Beware the Books in ‘Bibliomysteries’

Book reading, book collecting, murder in libraries, and the mysterious desperation lurking in the dusty corners and between every aisle of bookstores past.

Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores
Otto Penzler, ed.
Aug 2017

The prospect of a large anthology of crime stories based in and around the world of books might seem daunting, even for those of us who enjoy strolling through libraries and other places, running our fingers over book spines, imagining the worlds within. Small-town and urban libraries alike have served as a constant space for solace and contemplation. Generations ago, before computers, we learned and used the Dewey Decimal System and accessed books through library cards. Now, the dividing lines between many libraries and community centers or franchise book emporiums seems to be blurring into non-existence. The comfort and secure environment of old is gone, and the new world before us can be frightening.

Rather than looking at libraries and how they’ve changed, Otto Penzler’s collection Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores takes its cue from the specific and sometimes marginalized world of the crime writer. Take this from Ian Rankin’s introduction, in which he reflects on an early book tour through America in the late ’80s:

“I discovered that many American towns featured at least one small independent bookshop specializing in crime fiction. Flash-forward a quarter century and most of them have gone.”

Rankin continues by citing the presence of Otto Penzler and his Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and Otto Penzler Books, has received several major awards in the crime fiction field (Edgar, Ellery Queen, and Raven). His previous anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, is a deep dive into the darkness of that form, where Hammett and Chandler and others take no prisoners and managed to shine in a pulp world of permanent darkness and continuous gloom. Bibliomysteries might not be more respectable, but the environment it celebrates can’t help but be intellectual. The independent bookstore culture has vanished over the past 20 years, leaving those championing it shifting in the wind. Wandering through the aisles of a locally run bookstore probably won’t get you murdered. Nevertheless, the idea that these worlds may soon completely disappear — “murdered” — is never completely absent from these stories.

Some of the highlights here include William Link’s “Death Leaves a Bookmark” (2012), in which the venerable Columbo investigates the world of Troy Pellingham and his uncle Rodney Haverford. “Uncle Rodney was so snooty, so nose-in-the air, that Troy jokingly wondered how he blew it.” Link builds a world of “elitist snots” and trust fund babies, the antiquarian bookstore life where texts are more likely to be commodities and investment to be bought, stored, and sold rather than instruments of enlightenment. Columbo, and the rumpled precision that we remember so well from the legendary ’70s Peter Falk TV portrayal, is nicely welcomed back in this story. Troy comments to a friend about Columbo:

“Did you see how he couldn’t find a pocket to put his notebook in? And the way he shuffled around like he didn’t know what to do.”

As remembered from the TV show, the story allows the reader to witness the murder and then watch as the unorthodox Columbo rambles through various steps before nailing the killer. It’s fun imagining the blood drain from the culprit’s faces as they realize they’ve been cornered.

Jeffrey Deaver’s “An Acceptable Sacrifice” (2012) is a bit thicker and convoluted, but that’s fine. Two killers who may or may not be equipped for the mission turn their sights on a Mexican businessman who may be a cartel leader, but he might be something else altogether. He spends millions on books. “Some of the books were one of a kind, worth tens of thousands of dollars. They seemed to all be first editions.” This is a world of cavernous personal libraries filled with first editions whose only purpose is to be displayed as trophies. It’s no surprise that a little blood will be shed.

In Loren D. Estleman’s “Book Club”, we get retired detective Avery Sharecross compelled back into service. He runs a bookstore in Good Advice, New Mexico. Somebody might have weaponized one of Sharecross’s books, and the idea of a text as a murder weapon is enticing, as are the descriptions of the bookstore itself, a 300-year-old mission that had seen many purposes before becoming a quirky repository for particular bookworms:

“Sharecross had managed to make it darker still by installing towering bookcases and stocking them with volumes, some the same vintage as the building, with narrow passages between the cases… Even at high noon, a visitor needed a flashlight to explore the place without running into Thackeray or Gibbon or cracking a tooth.”

We know these bookstores, these places where the lonely and unwashed come to seek refuge, usually without paying. They’re staffed by bespectacled moles who at home in stacks of dusty tomes, and there’s usually an orange tabby cat carefully pawing its way through the aisles and around customer’s legs, always intent on its mission and never making contact with humans beyond the feline death stare. The sometimes peculiar nature of libraries is explored in John Connolly’s “The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository” (2013). Our hero, Mr. Berger, has spent 34 years embracing a life devoid of other people, free from social contact, but a chance encounter with a depressed woman, in the vein of Anna Karenina, makes maintaining that order more difficult:

“Deep inside, he had been reluctant to disturb his ordered lifestyle, a world in which he rarely had to make a more difficult decision than selecting the next book to read. He had lived his life as one removed from the world around him, and now he was paying the price in madness.”

It’s the presence of madness, or its potential, that makes Bibliomysteries a compelling and worthwhile contribution to the genre of crime fiction. More so than most, the genre writers seem to understand the siren call of the book lover, that life, that environment, where nobody is touched and nobody gets touched. In Andrew Taylor’s “The Long Sonata of the Dead”, the graceful picture painted of the London Library serves to compel the unfamiliar reader to enter that void, no matter the cost:

“The London Library is… an organic thing that has developed over the decades according to a private logic… There are hiding places, narrow iron staircases and grubby, rarely-visited alcoves where the paint on the walls hasn’t changed since the days of Virginia Woolf.”

The deeper we go into this world the more we understand the sadness, the heartache, the betrayal and regret our hero feels so deeply and wants only for himself. That his space is invaded by a destructive friend from his past makes the doomed romance of that library life all the more important to preserve, no matter the futility of such a mission.

Much of the strength in Bibliomysteries is contained in descriptions of bookstores, like Laura Lippman’s tribute to the title Baltimore establishment in her story “The Book Thing” (2012). Ther’is also great strength in Reed Farrel Coleman’s “The Book of Ghosts” (2011), which is less about stores than the power in the written testimony of a concentration camp survivor. Other strong contributions come from Anne Perry’s “The Scroll” (2011), and David Bell’s “Rides a Stranger” (2013).

If there’s a surprise in this collection, a story that could prove more interesting than it has a right to be, it could be “It’s in the Book” (2013). The story idea began as a fragment from Mickey Spillane, so the reader might easily conclude that co-writer Max Allan Collin’s deserves most of the credit. Regardless, it features Spillane’s legendary Mike Hammer, never the most subtle of private detective characters and at this point irrevocably out-of-date (Spillane would have been a poster boy target for the #MeToo movement.) Nevertheless, this is a fun story with a surprise ending that provides a greater, more respectable literary pedigree to Hammer than Spillane probably ever would have considered, and that’s a good thing.

Bibliomysteries is a thick book, over 500 pages, and it’s demanding. Those unfamiliar with crime fiction might find themselves straying through some stories, jumping to others, going back, and possibly getting frustrated. Give this one time, however, and like a compelling mystery one must solve, it will prove rewarding. Those who may think themselves above this form, more comfortable in the world of high-minded literary fiction, will need to admit that the hours they’ve spent in dusty old bookstores are key to the characters and scenes in this book. The worst end result of too many books is realized in some of these stories, like Nelson DeMille’s “The Book Case” (2012), where the title object and everything it contains is the murder weapon. The best element of too many books, those hours spent in libraries where all those volumes in endless aisles speak to the hidden parts of our untouched souls, begging us to return one last time, is also perfectly realized throughout Bibliomysteries. In the end, this anthology presents a balance worth recognizing and a welcome addition to the library of any book lover, with our without bloodshed.

RATING 8 / 10