With today’s easy digital access to information, it’s often possible for people to do background reading without leaving their homes or offices. Many articles are available online (although some come with a fee). In other cases, one can order a copy of a journal or a book. And that makes research much easier than it used to be. Trust me.
But, speaking strictly for myself, there’s something about doing research in an actual university or college library. For one thing, many of them are beautiful buildings, so the surroundings are a treat in themselves. And, when a university has generous benefactors and donors, there’s a chance it will have rare, even priceless, manuscripts, books, and so on. That’s a dream come true to scholars and bibliophiles. Many university libraries also have scholarly books and journals that a public library might not carry. That, too, is very helpful if you’re doing research.
University libraries also have a rich sense of atmosphere. And you never know what you’ll find out in them. And that can make them very effective settings in crime fiction.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, for instance, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, when a disturbing series of events starts happening. She goes to the school under the pretext of doing research for a new novel, so she spends her share of time in the college’s library. And that library plays a critical role in solving the mystery. For instance, some important manuscripts are taken from the library; others are defaced. There’s other vandalism, too. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who’s behind the trouble at the college. And it turns out that the mystery is rooted in a longstanding grievance that one of the characters has.
Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series will know that much of it takes place in the town (and sometimes on the campus) of Oxford. And that means that Morse is familiar with several of Oxford’s libraries. They play roles in a few of the novels, too. For instance, in The Wench is Dead, Morse is recovering from a bleeding ulcer. During his recuperation, he is given a copy of Murder on the Oxford Canal, which tells the story of the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time of the murder, two men were arrested, convicted, and executed in connection with the death. But Morse isn’t sure that they were guilty. So, he decides to look into the case. He can’t get about very well, so he gets help from Sergeant Lewis, as well as from Christine Greenaway, one of the Bodleian’s librarians. And that background information proves to be very useful as Morse looks into the murder again.
Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James mysteries take place at Cambridge, where James is head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College. In the first of the series, Murder is Academic, James gets involved when her predecessor, Margaret Joplin, is found dead. The trail leads to another case, which James wants to look up. So, she goes to the university’s library:
‘There was nowhere else I would rather have been than this library, in this city. In fact, I’d like to live in the library. I’d often wondered if that would be possible. Of course, you’d have to hide at closing time.’
During this particular visit, James has a frightening experience that plays its role in the outcome of the mystery. And it’s interesting how quickly its atmosphere changes from warm, safe, and beautiful to sinister.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a former academician, so she, too, is quite familiar with university libraries. And the one at her institution figures into Burying Ariel. In that novel, one of Bowen’s colleagues, Kevin Coyle, is accused of sexual assault. There isn’t clear-cut evidence, and the case begins to divide the department. Then, Ariel Warren, a lecturer in the same department, is found stabbed to death in the basement of the university’s library. Coyle is convinced that her murder is related to his case. But there are other possibilities, too. And it turns out that this killing has to do with the network of relationships on campus.
And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who teaches at Kenan College, a small school in North Carolina. Shaw’s very familiar with the inner workings of university libraries, and finds them helpful as he looks into past murders that still impact the present. In Simon Said, for instance, Shaw looks into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth when her bones are discovered on a piece of property that’s about to be deeded to the college. And in The Fugitive King, Shaw investigates the 1957 murder of Eva Potter. In both cases, he uses university libraries (both Kenan College’s and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s) to get background information on the cases. Those old records prove to be very helpful.
My own Joel Williams, who teaches at Tilton University, finds a very helpful old map and some old records in the university’s library in Past Tense. In that novel, he works with the Tilton, Pennsylvania, police to find out who’s responsible for the 1974 murder of a Tilton University student, Bryan Roades.
University libraries have all sorts of fascinating records, rare books and manuscripts, and much more. So, it’s no wonder they’re still a beacon for scholars, even in today’s digital world. And they can serve as effective atmospheres.
ps The ‘photo is of the university library where I spent my share of time during my undergraduate years. It wasn’t grand or glorious, but I have good memories of it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Haunted Love’s Librarian.