Getting to Know You Well*

Learning From BookshelvesLet’s say you’re invited to someone’s home for the first time. What’s the first thing that’s likely to pique your curiosity? If you’re a book lover, chances are that one of the first things you’ll want to look at is your host’s book collection. Part of that is, of course, that book lovers are drawn to books. But there’s also the fact that books tell a lot about their owners.

You can often tell people’s taste, education level, hobbies or special interests, and much more just from looking at their bookshelves. So it’s not surprising that we get curious about what’s on others’ shelves.

There are plenty of examples in crime fiction of what we learn from people’s bookshelves. That makes sense, too. For one thing, it’s realistic. For another, those details can add a lot to character development without having to go into a lot of narrative explanation.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London from a trip through the Middle East. He’s persuaded to interrupt his travels to help investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, have been staying at the expedition house of an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, Louise is murdered in her room. Poirot is of the belief that the more one learns about a victim, the closer one gets to the truth about that victim’s death. So he takes a close look at, among other things, Louise’s collection of books. Interestingly enough, they tell him quite a lot about her personality, and that proves to be key to solving the mystery of her death. I know, I know, fans of Evil Under the Sun.

Ellery Queen is able to draw some conclusions from a book collection in The Origin of Evil. In that novel, he’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping for some quiet time to write. That’s not what happens, though. One day, he’s visited by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, who tells him she believes her father Leander was murdered. According to Laurel, he’d been receiving a series of eerie and unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Those parcels caused the heart attack that actually killed him. In fact, Laurel says that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, has been getting similar deliveries. At first, Queen is unwilling to do any investigation. But Laurel is nothing if not persistent. So he finally agrees. Naturally, he wants to speak to Priam, but Priam refuses to discuss the matter. That is, until an attempt is made on his life. He reluctantly allows Queen to investigate; as you might expect, Queen is drawn to his book collection. Priam has an impressive and expensive library. But oddly enough (‘though not surprising), it’s clear that Priam hasn’t read any of the books he owns. He simply amassed the collection because that’s what wealthy men are ‘supposed to’ do: have extensive libraries. It’s a very interesting case of using a character’s book collection to show what that character is like.

The main plot in Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back concerns the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is discovered near a tarn not far from her village, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. At first, they don’t get very far. Annie was well-liked and had a good relationship with her mother and stepfather. She had an on-again/off-again relationship with her boyfriend, Halvor Muntz, but it was never violent. Halvor claims that he’s innocent, and there really is no reason to believe otherwise. Still, he wants to be sure his name is cleared. He also wants to find a way to cope with the grief he’s feeling over Annie’s loss. So he starts to go through her computer files to find anything that might shed light on the case. The problem is that her computer is password-protected. In trying to narrow down the password, Halvor immediately thinks of books and characters that Annie’s talked about before. He knows what any reader knows: those who love books take them to heart. It’s an example of using people’s taste in books to find out more about them.

Sometimes, a look at someone’s books can reveal a commonality. It might be a shared interest, a shared ‘go to’ author, or something else. And those commonalities can help to build relationships. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation of the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. As if that’s not enough, there’s vandalism at the university where Joanne works. It’s meant that several colleagues are temporarily out of their offices as repairs are made, so Joanne gets a temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. One night, he invites her and her daughter Taylor to dinner at the home he shares with his partner, Barry Levitt. Taylor is a gifted artist, and, as it turns out, Barry is quite knowledgeable about art. And in one scene, she ends up with a supply of art books he’s loaned her. It goes to show how people’s books can let us know what their interests are.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa, who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa certainly puts a lot of time into his work. But he also loves books and reading. He has a large collection, and in fact, dreams of someday owning a bookshop. Espinosa doesn’t have lots of bookshelves to show his collection. They’re stacked on top of one another in various parts of his home. And that in itself shows something about Espinosa as a reader. He’s not a bibliophile in the sense of wanting particular editions of particular classic novels, and so on. Rather, he loves the stories that books tell. And you can see that just from looking at the way he stores his books.

You may not think about it until, well, you actually think about it. But the books we have really do say a lot about us. In my case, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Feeder.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

38 responses to “Getting to Know You Well*

  1. Oh cripes I am worried now. I have lots on archaeology, pathology and criminology etc, the Universe and astronomy…dozens of crime novels, all Daphne Du Maurier and most of Agatha Christie…books on history and Native Americans, various dictionaries and similar. Books on nutrition and image and style, and about the music business and the Mafia and music…dear God! I think I need therapy. I am seriously worried now and think I won’t be inviting anyone round for a drinks until I hide some of them…poisons and means of murder without a trace comes to mind…I am nice really I am. Anyone for Sherry? 🙂

    • Sherry sounds delicious, Jane 🙂 – And I know what you mean about the kinds of books on your shelves. I have all sorts of books that I’m sure might make people wonder. That’s one thing I like about having a Kindle. Those titles aren’t immediately ‘out there’ for guests to see…

  2. I once did a blogpost on a slightly obscure 30s novel, Crewe Train by Rose MacAulay. I was super-impressed that you came to comment and told me that it was one of the books on Louise Leidner’s shelf, as above. Now that’s red-hot, solid gold trivia knowledge!

  3. Great post, Margot – really enjoyed it.

  4. Margot, I’m disappointed when I don’t see books in other people’s homes — it limits conversation. Of course, the absence of books or bookshelves doesn’t mean my hosts do not read, but it is a reassuring sight.

  5. I’ve never thought about it before, but you’re so right. Now I’m going to worry every time someone comes to visit that they’ll think I’m planning the perfect murder, with my non-fiction books on autopsies and forensics and the dark and gritty crime novels. If I see them scanning my books, I’ll just wink. Freak them right out. Mwahahaha. LOL

    • 😆 You know, Sue, people should expect that sort of book collection from a crime writer… In all seriousness, I think it is interesting to see what conclusions people draw from others’ books.

  6. I love looking at other people’s bookshelves. I recently viewed some properties while my mother was house hunting and was drawn to books or bookshelves in each one we saw. To misquote Marcus Tullius Cicero, “A house without books is a house without soul”!

  7. Like most book lovers I’m driven to peruse book shelves in houses that I visit – and I always check out my brother’s who reads many true-crime books, to see what’s come into his possession since I was last there. I often wonder what people think of my books when they visit, I’m sure my choices surprise those who haven’t had a discussed books with me previously!

    • I know just what you mean, Cleo! I often wonder what people would think of my shelves, too. You’re right, too; it’s always nice to look at the bookshelves of people you know, too, to see what they’ve acquired.

  8. Great post. Very interesting and informative.

  9. kathyd

    What’s that Portuguese saying? A home without a dog or cat is the home of a scoundrel. I could say that about a home without books, which is anathema to me.
    I have a lot of mysteries and other fiction, books on health, history, politics and a few assorted volumes.
    I do like that Espinosa reads and Guido Brunetti reads Greek and Roman history. And enjoy that Salvo Montalbano reads crime fiction, including books written by Camilleri!

    • I think that’s a great touch, too, Kathy. And all of those characters just seem more real since they read. I’m glad you reminded me of that saying, too; it could definitely be adapted to include books.

  10. I think the one thing folks would conclude about me from my book collection is that I read a little bit of everything and I support our local authors alongside the best sellers. :D.

    • And I really like both of those things, Pat! It is so important to support local authors, isn’t it? And eclectic reading really gives one a broader perspective on what’s out there.

  11. It makes me wonder how these old detectives would learn more about our book collections if we’ve gone all e-book reader!

  12. Margot: I thought of a different home being the Benedictine monastery in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco with the fabulous library. I am familiar with Benedictine monks and each of their monasteries will still have a fine library. They have extensive theological collections but are far more diverse than many would expect for a community of monks.

    • Oh, that’s such an interesting perspective on this, Bill! And those monastery libraries frequently do hold all sorts of literary gems, both expected and unexpected. There’s something about the connection between monks and learning, isn’t there…

  13. Interesting post, Margot. 🙂

  14. Col

    I think I’d rather look at someone’s books than talk to them on a visit – probably explains why I have so few friends!

  15. Great analysis, Margot, on books and what they say about us – and sometimes the clues they provide for the sleuth…:-)

  16. tracybham

    The thing I love about the Inspector Espinosa series is how much he loves books. Now I have to read more of them.

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