People who love books – whether it be reading. collecting. selling, loaning or repairing them – appear very frequently in crime fiction. I guess this is not terribly surprising given that a lot of crime fiction readers and writers are book lovers too. Many of the crime fiction novels featuring bibliophiles of one sort or another also pay homage to the early pioneers of the genre which is a bonus for new readers (it’s a great way to learn about the classics) as well as being fun for more knowledgeable fans who like to spot all the ‘inside baseball’ references.
English antiquarian bookseller Roy H Lewis is also an author with a book-selling hero, Matthew Coll. In the last of five novels in which he features, Death in Verona (1989), Coll travels to Italy to research earlier versions of the story of Lady Capulet which is incorporated into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When the local expert he has been working with is battered to death Coll becomes a suspect and when trying to clear himself encounters all manner of thugs and n’er do wells along with an Italian countess with whom romance blossoms.
Among his works the prolific Lawrence Block has a caper series set in New York featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr who has the dual occupations of bookseller and burglar. Block parodies Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other vintage crime tales in 1997’s The Burglar in the Library where Bernie is aiming to steal a Raymond Chandler first edition from a New England guest house but has to become an investigator of crimes rather than a perpetrator of them when guests start dropping like flies. Fans of classic crime will enjoy this one.
Helma Zukas is the librarian heroine of Jo Dereske’s series set in Washington (the state not the city). To offset the somewhat stereotypical characteristics of her profession Miss Zukas is often joined in sleuthing by her friend Ruth who is an avant-garde artist. In 2001’s Miss Zukas Shelves the Evidence the Chief of Police is nearly killed when investigating a murder and a library book is found near him. Police demand the borrower’s name but in an event that would these days be likely to see her end up in Guantanamo Bay Miss Zukas deletes the patron’s name from the library’s records rather than invade her client’s privacy.
Lorna Barrett’s series featuring Tricia Miles, who runs a New Hampshire bookstore called Haven’t Got A Clue with the assistance of her cat Miss Marple, started with 2008’s Murder is Binding. Tricia’s bookstore is on a whole street of bookstores selling different kinds of books and she comes under suspicion when the owner of the cookbook store is found stabbed to death and a rare book stolen. I love the notion of a whole street of bookstores, the only place I have ever seen such a phenomenon is Hay-On-Wye in Wales which I was lucky enough to visit once. Sigh.
Kate Carlisle has a relatively new cosy series featuring a rare book repairer, Brooklyn Wainright, in San Francisco. The author makes good use of the setting by giving Brooklyn parents who are members of a local commune and there are other quirky touches in this fun series. In the first book, Homicide in Hardcover (2009), Brooklyn is reunited with the man who first introduced her to book restoration but he is murdered later that evening, while clutching a rare copy of Goethe’s Faust which he was in the middle of restoring.
There are two comic crime fiction series set in Ireland which feature book lovers. Ian Sansom’s protagonist is Israel Armstrong whose job as a mobile librarian for Tumdrum and District Public Library while living in a reclaimed chicken coop doesn’t make for the glamorous life he imagined. In the first book in the series, The Case of the Missing Books, Israel first has to recover the 15,000 books that have been…err…borrowed….by locals before he can start his new job properly. The series is very light and from the books I’ve read (Mr Dixon Disappears is the only one I’ve reviewed here) don’t even involve death. (Colin) Bateman’s series about the owner of crime fiction bookshop No Alibi starts with Mystery Man and is more of a satire of the genre. Although there are many other reasons to like the book I am particularly taken with the bookshop’s policy of operating a “James Patterson-free zone“.
Perhaps one of the best known, and certainly one of the longest running, series about a book lover is Carolyn Hart’s series featuring Annie Laurence, owner of the Death on Demand bookstore on a South Carolina island. In the first of 21 books in the series, 1987’s Death on Demand, Annie is hosting a regular gathering of famous mystery writers when one of them dies and she becomes a suspect in the murder. There are odes to crime fiction scattered throughout these books including Annie’s cat’s names (Agatha is one and I think Dorothy another) and the monthly quiz run at the store which requires people to name mystery novels depicted in paintings displayed. I have reviewed Death of the Party, Dead Days of Summer and Dead Man’s Island.
Do you like reading crime fiction about books and book lovers? Can you recommend any others that I haven’t talked about here?
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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week (a book title, an author name, a subject…) Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.
This is the second round of the meme which was first run from late 2009 to early 2010. My contributions that time were discussions of books with one word titles.