Library Police: A Novel Crime Fiction Genre

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

The Moral Opiate

More winter tales as we head into 2020! I came across “The Moral Opiate” a few years ago, in a collection of supernatural tales from Cornhill Magazine, and it struck me then as an unusual “ghost” story. The story is set in January, and seemed like a great winter tale. Unfortunately, as it was published in 1923, it wasn’t in the public domain when I found it. This finally changed in 2019. The story fits this year’s theme of a “different sort of haunting” quite well, and I’m delighted to share it with you.

La temptation

Birchington Priory isn’t haunted, per se; in fact, the Blue Bedroom of Sir Darcy’s annexe is a cheerful, pleasant room–the very opposite of spooky. But it’s a sinister place nonetheless, and the downfall of several guests at Birchington Priory. The room’s potential next victim: Eric Weir, amateur Egyptologist.

To feel yourself above mankind with their foolish conventions, designed to keep the bolder spirits to their own dead level—to feel that you are infinitely wiser than these sheep who voluntarily follow a moral code that leads through toil and trouble to the grave, and that can, at no time on the journey, offer any real recompense—these are feelings that intoxicate a man and sweep him off his feet.

“The Moral Opiate” is a fable disguised as a ghost story, an allegory about how easily a person can let go of their principles and slide into amorality and unethical behavior if they aren’t careful. In the story the bad influence is supernatural and dramatic; in real life, it can be slow and insidious, and hence, so much more dangerous…

You can read The Moral Opiate here.

I haven’t been able to find out anything about the author, William Bradley. The name is a fairly common one, and though there are several William Bradleys in Wikipedia, none of them seem likely. There are also several Will or William Bradleys in the FictionMags Index, but the folks there have decided that the author of “The Moral Opiate” is distinct from the others, and glancing at the titles of the pieces written by the other W. Bradleys, they’re probably correct. So this seems to be the only story published by this author, at least under this name.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured Image: Source: pxhere

La Temptation, Copyright by Wm. Lee. Lith. F. Heppenheimer & Co (1869) Source: Library of Congress via Picryl

Sir Hugo’s Prayer

Over the years, I’ve fallen into a habit of sharing a lighter winter tale right before Christmas, usually as my Christmas Eve story. I suppose I find that it matches the more festive mood that preceeds the gift-giving and the celebrations. This story is a bit early, but I won’t get a chance to post right on Christmas Eve, so here’s my Christmas gift to you: “Sir Hugo’s Prayer” (1897), by G.B. Burgin.

Hamlet sees the ghost of his father 1843 1 jpg Large

Purgatory for the late Sir Hugo Follett and his wife Lady Follett entails haunting their family estate, which they’ve done for centuries. Apparently they were quite the rowdy ones, in their time. But times have changed, and life, er, death, just isn’t what it used to be. As they walk the battlements of Dulverton Castle on Christmas Eve, they run into their late-nineteenth century descendant, the young Clare Follett, in a bit of a pickle.

“There’s something up, my dear,” Sir Hugo remarked to Lady Follett. “It looks to me as if these fellows are in love with the girl, and that there’s going to be a row over it. I mean—ahem—that they will settle their differences with the sword.”

Well, maybe not. But Clare could use a little help. Can Sir Hugo and Lady Follett lend a ghostly hand? They’re certainly going to try.

You can read Sir Hugo’s Prayer here.

George Brown Burgin (1856-1944) was a novelist, editor, and journalist. He sub-edited the humorous monthly magazine The Idler (founded and originally edited by Jerome K Jerome and Robert Barr) from 1895 to 1899. He also wrote some 90 novels — 90 “forgettable novels” according to Stenley Wertheim, author of A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Ouch. The poor man doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. He seems best known today for a single quote:

I suppose it is much more comfortable to be mad and not know than to be sane and have one’s doubts.

Well, it shows he had a sense of humor. And “Sir Hugo’s Prayer” shows off his humor, too. It’s a fun, comedic ghost story, perfect for reading in front of the Yule Log on Christmas Eve, or while relaxing after a big Christmas dinner. Enjoy!!

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a joyous day to all who don’t.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured Image: Image from A Clerical Courtship [a novel]. (1893) Source: British Library on Flickr

Hamlet Sees the Ghost of his Father, Eugene Delacroix (1843) Source: WikiArt

The Fourth Wall

After last post’s Lovecraft tale, I’ve decided on a kind of “theme” for this year’s series of Winter Tales: Something a little different.

I’m going to try to share stories where the haunting is some way atypical. Not just the usual suspiciously cheap rentals full of restless spirits, and dusty haunted manors rife with dark family secrets. Well, maybe there will be a few of those, but with a twist.

This time, I have an early story (1915) from A. M. Burrage. who was an extremely profilic writer of short stories in many genres, including romance. He’s best known today for his supernatural tales, including the spooky Christmas ghost story, “Smee,” written under the pen name Ex-Private X.

The story I’m sharing today, “The Fourth Wall,” is quite a bit different from “Smee,” but I think it’s fun, and the haunting is different and clever.

Drama 312318 640

Five people take a cottage in the country for a couple of months starting in December. No, it wasn’t absurdly cheap; it fact it’s perfectly delightful. Almost too delightful.

‘It’s a ripping old place,’ he said; ‘but do you know it seems to me rather self-conscious of being a cottage.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mrs Forran laughed.

‘I mean that everything about it—the furniture and all that—is so very “cottagey”. It seems to keep on shouting at you: “I am a cottage. Everything in me is just right for a cottage.” I don’t express myself very well.’

Helen laughed.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘You mean this room is, somehow, just a little stagey.’

“A perfect stage cottage,” is what they call it, but if that’s the only complaint they have, it’s not a bad thing. Is it?

You can read The Fourth Wall here.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured image: Set Design for staging Diary of Satan (by L. Andreev), Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1922). Source: WikiArt

Comedy/Tragedy Masks Source: Pixabay

Winter Tales Time! The Festival

Winter Tales time already! I’ve had a tradition on the blog for several years now: from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

327px The Shadow over Innsmouth by Mushstone

It snuck up on me this year, and I’m starting a little late and a bit unprepared, but there’s a silver lining. While rummaging amongst the files and lists on my computer for a good story to open with, I found a cache of tales that I’d forgotten about. So I can start this year’s round off strong, with a story a bit different from what I usually present: The Festival, a tale of Yuletide horror from H. P. Lovecraft.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden…

The narrator journeys to spooky New England, in accordance with family tradition, to participate in a once-every-century winter festival. What he experiences is ancient, eldritch, and adjective-laden.

I poke fun at Lovecraft’s style, but this story has moments of evocative atmosphere and genuine creepiness. I don’t think I’ll look at Midnight Mass in quite the same way this year.

So find a hot beverage and a warm blanket, and kick off this year’s Winter Tale season with a Cthulu Christmas story.

You can download “The Festival” here.

Enjoy!


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured image: The Nameless City, leothefox (2013). Source: Wikimedia

The Shadow over Innsmouth, TY Kim (Mushstone), (2012). Source: Wikimedia

Agatha Christie’s Supernatural(ish) Writings

Covering two supernatural-inflected Agatha Christie collections, The Last Seance and The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Long before I was into ghost stories, I was into detective and crime fiction. I grew up reading old paperback anthologies from Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: everything my local library had. But it’s been years since I’ve read anything by either Christie or Sayers, or that style of “body in the library” detective fiction, in general.

The Last Seance - Agatha Christie

Christie and Sayers began their writing careers in the period between the two World Wars, a period when the English ghost story also proliferated. It’s not surprising that both authors tried their hand at supernatural tales. While I’d come across a few of Christie’s ghost stories amongst her short story collections, it was before I was as widely read in the supernatural literature of the period as I am now. So it was interesting to read the recent Christie collection, The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural, now that I’m more familiar with the landscape of ghost stories written about the same time.

Continue reading

Bellamore’s Triple Theft

My schedule is about to get super busy, but I squeezed off another translation of a short Quiroga tale.

Dexter Horton National Bank interior ca 1920 SEATTLE 170

This is Quiroga’s go at ratiocination-based detective fiction, in the style of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The title of the story, “El triple robo de Bellamore,” seems to be a play on “El doble crimen,” the Spanish title for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”–at least the title of the translation that Quiroga read.

Or, possibly, this is Quiroga’s gentle mockery of ratiocination, and how implausible these elaborate chains of reasoning would be in reality. You decide.

Enjoy.


All the Quiroga stories I’ve translated so far, in the order I did them.

Image: Dexter Horton National Bank interior, ca. 1920. Source: Wikimedia.

Friday Video: A Sci-Fi Tell-tale Heart

I’ve been on an unintentional Edgar Allan Poe roll lately: first some of Horacio Quiroga’s fictional homages to Poe, then the Dario Argento/George Romero cinematic tribute to Poe. Now another cinematic tribute: Orbit, a futuristic sci-fi update of “The Tell-tale Heart.”

This is an almost verbatim retelling of the tale, by which I mean that the narration is literally a reading of the short story, with only minor tweaks. It works quite well.

Length: 9 minutes, 6 seconds

I’ve been really impressed by the quality of the films from DUST. I’m not sure what their business model is, but I’m keeping an eye on their YouTube channel, for sure.

Enjoy.

Watching Two Evil Eyes

Sometime around the late ’80s, Italian director Dario Argento, who is a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan, called up George Romero with the idea of making a multi-director anthology film based on Poe’s tales[1]. The original plan was to have four segments, one each by Romero, Argento, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. In a 2009 interview, Argento also mentions considering Stephen King as a possible contributor.

Two Evil Eyes
Source: IMDB

Unfortunately, neither Carpenter nor Craven were available, and so Romero and Argento decided to do a diptych, for lack of a better term, to be filmed in Romero’s home town of Pittsburgh, and set in the present day. Romero adapted “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar;” Argento chose “The Black Cat.” The resulting film, which was released in Europe first, was Due occhi diabolici, aka Two Evil Eyes.

I’ve only just heard of this film. It had only a limited theater release around 1990-1991 (I’m not sure why), and fell into relative obscurity. Of course once my husband and I found out about it, we had to see it. We’re both huge fans of Corman’s Poe films, and I love the anthology format, so I’m especially fond of Tales of Terror (1962), which also includes versions of “Valdemar” and the “The Black Cat.” How interesting to see new versions of these stories!

As a bonus, the movie was shot in Pittsburgh in 1989, just before I moved there for grad school. So I had the extra treat of recalling the Pittsburgh scenery as it appeared in the background of the film.

Continue reading

The Other’s Crime

As promised in my last post, I’ve just finished a translation of the title story from Horacio Quiroga’s 1904 collection, El crimen del otro.

464px Ligeia Clarke
Harry Clarke, Illustration for “Ligeia” from Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919). Source: Wikimedia

Many of the stories in El crimen del otro are direct homages to Poe, and this one in particular is practically a love letter. It was a challenge for me to translate, partly because it’s appreciably longer than previous stories that I’ve attempted, and partially because neither of the characters in this tale are mentally stable. Much of what they say to each other straddles the border of nonsense, and it was not easy to, first, decipher what they were saying, and then to try to render it into “sensible nonsense” in English. Hopefully I’ve not botched it too much.

The fun thing about this story is picking out all the references to various Poe tales. Most of the titles transliterated into Spanish, so it wasn’t too hard to match them. Apparently the version of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that Quiroga read was titled “El double crimen” (The double crime)–this cleared up the title of another Quiroga story for me: “El triple robo del Bellamore” (The triple theft of Bellamore), which is a riff on Poe’s Dupin stories. I plan to translate that story, too, as time allows.

Continue reading