There’s something about a rare or beautiful book that can ignite the darker human passions. Bibliophilia—a love for books as physical objects—might seem a gentle and even noble affliction, but history abounds with tales of obsessive bibliophilic greed, betrayal, theft, blackmail, fraud, assault, and murder. Can mystery fiction be far behind? (Lured by the puns, if nothing else? A Cracking of Spines? Dewey Decimated? The surface has barely been scratched.)
This sampling of well- and lesser-known mysteries about bibliophiles only begins to suggest the range of biblio-crime and biblio-cunning that awaits their readers.
John Dunning, Booked to Die (Scribner, 1992)
Denver cop Cliff Janeway moonlights as a savvy collector who knows his way around old bookstores. When a hapless book scout is murdered, Janeway’s rough handling of the suspect earns him a brutality charge, and he quits the force rather than face suspension. Opening his own small shop, he continues to search for the scout’s killer, following a path that leads to more deaths and the mysterious surfacing of rare books the victims once owned. Dunning followed Booked to Die with five more Janeway novels spanning 14 years, making the series a standout for combining high-octane plots and—thanks to Dunning’s own experiences in the trade—a virtual primer in the headaches and pleasures of the rare book business.
Marianne Macdonald, Death’s Autograph (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996; Dunne/St. Martin’s, 1997)
Death’s Autograph is the first in an eight-book series featuring Dido Hoare, a scrappy, struggling antiquarian book dealer who lives above her crowded London shop. Troubles begin when her shop is trashed, and soon after her dodgy ex-husband is killed by a car bomb. A second murder reveals the source of the violence: a manuscript poem appearing to be written and signed by Shakespeare himself. Dido is a resourceful and knowledgeable bookseller who defends her business and her life from various villains out to steal what could be a priceless artifact. Like Dunning, Canadian author Macdonald drew on her own strong roots in the rare book trade.
Joanne Dobson, The Maltese Manuscript (Poisoned Pen, 2003)
With their mix of bookish egos and academic infighting, college English departments are fertile territory for bibliomysteries. In this fifth entry in Dobson’s smart and provocative series, English professor Karen Pelletier is preparing for her college’s conference on “the murder mystery from a feminist perspective.” A leading mystery novelist arrives on campus just as several of the college library’s rare book treasures go missing, including its prize manuscript of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and a suspect is found dead in the library stacks. Far more knowledgeable in such matters than the police, Karen and the visiting writer investigate on their own. The Maltese Manuscript deftly explores the biblio-minutiae that fascinate and vex collectors, in this case pertaining to elusive editions of mystery and detective fiction.
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
Underemployed Bay Area techie Clay Jannon takes a job as the night clerk in a dusty old bookstore whose few customers request only oddly arcane books, which turn out to be coded. When the store’s reclusive owner Ajax Penumbra disappears, Jannon and his Googler pals set off on a Tolkien-esque quest to find him. They trace him to a Manhattan underground vault patrolled by black-robed members of a secret society called the Unbroken Spine and are soon sucked into the cult’s 500-year-old mystery. Studded with sly nods to printing history that typography buffs will love and clever commentary on the fertile tension between print and digital culture, Sloan’s novel itself enjoys something of a cult following. The first edition’s glow-in-the-dark cover may have something to do with it.
Charlie Lovett, The Bookman’s Tale (Viking, 2013)
Peter Byerly is a recently widowed young antiquarian book dealer slowly regaining his pleasure in the hunt for important rare volumes. When he seeks to authenticate what appears to be his “holy grail” find—an Elizabethan volume whose marginalia proves Shakespeare wrote the plays credited to him—he steps straight into danger. Interwoven with Peter’s discoveries are chapters narrating the book’s provenance, tracing its precarious passage through the hands of various owners over the centuries, from its rakish author to avaricious collectors and murderous forgers.
Donna Leon, By Its Cover (Atlantic Monthly, 2014)
In her 23rd novel featuring Venetian police commissario Guido Brunetti, Leon delves into the chilling world of systematic looting of the nation’s heritage collection of rare books and manuscripts. Brunetti is called in when a librarian at one of Venice’s venerable libraries reports that several rare volumes have been stolen or vandalized—engraved plates razored out—despite rigorous security. Yet the library’s two regular patrons seem unlikely suspects, and one soon turns up murdered. In typical fashion, the contemplative Brunetti ponders the moral as well as legal vagaries of the case, considering how the theft of irreplaceable cultural artifacts represents more than the loss of their most recent selling prices.
Pradeep Sebastian, The Book Hunters of Katpadi (Hatchette India, 2017)
Lest bibliophilia seem exclusively Western, Sebastian’s novel portrays a lively culture of book-love in post-colonial India. Neela Adigal and her assistant Kayal run a pioneering two-woman antiquarian bookshop in Chennai. The central mystery—questions surrounding the discovery of a long-sought, seemingly apocryphal manuscript by fabled Victorian explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton—is less the engine driving the novel than its snoozing passenger. Woven throughout Neela and Kayal’s investigation are dozens of fond digressions into bibliophilic lore. For anyone intrigued by rare or fine books, this novel doubles as a pleasant encyclopedic introduction to everything from letterpress printing techniques and early Tamil-language type design to legendary collectors and book auctions. Plus illustrations!