The Folio Society Gallery in the British Library is an odd bit of space between the main staircase and the coffee bar. At present and for another week it is occupied by a slightly eccentric but delightful exhibition, called Murder in the Library: An A- Z of Crime Fiction. Tory Historian visited it a couple of times and took copious notes.
The biggest criticism is that too many of the exhibits are modern and unexciting paperbacks even though the British Library must have original copies of first editions of all crime books, which are of greater interest.
The entrance to the exhibition (just above the escalator) has a quotation from Monsignor Knox and his famous Decalogue, which laid down all the rules that good detective writers (especially Agatha Christie) proceeded to break.
What of the actual alphabet? It is quite remarkably eccentric. The curator or curators who put it together seem to have been at a loss occasionally as to what to put for some letters.
A is for Agatha Christie, which is understandable. Only two authors merit a letter of their own: she and Wilkie Collins under W. Presumably, they could not be both put under C. Curiously enough only two detectives merit a letter of their own as well, also under their first names, which is somewhat inappropriate in the case of Holmes, who comes under S for Sherlock. Nobody, apart from Mycroft called him that. The other detective, though, is picked for some mysterious reason: D is for Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s series character, who is fairly well known but hardly in the same category of fame and importance as Sherlock Holmes.
The Dave Robicheaux exhibit also carried a most irritating comment:
The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007), set against the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was described as the best fictional response to the catastrophe and a work which completely transcended the limitations of the genre.
Tory Historian feels that if the genre’s limitations are so easily transcended then they cannot possibly be all that stringent. Also, this is an exhibition about the genre and its many possibilities. Why bother with those who “transcend” it? Do they produce better literature or just worse detective stories?
B is a somewhat random choice - Better Known As – and it lists various people like Gipsy Rose Lee, who were better known as something else but wrote detective stories as well.
C gives us Clues and D has been described above. E is Ecclesiastica, an adequate but, naturally enough, not exhaustive list of detective stories written by or about religious personalities. One could have a whole exhibition devoted just to that aspect of the subject.
F is for Forensic and G for Golden Age that displays a copy of Trent’s Last Case, published 100 years ago, Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, Ronald Knox’s Still Dead for some reason, as it is neither particularly good or particularly important, and Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery.
H is, inevitably, for Hardboiled, with
and Hammett on display and I is another rather whimsical one: Is
This The First? with The Murders
in the Rue Morgue giving us the answer yes. J is for Jigsaw with the
little known but fascinating The
Jig-Saw Puzzle Murder by Walter Eberhardt [scroll down]. The book
included a jigsaw puzzle that you had to complete after reading the novel to
find out who did the murder. Or so TH understood. Chandler
K is for Kidnap and it concentrated on Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and the original crime that it was loosely based on, the disappearance and reappearance of Elizabeth Canning in the mid-eighteenth century.
L is for Locked Room Mysteries, displaying The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston LeRoux, The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr, the novel that includes a long lecture by Dr Fell on the different types of locked room mysteries and a book about the Great Merlini by Claude Rawson, an unexpected and welcome addition.
M is for Mayhem Parva that rather whimsical description of the supposedly cosy English village where endless murders are committed, coined by Colin Watson. Curiously enough, the example put up is The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham, a deeply uncomfortable novel, the very opposite of cosy.
Then we go on to some of the obvious themes: N for Nordic Noir (though where is the Italian crime wave, the trend that overwhelmed us all just before the Nordic one?) and O for
(another subject that could take up an exhibition all by itself
though Cantabrians might complain). P is for Police with William Russell,
Simenon, Ed McBain and Andrea
Camilleri who, apparently, did not start writing or, at least, publishing
his Inspector Montalbano series till quite an advanced age. Oxford
Q had to be Queens of Crime though the selection is necessarily random and dependent on somebody’s taste or lack of any real knowledge. Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case is followed by Margery Allingham’s Mystery Mile and P. D. James’s Cover her Face. The first and third make perfect sense, the middle one less so. Why that one of Allingham’s? And where is Dame Ngaio Marsh?
R is for Railways, taken up almost entirely by Murder on the Orient Express and the star-studded film. Whatever happened to all the other, less well known railway mysteries? S has already been mentioned, T is for True Crime and U is for Unsuitable Job, that is professional female detectives: The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester, the first of a long line, Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward, published six months later, Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, an improbable but very clever series of yarns, and a couple of books about V. I. Warshawski (though there is also a mention of the Victorian lady detective Loveday Brooke).
V is for Villains, gentlemanly like Raffles and psychopathic like Tom Ripley. W, as mentioned before, is Wilkie Collins, X is Xenophobia with many examples of the villainous Dr Fu Manchu and an obvious explanation for the 5th item in Knox’s Decalogue:
No Chinaman must figure in the story.