Murder in the Library

Murder in the Library: an A-Z of Crime Fiction, is an entertaining exhibition at the British Library, running until 12 May 2012, and I thoroughly recommend it to all fans of the genre. Although modest in scale, it is packed with interest, and most important of all, it contains some items that will surprise and intrigue even the most knowledgeable crime enthusiast.

Organised along alphabetical lines, the exhibition’s curator has made plenty of unexpected choices. It was a very good idea, in my opinion, not to opt for a straightforward chronological account of the genre’s development. To make that seem fresh, much more space would have been needed. Instead, we have a number of snapshots of the genre at different times, and from different perspectives, and the result is pleasingly idiosyncratic.

Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes are, of course, very well represented, with a display of the first Marple short story (in the Royal Magazine from 1927) and Conan Doyles’ handwritten manuscript of “The Retired Colourman”. But there is much else besides. D is for Dave Robicheaux, for instance, James Lee Burke’s charismatic detective. Good as Lee Burke is, the choice might seem counter-intuitive, but it is an effective way of illustrating the range of the genre.

So too are the fleeting references to crime fiction from non-English speaking sources. Nordic crime fiction, fashionably, earns coverage, but so too does The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a Japanese best-seller that looks terrific, and Mr Deaxley’s Silent Box, the work of a writer from Georgia, which is in the tradition of those crime dossiers put together at the end of the Thirties by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links.

The Golden Age is well represented. One of the more intriguing items on display is The Jig-Saw Puzzle Murder by Walter Eberhardt, which dates from 1933. Here was a book that was sold complete with a jig-saw puzzle. The idea was that you read the story, but then needed to solve the puzzle in order to find out whodunit. A few book-puzzles along these lines were produced in the Thirties, including one Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws. Because it’s in the nature of things that jig-saw puzzle pieces go missing, complete puzzles with books in good condition are now, as the exhibition notes point out, collectors’ items.

Among other delights, the exhibition features Antonia Fraser’s notes for her first book about Jemima Shore, a detective in the classic tradition who made it to television in the person of Patricia Hodge, and Sir John Gielgud’s cuttings books, which includes a wonderful photograph of him in full regalia as Oxford University Vice-Chancellor when he made a guest appearance in Inspector Morse.

One of the things that I find rather exciting about this exhibition is that it seems to reflect a growing interest, not only in crime fiction as a subject, but also in its history. Detective stories are often not written with the aim of holding up a mirror to the society in which they are produced, but in practice they often do just that. This is as true of the supposedly superficial, plot-heavy confections of the Golden Age as it is of more recent books.

As Archivist of both the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club, I’ve found it utterly enthralling (if at times challenging, because of the paucity of records) to try to trace the history of the genre, both in the UK and further afield. One thing I’ve learned is that many of the ideas that seem so topical today also cropped up long ago. An example is the interest in fact crime kindled by Kate Summerscales’ best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. As the British Library exhibition indicates, the Constance Kent case was an inspiration for Victorian crime fiction, and real life cases have continued to influence crime novelists ever since.

If you are visiting central London in the near future, I’m sure you’ll find plenty in the exhibition to amuse and intrigue you. The British Library has demonstrated that the history of crime fiction is not only fun – it’s fascinating.