owner reports that someone came in and bought all of his copies of a book called Europe in Chaos. To add to the oddness, certain customers who’ve bought copies of that book have been robbed of those copies. Ellery Queen figures out that whoever stole the stamp probably hid it in a copy of Europe in Chaos as an emergency measure, and then went back to get it later (hence the need to buy and steal as many copies of that book as possible). But where is the stamp now? Who hid it? And what’s the truth about the robbery? It’s not as simple as you might think.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers is taking a cruise of the Nile. Among them are Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband Simon. On the second night of the journey, she is shot. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jacqueline could not be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot, who is on this cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. As he does so, he finds out a great deal about some of the other characters. And it turns out that one of them has been using hollowed-out books for an ingenious purpose…
A hollowed-out book turns out to be both lucrative and very dangerous in Harry Whittington’s Fires That Destroy. In that novel, we meet Beatrice Harper, secretary to wealthy businessman Lloyd Deerman. When she finds a cache of US$24,000 in a hollowed out book she can’t resist the opportunity to get her hands on that money. So she devises a plan. Deerman drinks more than he should, so one night, when he’s had plenty, she pushes him down a staircase to his death. Now Beatrice has the money; and at first, it opens up a world of privilege, good-looking young men, cars, and so on. But Beatrice doesn’t find it easy to live with the guilt of what she’s done. And her new boyfriend Carlos has his own demons. They try to start life over in Florida, but that only makes matters worse. Soon enough, life spins out of control for both of them. The saying that money can’t buy happiness turns out to be tragically true.
In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, the local community theatre group is doing a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII under the direction of high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the murder and soon find that VanBrook had made more than his share of enemies. One of the clues in this case actually comes from VanBrook’s personal library. Qwilleran finds a hollowed-out book in which there’s a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. In each of those books, Qwill finds a cache of money. Working out where the money came from and what this particular code means turns out to be essential to finding the killer.
And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh lives and works in Delhi, but travels to her home town in the state of Punjab at the request of an old friend who’s now the state’s inspector general. He’s faced with a baffling and difficult murder case. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and several stabbed as well. What’s more, their house has been set on fire. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. It isn’t clearly evident whether she committed the murders, or is a victim who just happened to stay alive, and she’s said nearly nothing about the crime since the night it happened. The hope is that Simran will be able to get Durga to talk about the night of the murders, so that the police will know what steps to take. At first, Durga is reluctant to say much of anything, and Simran herself isn’t too enthusiastic about this case. But gradually the two start to communicate. At one point, Durga, who’s being kept in makeshift quarters in an adult prison, asks Simran to retrieve some of her books from the family home. Simran agrees, and gathers the materials. When she does, she finds a photograph that falls out of one of the books. It’s not a ‘photo of Durga, but all the same, it’s disturbing in its way. And it proves to be an important clue as Simran searches for the truth about what happened to the Atwal family and what led to it.
You see? Books are a never-ending source of interesting things, aren’t they? And I didn’t even mention the number of stories in which people find wills, names on a flyleaf, or margin notes in books – too easy!! And all of this isn’t even to mention actually reading them…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spock’s Beard’s On a Perfect Day.