One of the most delightful sub-genres of mystery books, and a natural favorite for book lovers, is the Bibliomystery. What is a Bibliomystery? Any mystery novel involving books, manuscripts, book collectors, booksellers, libraries , authors or other book- related settings or characters. There are a surprising number of titles to be enjoyed and collected in this niche.
Christopher Morley’s wonderful classic The Haunted Book Shop (Doubleday Page, 1919) is a great way to begin exploring this genre.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, The Haunted Bookshop features an eccentric but lovable bookseller (what other kind is there??) who prescribes books to suit the mood or malady of his customers, and runs the kind of bookshop we all long to “haunt.” “When you sell a man a book,” says Roger Mifflin, the protagonist, “you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue–you sell him a whole new life.”
But there are truly some strange things going on in the stacks, and a rollicking mystery unfolds.
This book has been reprinted many times, is widely
available and still popular today. The first edition is very collectible and scarce when found in very good condition in a like dustjacket. This was preceded by Morley’s light-hearted Parnassus on Wheels (Dodd Mead, 1917) in which a woman and an itinerant bookseller (Roger Mifflin, the character who later stars in The Haunted Bookshop) take to the road peddling books with a horse and wagon. No mystery here, but lots of light book-related fun.
Another early bibliomystery was Fast Company by Marco Page (Dodd Mead, 1938). In this story, a bookseller and his wife attempt to solve a murder involving the frame-up of a man who stole rare and valuable books which are still missing two years after the crime. It was made into a film in 1938 starring Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. Marco Page was the pseudonym of author Harry Kurnitz (1909-1968), an American playwright, producer, screenwriter and reviewer. He had done work on the Thin Man films, and this is reflected in Fast Company, whose lead characters strongly resemble Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora.
Modern biblio mystery writer John Dunning entertains and educates with his wonderful Cliff Janeway mysteries, including Booked to Die, Bookman’s Wake, The Bookman’s Promise, and The Bookwoman’s Last Fling.
The Cliff Janeway character is an ex-cop turned book seller, who winds up getting drawn into cases of rare book theft, murder and mayhem. One can actually learn some very useful information about rare and collectible books while reading Dunning, who peppers his books with factual information on collectible books and authors.
I’ve recently been enjoying Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, which reveals there is more than one way for a bookseller to eke out a living. Bernie is a bookseller by day, and a gentleman burglar by night, making for quite an interesting life. Although the emphasis is on the burglary, it is fun to read his comments on his daytime career as a used book shop proprietor in Manhattan. Once in awhile he even sells some books.
Some of my favorite titles from this series are: Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (first in the series), The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling; The Burglar Who Thought he Was Bogart, and The Burglar in the Library. Bernie is a lovable kind of guy; even if he does enjoy breaking and entering, you find yourself forgiving him and enjoying the ride.
Both characters Bernie Rhodenbarr and Cliff Janeway leave their shops unattended way too often as they go rambling around in search of adventure and intrigue, leaving one to wonder who is minding the store!
Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells was originally published in 1936 by J. B. Lippincott, a rare book in the first edition, but is scarce even in the later
Grosset & Dunlap edition. Fleming Stone, Wells’ master detective, works to solve a case of murder and a missing $100,000 book. That’s a lot of dough in 1936. Still is now, as far as most of us are concerned. In the story Keith Ramsay has decided that he would have to give up his job as Philip Balfour’s private librarian because he is falling in love with his employer’s wife, Alli. But before he can act on his decision, Philip is found murdered in the backroom of Sewall’s bookstore–and Keith is suspect number one. However, when the police discover that a rare volume worth a hundred grand is missing, other people and varying motives add to the complexity of the case.
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez was made into a film (1999) titled “The Ninth Gate” directed by Roman Polanski and starring Johnny Depp,
who played a rare book dealer who travels from Madrid to Paris to find the two last existing copies of the seventeenth-century Book of the Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Darkness, reputed to hold the key to conjuring Satan . The film was enjoyable enough, with Johnny doing very well in his bookman role, but Perez’s book was superior.
One of my favorite recent bibliomysteries is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Penguin Press, 2004).
An historical mystery set in Barcelona and the world of antiquarian books just after World War II, it exudes romance and the mystical power of books. The writing is beautiful, and you will never forget the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”
These are just a few prime examples of wonderful mystery novels focusing on the world of books. To search for bibliomysteries available for purchase, try using bibliomystery as a keyword in book searches at bookfinder.com or explore our website at www.oldscrolls.com
We do our best to keep bibliomysteries in stock!
If you have a favorite bibliomystery, please share information about it in the comments section.