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

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.

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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.


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.

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.

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Horacio Quiroga and Edgar Allan Poe

Earlier this year I got quite interested in the short stories of the Uruguyan author Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), and I started translating and posting some of his stories. One of Quiroga’s literary influences was Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he shares a morbid fascination with death and madness. I’m sure Quiroga’s frequent themes of addiction and illness are also partially influenced by Poe, as well.

Horacio Quiroga 1900
Horacio Quiroga, circa 1900. Source: Wikimedia

Quiroga published his breakout collection Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (Tales of Love, Madness and Death) in 1917. By then, his voice was coming into its own, merging Quiroga’s love for Poe with other literary interests, in particular de Maupassant and Kipling, along with Quiroga’s own life experiences living in the jungle province Misiones, in Argentina. But his earlier work shows Quiroga’s love for Poe much more strongly. Several of the stories in his 1904 collection, El crimen del otro (The Crime of Another) are direct homages to Poe’s short stories.

I translated one of Quiroga’s earliest stories back in July, but never posted it here. You can read it at the Ephemera blog:

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Reading Guilt is a Ghost

Full disclosure: Tim kindly sent me a review copy of this book.

The executive summary: Guilt is a Ghost is a fine second offering in the adventures of ghost hunter Vera Van Slyke and her assistant Lucille Parsell (nee Ludmila Prasilova).

Guilt is a ghost cover 1

The operative phrase is second offering: I’m honestly not sure what a reader’s reaction would be if this were the first Vera Van Slyke book they read. (Tim Prasil apparently disagrees with me). Having read Help for the Haunted first (my review here), I came into Guilt is a Ghost familiar with the two main characters, and already quite fond of them. And that’s good, because I feel there is less characterization of Vera and her friendship with Lucille in this book than there was in the previous one.

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Two More Stories by Horacio Quiroga

I’ve put two more Horacio Quiroga translations up on the Ephemera blog:

  • The Spectre (El espectro): Every night, two lovers go to the movies. Even though they’re dead.
  • Juan Darién: A rescued orphan jaguar cub magically turns into a human, and tries to live among other humans.
Detail from magazine article on The Money Corral
Detail of an ad in Moving Picture World, May 1919 for the film The Money Corral (1919), starring William S. Hart. Source: Wikimedia

This brings the total number of stories I’ve translated so far up to six, and I hope to keep going.

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The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology

Covering the third of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, first published in 1965, is rather different from Karloff’s previous two anthologies. Tales of Terror and And the Darkness Falls were both collaborations with Karloff’s friend, the editor Edmund Speare. Both those anthologies highlighted stories that, while macabre, could mostly be considered “mainstream” or “literary” tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, on the other hand, has more of a pulp magazine feel, and features almost all stories from the mid-twentieth century (nothing earlier than 1936; Table of Contents here). The one exception is Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is included because John Jake’s story “The Opener of the Crypt” is a sequel to Poe’s classic tale.

Boris Karloff, Date unknown
Source: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

This difference raises a number of possibilities about the editorship of the anthologies:

  1. Speare had more to do with the editing of the first two anthologies than one might think.
  2. Karloff had less to do with the editing of the third anthology than one might think.
  3. Karloff’s tastes, and his thoughts on the definition of terror, had evolved in the intervening two decades.
  4. Some combination of the above.

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Karloff’s And the Darkness Falls

Covering the second of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

And the Darkness Falls is the second anthology of “terror tales” edited by Boris Karloff (with Edmund Speare’s assistance). It was published in 1946 by World Publishing, apparently to coincide with the release of the film Bedlam, Karloff’s third and final collaboration with producer Val Lewton (Cat People). While Tales of Terror is an anthology of mostly ghost stories, about half the stories in And the Darkness Falls have no supernatural element, but are naturalistic tales of the macabre. Reading it reminded me a little of an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology. This is not a bad thing; the Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks put out by Dell in the ’60s and ’70s were a staple at my local library when I was growing up, and I adored them.

Boris Karloff

And the Darkness Falls is a more ambitious and eclectic anthology than Tales of Terror: a whopping 69 stories and poems (Table of Contents here), each with a brief introduction by Karloff that gives biographical information about the author, and often a short rationale for the story’s selection, or its thematic connections with other stories in the book. The main criterion for inclusion in the anthology seems to be that the story be in some way dark. Karloff and Speare interpret the idea of dark broadly, leading to an interesting and diverse selection of tales. Karloff also wrote a short introduction to the entire anthology.

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Boris Karloff, Terror Tale Anthologist

Covering the first of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

Some time in the early 1940s, Boris Karloff was approached by his friend Dr. Edmund Speare, editor for Pocket Books and Knopf, as well as the author of several books of literary criticism and editor of World’s Great Short Stories; Masterpieces of American, English and Continental Literature (World Publishing, 1942). Speare pitched to Karloff the idea of “a collection of bogey stories selected by a professional bogey man” — Karloff. The deal was for Speare to gather the first round of candidate stories, and for Karloff to winnow them down for the final selection, as well as to write the introduction to the anthology. The result was Tales of Terror, released by World Publishing in 1943 with Karloff credited as editor.

Boris Karloff, House of Frankenstein (1944)
Boris Karloff, Publicity shot for House of Frankenstein, 1944. Source: IMDB

Tales of Terror collects fourteen tales, most of them quite well known by aficionados of the genre today, though perhaps they were less well known at the time (Table of Contents here). The collection is still a fine introduction to some classics of the genre for newcomers, but the real delight is Karloff’s introduction. Reading it (I like to imagine Karloff’s deep distinctive voice while doing so), we learn of Karloff’s distinction between terror and horror. To Karloff, horror carries a connotation of revulsion; the gory, the grisly, the Grand Guignol: that’s horror. The basis of terror, on the other hand, is simply fear: “fear of the unknown and the unknowable.” I’ve read elsewhere that Karloff preferred to call his own films “terror films” rather than “horror films” for this same reason.

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