Eccentric sleuths, private eyes, inexplicably locked-rooms and crucially timed trains: for terror, bafflement and satisfaction, few things beat a good detective novel. A new exhibition at the British Library traces the history of this treasured genre through an enlightening illustrated alphabet.
From the foxed pages of the earliest forays into crime in the late 19th century to the rubbed spines and cracked joints of well-fingered contemporary paperbacks, there are some choice books on display. Illustrated covers of crime give a wonderful overview of the age: there are the Victorian pen and ink drawings of subterfuge under lamplight, the swift lines of mid-century green-spined Penguins, 1980s watercolours of bucolic villages with ominous shadows and, of course, the red lipped femme fatales with much to hide who frequented the 1940s American hardboiled crimes.
Along with the books is a miscellany of thrilling finds. There’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original manuscript of the later Sherlock Holmes story The Adventures of the Retired Colonel, an annotated script of Agatha Christies’ Murder on the Orient Express, a couple of crime adventures penned by footballers Terry Venables and Pele and some inspiring lady detectives. The Golden Age of detective fiction falls in the period between the two world wars. During that time the fashion for mystery went well beyond books. There were jigsaw puzzle murders and “crime dossiers” stuffed with clues such as human hair and cigarette ends which players had to wade through to solve. Makes Cluedo sound a bit lame, doesn’t it.
Murder in the Library is on at the British Library until May 12.