Just Like the Old Man in That Book by Nabokov*

A recent interesting post on FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about literary references. If you read crime fiction, you soon find that plenty of the characters are readers (sometimes including the detectives). So, they make reference to other literary work and characters in a sort of nod to those other authors. For those who’ve read those other books, it’s a sort of ‘in-club’ wink. For those who haven’t, it’s an invitation to try those books. It can also serve to show something about the character (and sometimes the author, too).

FictionFan’s comment was in reference to Reginald Hill’s Pictures of Perfection, and there are certainly literary references there and in other Hill novels. But he wasn’t the only one.

For example, Agatha Christie makes several literary references in her work. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels from Syria to London, mostly on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the three-day journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is murdered in his compartment. Poirot is pressed to investigate the case, so that he can present the culprit to the police at the next border crossing, and he agrees. The only suspects are the other people whose compartments are in the same carriage as the victim’s. Even with the limited pool of suspects, though, it’s not going to be an easy case. In one scene, Poirot is waiting to board the Orient Express in Istanbul. However, it looks as though the train might be full. All might yet be well, though, because there’s one passenger who hasn’t arrived. Here’s what Poirot says about it:

 ‘‘A name of good omen,’ said Poirot. ‘I read my Dickens. M. Harris, he will not arrive.’’

 This is a reference to Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which includes a non-existent character named Mrs. Harris. This same novel is referred to in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, which is narrated by a nurse named Amy Leatheran. When she first arrives at the archaeological dig site in the Middle East where the novel takes place, another character refers to her as Sairey Gamp. Martin Chuzzlewit readers will know that Sairey Gamp is a nurse. But if you know the Dickens novel, then you know that calling a nurse Sairey Gamp is not exactly a compliment…

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a well-read character, so it’s not surprising that he would make literary references and comments. In The Mother Hunt, for instance, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are working on the case of a baby left on the doorstep of a young widow. She hires the detectives to find out who the baby’s birth mother is. Part of the case involves working with female PIs Dol Bonner and Sally Corbett, whom Archie already knows. Here’s what he says about them:

‘Dol and Sally had been responsible, six years back, for my revision of my basic attitude toward female ops, and I held it against them, just as Wolfe held it against Jane Austen for forcing him to concede that a woman could write a good novel.’

It’s not exactly the most forward-thinking opinion about women, but it’s a clever reference to Austen.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, we are introduced to academician and Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham. She’s just beginning her academic career and hoping to make a success of it. Then, she hears about an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript. If she can find that manuscript, it could make her career and establish her as a scholar. So, as soon as she can, she travels to her home in the Lake District, where the manuscript is said to be. It’s not going to be as easy as she hopes, though. For one thing, she’s not sure where the manuscript is, if it even exists. For another, she’s not the only one looking for it. Then, there’s a murder. And another. Before she knows it, Jane’s life is in grave danger.

Some series have several literary ‘nods,’ because the characters are bibliophiles, or writers, or in some other way connected with books. For example, Qiu Xiaolong’s Chen Cao is a member of the Shanghai police. He is also a poet and a literary translator. In fact, in Shanghai Redemption, he attends a signing for one of his books, and very nearly gets caught in a trap set to ruin his public reputation. Because of his writing and his interest in poetry, Chen frequently refers to (or thinks of) poetry, especially (but not exclusively) from the Tang Dynasty. His translations have also made him familiar with non-Chinese poets, such as T.S. Eliot. When something or someone reminds Chen of a poem, he reflects on it.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa is a member of the police in Rio de Janeiro. He is also a book lover who spends his share of time in bookshops. When he gets a new acquisition, he can’t help but want to read it as soon as possible. As you can imagine, there are several mentions of different authors and their work in this series. For instance, in Blackout, Espinosa and his team are investigating the death of a homeless man.  Part of the trail leads to a man named Aldo Bruno, and in more than one scene, Espinosa talks to Aldo’s wife, Camila. As it turns out, her office is near a bookshop, and Espinosa can’t resist going in. He finds some appealing books, too, and there are   mentions of Faulker, Simenon, and others. And that’s just in this one novel.

Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James is a Cambridge scholar and head of the English department at St. Etheldreda’s College. Her specialty is Victorian literature, and she’s quite well versed in the topic. So, references to different Victorian authors come up in the series.

And of course, fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that he is married to Paola Falier. She’s a professor, and very much a fan of the work of Henry James. In fact, one of the running jokes in the series is that Henry James is the only man of whom Brunetti ought to be jealous.

It really is interesting to see how often literary references are woven into crime fiction. If you think about it, it makes sense, especially for characters who are ‘bookish’ types. Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be FictionFan’s terrific blog? All sorts of great reviews and more await you there.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line – actually a literary reference – from Sting’s Don’t Sand so Close to Me.

14 thoughts on “Just Like the Old Man in That Book by Nabokov*

  1. A lot of early Ken Bruen books hat-tipped other books in the genre. I used to make notes when I read him. I think he eventually stopped. I’m not sure if him or his publisher was getting pressured to pay for referencing other works. Bizarre really, you think they would have been glad of the shout-out.


    1. You know, Col, I’d forgotten about Bruen, but you’re absolutely right. Thanks for mentioning his work. It makes one wonder why he stopped making literary references. If it was pressure, it does seem a bit odd, considering the publicity. On the other hand, perhaps his publisher or editor thought people didn’t want those references? It’s hard to say, but I think you’re right that it’s odd.


  2. Great examples, Margot! I’ve just finished a Val McDermid and she gives a shout-out to Ali Smith in it. Agatha Christie did it often – your example, of course, then in The Clocks she has Poirot praise The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and in Partners in Crime Tommy and Tuppence learn how to be detectives by reading a whole load of contemporaries! And Holmes was very disparaging about Poe’s Dupin in, I think, A Study in Scarlet… bit of a cheek really, since he was kinda based on him… 😉


    1. Thanks, FictionFan! I really do need to catch up with McDermid. She’s so talented, but it’s hard to keep up with her! And thanks for mentioning both The Clocks and Partners in Crime. They’re both great examples of what I had in mind with this post. Interesting, too, isn’t it, how Conan Doyle tweaks Poe. I sorta think Christie did something similar with her references here and there to Conan Doyle. On the one hand, teasing, but on the other hand, owing a debt and being aware of it. Those nods to other literary work can be great when they’re done well!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed your examples. I thought of John Dunning’s sleuth, Cliff Janeway, especially in Booked to Die. Janeway, a Denver homicide detective, opens a small bookshop as he pursues the killer of a book scout. It has been a long time since I read the book but I remember it was filled with all sorts of literary connections.


    1. Thanks, Bill, for reminding me of Cliff Janeway. I have to admit, I’m not as familiar with him as I ought to be (don’t know why that is – how do we stop following good series?), but that’s a really good example of exactly what I had in mind with this post.


  4. I am very late coming to this party, Margot! It’s very nice of you to mention my Cassandra James mysteries. I do like a literary reference both as a writer and a reading. I have just been working my way through Elizabeth Daly’s novels and they are absolutely stuffed with literary references.


    1. You’re never late here, Christine ; the party never stops! 😉 And it’s always a pleasure to mention both of your series. I like literary references, too, and I’m glad that you mentioned Elizabeth Daly. I like her work and her Henry Gamadge character, but haven’t kept up with the series as I should. So many good things to read, and so little time…


  5. Another great example is Christie’s THE MIRROR CRACK’D. I love how she refers to “the Lady of Shalott look” as pivotal in that story. As a former lit prof and 19th century Brit Lit scholar, I adore mysteries with literary references…so much so that I wrote a few of my own. *wink* Fab post, Margot!


    1. You are absolutely right about The Mirror Crack’d, Kathy. It just shows Christie’s fondness for literary references. And ,yes, your own work has them, too, and that just shows your expertise! Folks, do read K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells series and her Penelope Hamilton books – both sets are terrific!


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