Murder in the British Library

A slightly quirky display about the crime novel genre has been opened at the British Library with a total of 26 vignettes on display – one per letter of the alphabet.

It’s a small exhibition and although it has some historic books and artefacts on display, they were to me mainly an ornament to the snippets of trivia attached to each letter.


A novel form of the crime novel was the “books with clues” where the reader was presented with actual evidence of the crime such as samples of hair or fabric, and lead through the process of solving it themselves.

One of Dennis Wheatley’s books of this type is one display next to a modern take on the genre, A Georgian Dossier, which is nothing to do with Georgian London but so called because it is set in the Caucasus country of Georgia. Another rather curious variant of that was the Jigsaw Puzzle Murder, where the solution is presented in an actual jigsaw you had to assemble at the end of the book.

A giant red fingerprint is a replica of the one that adorned the cover of The Red Thumb Mark, and is the author’s own thumbprint. A sinister slice has sparked many rumours of its significant. It’s probably just a paper-cut though.

Although criminal investors have been around quite literally since time immemorial, it turns out the term detective only appears in the OED from 1843, making it a comparatively recent development. Then we have the Sherlock Holmes stories popularising it.


The inter-war years are considered the height of crime novel writing, even if rather a lot of them involve the upper classes. The crimes of the lower classes not being worthy of literary comment yet.

I also learnt a lovely term — Mayhem Parva — which describes the sort of Miss Marple fare where novels are set in picturesque country villages.

As each snippet of commentary is settled upon by letter, they left Fu Manchu for the letter X, for xenophobia. The books coming out at a time of heightened panic about the yellow peril.

I have sometimes found book exhibitions to be a bit too reverential to the Holy Icon that is the printed book, but this display is reassuringly offbeat and the snippets of information should leave you having learnt something worth dropping into a boring conversation some day.

The exhibition is open until 12th May and is free to visit during British Library opening hours.

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