Reading two different takes on libraries, crime, and the 1970s.

I tripped over an interesting collection while browsing the Wildside Press website: The Library Fuzz Megapack, James Holding’s series of short stories about Hal Johnson, the “Library Fuzz.” That’s right, he’s library police for the Grandhaven Public Library, in a smallish city that seems to be modeled on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[1] His job is to track down stolen and overdue books, and collect fines.

The Library Fuzz Megapack, by James Holding

As someone who more than once has put a hold on a checked-out book at my local library, only to eventually discover that said book has disappeared, this concept resonates with me. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy books that I can’t get from the library, but not everyone can. And often the book I asked for is older, out of print, and relatively obscure, so even money doesn’t help; the book can’t be easily purchased, and information has simply been lost. So, while I appreciate that it isn’t a good look these days for cops to go door to door, demanding the return of overdue books and collecting late fees (which is what Hal Johnson does–politely), I have to admit that I like the idea of libraries having their own police to recover stolen books. I suspect more than a few librarians feel the same.

Holding wrote the first Library Fuzz story in 1972, and continued them into the mid-eighties. They are set contemporaneously, though they feel to me more like mildly hard-boiled crime fiction from the fifties and early sixties, with wisecracking cops and dishy dames. As I read, I can’t help imagining Johnson wearing a suit and a fedora, though by 1972 he’d more likely be hatless and at best in a sports jacket.

The stories generally begin with Johnson on his rounds, knocking on doors to collect overdue books. Sounds ho-hum, but in the process he runs into the occasional corpse or spots something suspicious that puts him on the trail of a more serious crime. Because Johnson used to be a real cop, with a cop’s instincts and a cops’s eye for something amiss.

Hal’s old police instincts, along with his photographic memory and his savvy about library processes, allow him to crack more than one case for his former boss, the yellow-eyed Homicide detective Lieutenant Randall, who is still peeved that Johnson quit the force to become a “sissy” library cop.  One of the delights of the series is how many ways Holding is able to link library books to different crimes and their solutions. The plots are not always completely realistic, but hey–we’re reading about a world where library police exist.

Another delight of the series is the old fashioned library technology: card catalogs and other physical record keeping, those little pockets that used to be in library books to hold the marker card that the library kept when the book was checked out; the paper slip with the “Due By” date stamps. Grandhaven had no electromagnetic anti-theft systems, either, and a few stories involve someone slipping a book into a bag or briefcase and sneaking it out of the library[2]. So quaint.

The Library Fuzz Megapack also includes four standalone stories about Lieutenant Randall, or at least someone with the same name; one of the Randalls bears very little resemblance to Hal Johnson’s golden-eyed ex-boss. These stories have nothing to do with the library police, though one of them does feature Randall doing a bit of research in the public library. They’re all pretty good, too.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, if old-fashioned, collection of crime yarns. The plots are creative and well-structured, and the writing is crisp. Hal Johnson is a likeable protagonist, and his interactions with Inspector Randall and with the other characters are fun to read. If you like old school Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine style short stories, you’ll probably like Library Fuzz. Recommended.

Jason Shiga’s comic Bookhunter (2007) is set in 1973, but rather than the relatively gentle fifties-colored world of Library Fuzz, it’s a 21st century imagining of how a 1970s police force might be. The contrast is interesting.

Jason shiga bookhunter 246x300

Agent Bay of the Oakland Library Police (or maybe he’s a federal agent? It’s not clear) isn’t a mild door-to-door overdue book collector; he’s a tough, gun-toting, hard-shooting, SWAT-team backed investigative agent who retrieves stolen rare library books and hauls in other book-related criminals, with deadly force if need be.

Bookhunter establishes its premise with a bang, as Agent Bay and his SWAT team bust into the apartment of a “freelance censor” who’s been stealing books he objects to from the Oakland Public Library (there was a freelance censor in one of the Library Fuzz stories, too; the only actual library crime in the collection[3]. Then the narrative moves into the main plotline, about a rare English bible on loan to Oakland Public Main Library from the Library of Congress. The bible has been switched for a counterfeit; Bay and his team have to find the thief and get the bible back.

Shiga tells the story as a police procedural, full of forensics, discussions about ink and paper and ways of stitching signatures; fingerprints and hair analysis. Agent Bay even brings in a criminal profiler at one point. And of course there is that card catalog-era library technology. Fictional 1970s Oakland is more advanced than fictional 1970s pseudo-Pittsburgh; Oakland Main has a tattle-tape system. Oh, and that 1970s computer and phone technology! Modems! Long-distance versus local! Dot-matrix printers!

Like many police procedurals, Bookhunter is low on characterization, but high on the nuts and bolts and technicalities of investigation. It’s also fairly high on action: high speed library cart chase, anyone?

William Caxton
William Caxton. Source: Wikimedia

It was fun to read all the CSI-type jargon intermixed with the terminology of bookbinding and cataloging systems, but I did notice one glaring error. The stolen bible is supposed to be “one of 500 surviving US incunabula,” and it’s also sometimes referred to as “a Caxton.” An incunable is a book or pamphlet printed prior to 1501. Caxton refers to William Caxton, a writer, translator, and printer who is credited with bringing the first printing presses to England. He produced some of the earliest printed books in English, in the latter half of the fifteenth century. So his books would indeed be incunabula.

Yet Shiga also writes that the stolen bible was printed in 1838, and refers to it later as a 19th century bible. That’s a pretty big inconsistency. Did Shiga change the printing date of the book because the bookbinding terminology he wanted to use wasn’t compatible with the book production technology of the fifteenth century?

At any rate, it’s an error that is maybe only obvious, but probably painful, to hard-core book nerds. The rest of us can just be swept along by the investigation and action scenes. Shiga’s round, cartoonish, and slightly grotesque drawing style suits the story and its outlandish premise well. I love his illustrations of the interiors of the library (I wonder how close it is to the actual Oakland Main?), and of the immense card catalogs. The plot is bonkers, and the action is outrageous. I don’t think the final resolution quiiiite holds up to close scrutiny, but the whole thing is just great fun.

In many respects the American Library has become the most basic First Amendment institution. We are guards, yet we guard no less than the sum of human knowledge. We are the library police.

--Jason Shiga, Bookhunter

The whole comic is online at Jason Shiga’s website; you can buy physical copies, too. Also recommended.

Having read Library Fuzz and Bookhunter back to back, I can’t help but reflect how these two books, ostensibly set in the same time period, demonstrate how our view of law enforcement has changed in the past fifty years. In Bookhunter, a paramilitary force bursts forcibly into the apartment of a freelance censor, and later, into the home of another (innocent) suspect. Compare that to the more, well, civilian group of cops sent to recover a little girl being held for ransom by her kidnapper in Holding’s “The Bookmark.”

Holding’s cops aren’t perfect: they’re sometimes a little sloppy about getting search warrants (Hal Johnson even calls them on it once). They apparently tell little fibs to interrogation subjects in order to get confessions. But they do seem to knock before they kick in doors and shoot. Whether or not law enforcement today is actually more militarized than in the past, or whether they are simply perceived that way because of extreme cases that make the news, I can’t really say that Shiga’s more modern view is an improvement.

[1] James Holding (1907-1997) was born in Ben Avon, in western Pennsylvania, and he spent much of his life in and around Pittsburgh. He didn’t start writing fiction until 1959, at the age of about 52, but he was a prolific contributor to mystery magazines like Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mike Shayne throughout the sixties all the way into the eighties. He also ghostwrote a few Ellery Queen novels, and a couple of entries in the Ellery Queen, Jr. series of young adult mystery books. (Back)

[2] The first tattle-tape magnetic security system was installed at the Saint Paul (Minnesota) Library in 1970. I remember them being in my local library in California when I was a kid, probably by the mid-seventies and certainly by the eighties. They are still in use at libraries today. (Back)

[3] And freelance censoring is a real-world thing, as well. Here’s a recent article about people stealing left-leaning books from the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) Public Library. Here another article from 2001, about the types of books most commonly stolen from libraries in different parts of the country. Not all of these book thefts are motivated by censorship, but quite a few of them are. (Back)

Featured Image: Oakland [California] Free Library, Carnegie Building. Circulating Room, 14th and Grove, (1904). The building is now the African American Museum and Library of Oakland. Source: Online Archive of California

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