I’ll Let You Touch the First Editions*

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.


Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gail Bowen, Sarah R. Shaber

28 responses to “I’ll Let You Touch the First Editions*

  1. And let’s not forget Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time in which the detective, DI Grant, never leaves his hospital bed but through research and books “solves” the mystery of Richard III’s murder of the young boys.

  2. I love university libraries – and appropriately enough, today was the 264th anniversary of the British Museum, where I spent many happy days writing up my Ph.D. thesis back in the days when the British Library was housed there and I was in the reading room where so many famous people had studied.
    You’ve also reminded me that I really need to explore the Christine Poulson series, which takes place in one of my very favourite places. I actually have one of her books on my Kindle, but it’s so easy to forget about the things you have in electronic format, unlike seeing them on your bookshelves. All the more reason why open access libraries are so important!

    • Absolutely, Marina Sofia! And I do recommend Christine’s books. They’re well-written, with solid characters and a lovely Cambridge setting. I think you’d like them very much. Thanks, too, for mentioning the British Museum’s birthday. Oddly enough, I hadn’t thought of that when I prepared this post. The timing just worked out well. Lucky you do have had the chance to work there.

  3. I am with you, Margot, in loving libraries and am a member of a wonderful subscription library, the London Library. Perhaps a bit out of our remit, but there are some wonderful ghost stories set in libraries – I’m thinking of M. R. James – and I think the British Library has just published a collection called The Haunted Library. I also researched my PhD in the old British Library reading room where I struggled to stay awake after lunch!

    • Lucky you, Christine, to have had the chance to do research in the old British Library! I’d have loved that opportunity. And trust me, you’re not the only one who nodded off over a stack of books and notes… Thanks, too, for mentioning M.R. James’ work Doesn’t matter if it’s a bit out of our remit, it’s still a great addition. There’s something about ghosts and haunting that just…works with old libraries, isn’t there?

  4. Ah, yet another post that “touches” me, Margot. The third book in my mystery series is predicated on the historical findings of an early “victim” who was researching (in a university library) Hernando de Soto’s 1539-40 winter encampment in what is now Tallahassee, FL. What the young professor discovered set in motion a chain of murder, betrayal, and cover-up. So interesting to learn that authors “higher up the ladder” have used a similar scenario. 🙂

    • Oh, that is interesting, Michael! Thanks for sharing. Your story sounds intriguing, too! You never know what someone’ll find out by digging up dangerous history…

  5. There is a particularly gory scene at the start of David Hewson’s A Season for the Dead which takes place in the Reading Room of the Vatican library – and not one librarian said “Shhh!” 😉

    I love the sound of the BL’s Haunted Library collection – how have I managed to miss that one? Must scuttle off and track it down…

    • Oh, I know, FictionFan – it sounds delicious, doesn’t it? A natural fit, I think, between ‘haunted’ and a library like that! And thanks for mentioning the Hewett. You’d think the librarian would make a fuss about that much noise, wouldn’t you?? 😉 Just shows you that even libraries are not the safe, quiet places they’re always touted to be…

  6. mudpuddle

    i just tried to get a copy of “Past Tense” from Abebooks and they didn’t have it… where’s another place to try?

  7. Vijayalakshmi Harish

    There is nothing better than bodies in libraries 😊

  8. Col

    Not familiar with your examples though I’m hoping to get introduced to Mr Williams at some point. I’ll move him up the pile!

  9. Margot: No bodies in the university libraries of my youth. My law school library in the 1970’s was not a great place to study during regular hours as it was chaotic and loud. Some of us did study regularly there after it closed. We did get grief ordering a pizza to the library one Saturday night. I always thought anyone staying late in a library is not a danger though I expect students can no longer stay after closing in our current world.

    • The world has changed a lot, hasn’t it, Bill? Libraries do have a lot more security than they did. I think that’s inventive, to order a pizza to the library during your study hours. I can see how the library stuff might not have been overly pleased, but I can also see how it would make sense.

  10. Libraries are a wonderful place, there is just something about them that draws me in. They offer a great place to find (and hide) secrets. Fun post, Margot. Thanks for sharing.

    • University libraries draw me in, too, Mason. And they are, I think, really effective settings for stories. Thanks for the kind words; glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. I’ve just remembered that Carla Banks’s fine novel, The Forest of Souls, begins with – yes! – a body in a library or more accurately, a murder taking place in a library.

  12. kathy d.

    I’m trying to think of bodies in libraries and can’t think of anyone. And I must say that I love libraries and as a child, I wanted to become a librarian. My library in Chicago was a great place, and it seemed to hold every book I wanted to read.
    However, my college library was not so well-equipped, and with the cutbacks in city libraries, my local branch has few books in it. Everyone uses the computers to do research there or pick up reserved books or dvd’s.
    It seems as if a great deal of research is now done on computers, which is what I use when I have to delve into news and history. Now, we could have bodies slumped over in front of computer screens.

    • It’s certainly true that we do a lot of research on the computer these days, Kathy. I didn’t know that you’d wanted to be a librarian. I toyed with that idea, too, because, like you, I’ve always loved libraries. You were fortunate to grow up near such well-equipped libraries, too. Funding cutbacks have meant that a lot of libraries don’t have the funds they used to have; I hope that changes.

  13. kathy d.

    Yes, libraries were great and so were librarians. The school librarian at my Chicago elementary school got me even more interested in reading in sixth grade.

  14. Circling round – I’m another big fan of Christine Poulson’s books, and the third Cassandra James book, Footfall, is fully of books, academics and a private library…

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