A recent excellent post at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has got me thinking about the joy of finding that special book treasure when you’re in a bookshop. Your taste may be hard-to-find Golden Age novels, or mapback books. Or you may be wishing for that one novel by a beloved author that you haven’t yet read. Perhaps there’s particular cover art you love. Whatever you have a special fondness for, there’s nothing like finding that gem. I’m sure you have your own bookshop adventures (and I’d love for you to share them!); I know I have some.
There’s something about those special ‘book moments’ in crime fiction, too. Not every beloved sleuth is a bibliophile, but there are plenty of sleuths who enjoy those finds. And that side of their personalities can add to their characters. And what’s not to like about a book that includes a discussion of…books?
Not everyone would think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as especially bookish, but in The Clocks, we see a different side of him. In that novel, Special Agent Colin Lamb is drawn into the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in the home of a woman who claims she doesn’t know the victim. It’s a strange case, and Lamb decides to take it to Poirot, who is a friend of his father’s. When he visits Poirot, he finds his host immersed in a stack of true-crime and crime fiction books. Lamb and Poirot have an interesting conversation about some of the different cases and the different authors. It’s clear that, although Christie doesn’t focus much on Poirot’s reading habits, he does love books and sees the value in them. His main interest is more the content of a book than it is whether a book is, say, a first edition. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know a real find when he sees it.
Bill Pronzini’s protagonist, who’s usually called Nameless, is a lover of pulp fiction such as Dime Detective and Black Mask. He’s got quite a collection himself, and he’s always on the lookout for rare editions, vintage copies, and so on. The local dealers know him, and they get in touch with him when something comes in that he might really want. Perhaps it isn’t exactly literary fiction, but Nameless knows the joy of finding that one special copy or edition to complete a collection. It’s an interesting side to his character – one you might not expect in a somewhat rough-and-tumble private investigator.
Anyone who knows Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran knows that he loves books; he’s actually written one himself. And, as a journalist, he appreciates the use of language. Quill’s got all sorts of rare books in his collection, as well as plenty of books that are easier to find. His romantic interest throughout much of the series is the local librarian, Polly Duncan. The two very much enjoy sharing books, and reading to each other, and they both celebrate special bookish finds. Qwill has even discovered that his Siamese cats enjoy it when he reads aloud. And he’s not the only character in the series with that love of books. In The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, for instance, Qwill gets drawn into the investigation of the murder of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. As he starts to ask questions, Qwill finds that a number of people could have had very good reasons to want the victim dead. At one point, he visits the victim’s home to follow up on some leads. He discovers that VanBrook, too, was a bibliophile with a large collection. Interestingly enough, Qwill finds an important clue in one of those books.
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza wrote a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police. He does his job well, and he does take pride in doing what he can do to make life in the city better. But he has another passion: books. In fact, he has a large collection at home, and one of the running jokes in the series is that he’s always promising himself he’ll build better shelving in his home so that he can store his books properly. It never quite happens, but it’s always in his plans. He enjoys talking about books and finding special treasures when he visits bookshops. In fact, he has a dream of opening a bookshop of his own.
And then there’s Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, who lives and works in the fictional Scandinavian city of Maardam. He is very good at his job, and he serves as a role model for the people he supervises. But as time goes by, he gets more and more ready for retirement. When the time comes, Van Veeteren is able to fulfil a dream he’s had for a while: owning a rare bookshop. He very much loves books, and he knows that special feeling of finding the one book one’s been wanting.
So, if you’ve ever had the joy of coming across the book you’ve been looking for, or of discovering a forgotten book by a beloved author, or even a new hidden gem you didn’t even know existed, then you’re not alone. Plenty of people love those discoveries. Even in crime fiction.
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a 1940 edition of Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery. I really don’t have a lot in the way of rare books, but I was pleased to find that one…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Tom Grennan.