‘‘We could all read. Me and Martin next door and Jennifer down the road and Cyril and Winifred. All of us. I don’t mean we could all spell very well but we could read anything we wanted to.’’
I’d imagine that’s probably true for a lot of people. There is still, unfortunately, plenty of illiteracy in the world. But, according to one study I read, just over 84% of the world’s population has at least some functional literacy.
If you’re literate, and you weren’t born into great wealth and privilege, you arguably owe at least some of that to Johannes Gutenberg. As you’ll know, he’s credited with inventing the movable-type printing press. That invention had far-reaching effects. For one thing, it made books and, therefore, written ideas, accessible to people who weren’t necessarily very wealthy. For another, it arguably contributed to the rise of the middle class. And that’s to say nothing of the printing press’ impact on the sharing of information, the development of newspapers, and so on.
And certainly, the ideas in books play an important role in crime fiction. In Postern of Fate, for instance, an important clue to a long-ago murder is found in a novel. When Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move into a new home, they find quite a collection of books. Tuppence is going through them when she notices that one of the books has been marked in an unusual way, with some words underlined. The book belonged to a boy named Alexander Parkinson, who later died. The clue,
‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally’
refers to the death of a woman during the World War I era. As the Beresfords start to look into the case, they learn that it still resonates decades later.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce may be a pre-teenager, but she’s already developed into a knowledgeable chemist. She’s an avid reader, too, who often finds useful information in the books she chooses. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia meets a Gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête. The experience goes very badly, and Flavia feels responsible. So, she invites the Gypsy to stay on the property of Buckshaw, where she lives with her father and two older sisters. When the Gypsy is later murdered, Flavia takes a personal interest in the case. She finds out that more than one person might have been responsible. Interestingly, it’s actually a book of history that gives Flavia a major clue to the killer.
Donna Leon’s About Face introduces readers to Franca Marinello. One night, she and her husband, Maruizio Cataldo, are invited to dinner at the home of Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Falier is contemplating doing business with Cataldo, and he wants to get to know the man. Also invited that evening are Falier’s daughter, Paola, and her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti. During the meal, Brunetti finds that he and Franca Marinello have a common interest in Cicero. That interest forms a thread through the novel, and actually plays a role when Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzato, who owned a trucking company. The key to this murder, and to another murder that occurs in the novel, is Franca Marinello. And Brunetti gets some real insight from his knowledge of Cicero.
As the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library, Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong loves books, and once dreamed of being a librarian at a major university, or even with the British Library. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Books, though, that’s not how things have turned out. Instead, Armstrong is hired to drive the mobile library bus, so that patrons in remote areas can access books. It’s not at all the sort of job he’d had in mind, but he’s left without much choice. So, he resolves to get started. When he tries to get the mobile library bus ready, though, he discovers that all fifteen thousand of the library’s books are missing. When Armstrong reports this to Linda Wei, who actually hired him, and who is the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services, she tells him that it’s his responsibility to find the books. After all, she points out, he is the librarian. So, Armstrong has to turn sleuth and find the books. Among other things, this series shows how important access to books is to a lot of people.
And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. As fans will know, Mma Ramotswe has a much-beloved copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. She consults it frequently, and depends on the book for all sorts of advice. For instance, in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Mma Ramotswe’s second cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. It seems that there’ve been three deaths at the hospital recently. All three occurred on the same day of the week (‘though during different weeks), and all three patients were in the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It’s already been established that there were no pathogens involved, so Rra Monyena doesn’t know what might have been responsible. If the hospital’s reputation comes into question, though, this could be catastrophic. So, Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter. When she goes to the hospital, she brings along Mr. Polopetsi, her newest assistant. And it turns out that that was a wise choice, since he is very familiar with the area and the people who live there. According to Clovis Anderson,
‘Local knowledge is like gold.’
It’s that sort of wisdom that Mma Ramotswe seeks, and sometimes finds, in the book.
You see? Books themselves play an important role in crime fiction. If you think about it, we likely wouldn’t even have the genre if we didn’t have easy access to books. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that we owe the genre in part to Gutenberg…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Printer’s Trade.