In honor of it being Library Lovers' Month I thought it only fitting to choose to read a short story or two about libraries this week. Who would have thought there would be an anthology of stories about libraries and librarians. I am discovering a wealth of story collections, however, for a wide range of subjects. It was by chance that I found this one, In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians edited by Michael Cart (who happens to be a...yes, librarian). Since I seem to be reading lots of female authors lately, I thought I should give a few male authors a chance.
My favorite story, "QL 696.C9", has a wonderful opening. "The librarian's body had been removed from the swivel chair, but Detective Lieutenant Donald MacDonald stood beside the desk. This was only his second murder case, and he was not yet hardened enough to use the seat freshly vacated by a corpse." How could I resist choosing this story? It was written by Anthony Boucher, who I had not heard of. Apparently he was "one of the most important figures in 20th century mystery and detective fiction." He was a novelist, editor and critic. He wrote a column for the New York Times called "Criminals at Large" in the 1950s and 60s. There is even an annual mystery convention named after him--"The Bouchercon". How has this all escaped me, when I am so fond of mysteries? In any case, this story was great fun!
Murder has been committed in the public library. Miss Benson, branch librarian, has been shot. Our suspects: Stella Swift, junior librarian; Mrs. Cora Jarvis, children's librarian; James Stickney, library patron, and Norbert Utter, high-school teacher. Miss Benson has left us with a clue, however. She had been typing a list, which ended with:
Davies: MISSION TO MOSCOW (2 cop)
Kernan: DEFENSE WILL NOT WIN THE WAR
FIC MacInnes: ABOVE SUSP
Nowawadays a little online searching would bring about a satisfying conclusion, but this story was set in the 50s (possibly during the McCarthy hearings) with only a card catalog to aid the search. Detective MacDonald would need a little help from a former police lieutenant (and crack problem-solver). If you work in a library, or know anything about someone who is a cataloger, you'll appreciate Stella's description of them:
"Those are a race apart. They know a little of everything, all the systems of classification, Dewey, Library of Congress, down to the last number, and just how many spaces you indent each item on a typed card, and all about bibliography, and they shudder in their souls if the least little thing is wrong. They have eyes like eagles and memories like elephants."
That cracked me up, as it sounds pretty accurate to me. The story has a successful conclusion and it was entertaining watching the detective unravel the mystery. I have one small quibble:
"Some librarians have been advancing the theory, you see, that a librarian can best help defense work by watching what people use which books. For instance, if somebody keeps borrowing every work you have on high explosives, you know he's a dangerous saboteur planning to blow up the aqueduct and you turn him over to the G-men."
Hmm. Not to sure about all that, but it worked with the story, and it was otherwise completely entertaining, so I am willing to overlook it. That's a rather scary thought to think someone might be watching the books I check out, though! And no, we don't do that at my library.
I have heard many things about M.R. James. It seems he's quite famous for his ghost stories. I have been meaning to read something by him, and conveniently in this collection I found, "The Tractate Middoth". It concerns a mysterious book that an elderly gentleman comes to the library in search of. It also concerns a woman and her daughter who are barely getting by, and a will that's been hidden. Mr. William Garrett will get involved, with some very chilling results. Although not terribly frightening, it was certainly creepy and atmospheric and a nicely crafted story. I'll definitely be searching out more of his work.
The last story I read is by author, Isaac Babel, who was the first major Russian Jewish author to write in Russian. Although I've heard his name I've not read any of his work. He died in a Siberian labor camp in 1941 after he had been charged and arrested for espionage. "The Public Library" is quite short, a mere three pages long. It is a tribute to the many varied people who find refuge in the library. It begins:
"You can feel straightaway that the book reigns supreme here. All the people who work in the library have entered into communion with The Book, with life at second-hand, and have themselves become, as it were, a mere reflection of the living."