A deep dive into the history of Bibliomysteries ‹ CrimeReads


Both readers and writers of detective fiction are likely to be drawn to “bibliomysteries,” a word hardly found in a dictionary, though it provides the title for a fascinating monograph by legendary American editor, publisher, bookseller, and bibliophile Otto Penzler. Penzler readily accepted that the term can be defined subjectively, saying, “If much of the action takes place in a bookstore or library, then it is a bibliomysteria, just like when a main character is a bookseller or a librarian. A collector of rare books…can be included. Publisher? Yes, if their jobs are an integral part of the storyline. authors?

Difficult… If the nature of their work leads them into a puzzle, or their books are a crucial clue to the solution, they probably can pull it off.”

The uncertainties in the definition make it difficult to determine the “first” bibliomysteria. One of Penzler’s favorite candidates is the little-known one Scrope or The Lost Library, which was published as early as 1874 by Frederic Beecher Perkins, a prominent editor and librarian from a well-known American family at the time, but has long been forgotten by crime fans. Much of the action of the story takes place in a used bookshop and at book auctions.

Another early example of this type of story was Fergus Hume’s The First Customer and the Florentine Dante, which was included in Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (1898), a collection of riddles developed by a female detective, Hagar Stanley. were examined. Hagar is confronted with an enigma involving a second edition of Dantes La Divine Comedy. During the 20th century, bibliomysteria grew in popularity, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in the United States. Shortly after the end of World War I, Christopher Morley published The Haunted Bookshop, a popular light thriller filled with book stories. The critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor pointed this out in their monumental reference work A crime catalogueat the end of the story, “the hero characteristically remarks, ‘Thanks to this group of Trollope, I think I’m okay.'”

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Across the Atlantic, Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane worked together The printer’s devil (1930), in which a publisher named Horrie Pedler is found dead at the bottom of the spiral staircase leading to her London flat. (It must be said that many crime writers over the years have succumbed to the temptation of killing off publishers in their novels; I’ll leave the reader to discover why that might be the case.) In the story, a manuscript is lost, and there is Rumored that it held many secrets that only Horrie and the author knew. This is an unorthodox novel starring Sir John Saumarez, the authors’ actor and detective, but it is both comedy and mystery.

At ECR Lorac These names give clues (1937; reissued by Poisoned Pen Press November 2022 as a British Library Crime Classic) Chief Inspector Macdonald is invited on a treasure hunt by a publisher named Graham Coombe; The fun is interrupted when the body of thriller writer Andrew Gardien is discovered. Clifford Witting’s debut novel was published in the same year Murder in Bluea crime thriller about the murder of a police officer, set in a thinly veiled version of Sussex and narrated by a sympathetic bookseller, John Rutherford.

The publishing business in Britain has provided the background for many crime novels, some of which were written by authors who were members of the Detection Club, such as Simpson, Dane, Lorac and Witting. Examples are Nicholas Blake’s end of chapter (1957), a case for Blake’s regular detective Nigel Strangeways and P.D. James original sin (1994), in which Adam Dalgliesh investigates the murder of Gerard Etienne, head of the Peverell Press.

Bookstores make an attractive background for detective puzzles. The little-known death of Mr. Dodsley (1937) by Scottish author John Ferguson is about the murder of a bookseller in his shop on Charing Cross Road, a case being investigated by both private detective Francis MacNab and Scotland Yard. Poet Ruthven Todd produced a number of crime novels under the name RT Campbell in the 1940s, including corpses in a bookstore (1946), in which two bodies are discovered in the back room of a bookshop in central London; Amateur criminologist Professor John Stubbs helps Chief Inspector Bishop of the Yard solve the mystery. Bernard J. Farmer, a former police officer, published Death of a bookseller in 1956. The crime is solved by die-hard bibliophile Sergeant Jack Wigan, and the text is crammed with lore about collecting books.

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One of the most intriguing premise of a crime puzzle involves a crime story that somehow mirrors the fictional events in real life. An early example of this type of story was murder test (1933) by Roger East, an accomplished writer whose forays into the genre were regrettably few. A likeable young crime writer, Colin Knowles, has an admiring secretary, Louie, who notices a series of connections between a book Colin was working on and three seemingly unrelated deaths. What follows is pretty far-fetched, but the final twist offers an enjoyable and unexpected revelation. A later and more refined variant of the same theme is found in John Franklin Bardins The Last by Philip Banter (1947). The eponymous banter is an advertising executive with marital problems and a drinking problem. On his desk he finds a typed manuscript, apparently typed by himself, that confuses past and future. It describes what will happen as if it had already happened. Then the “predictions” begin to come true…

Bardin’s focus was on psychological tension, and so was Renee Knight’s latest bestseller Disclaimer (2015). The chilling flavor of the opening is captured by the slogan on the cover: “Imagine the next thriller you opened up was all about you.” Catherine Ravenscroft, a middle-aged woman who has enjoyed a hugely successful career in television has tracked, finds a novel with the title The perfect stranger on her bedside table; She doesn’t know where it came from, but begins to read and realizes to her horror that it tells a story about the most terrifying experience of her own life, which she believed was safely buried in the past. We soon discover that the author of the mysterious book is a man named Stephen, a retired teacher whose wife recently died and who has an agenda as a result. Stephen’s obsession and mental decay are gradually revealed, while Catherine’s own seemingly perfect life begins to fall apart.

A number of authors have specialized in various forms of bibliomysteria. Examples of American crime writers include Elizabeth Daly, whose serial detective was the bibliophile Henry Gamadge; academic Amanda Cross, a pseudonym for Carolyn G. Heilbrun; and John Dunning, while her British peers include Oxford resident Don JIM Stewart, who wrote detective fiction as Michael Innes; Bruce Graeme, who wrote a series with bookseller and detective Theodore Terhune; and Robert Barnard, who targets romance novelists in Death in Purple Prose aka The Cherry Blossom Corpse (1987). George Sims, two of whose novels are in the British Library’s Classic Thrillers series, was a professional writer whose expertise is evident throughout his work in crime fiction.

Murder by the Book brings together examples of book-related mystery from a variety of notable practitioners, including EC Bentley, famed as the author of legendary cottage puzzle Trent’s Last Case; AA Milne, who in addition to creating Winnie-the-Pooh was also a founding member of the Detection Club; this highly skilled plotsmith Christianna Brand; Michael Innes; Julian Symons, several of whose post-war crime novels were published as British Library Crime Classics; and the prolific John Creasey, who founded the Crime Writers’ Association in 1953. Anyone who enjoys books in general and crime fiction in particular will find plenty of variety and entertainment in this sub-branch of the genre. As a lifelong fan of bibliomysteria, I have thoroughly enjoyed researching this anthology and hope that the range of stories and information provided here will inspire readers to make further discoveries of their own.

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– Martin Edwards www.martinedwardsbooks.com


From the introduction to MURDER BY THE BOOK: MYSTERIES FOR BIBLIOPHILES, part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Introduction Copyright © 2022 by Martin Edwards. Reprinted with permission of the publisher Poisoned Pen Press.


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