If you happen to be passing through King’s Cross and can spare 10 minutes, drop by the British Library to see Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction, a small but perfectly formed exhibition about crime writing. The exhibits range from first editions of famous classics, such as a copy of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors that has been loved a little too well or the crispy pages of a 1926 issue of The Sketch magazine, the first to feature Miss Marple; to brief thematic studies on subjects like the development of the female detective over 150 years or the true crime sub-genre; to memorabilia such as private photographs of John Gielgud, who devoured trashy detective novels, revelling on the set of Morse or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immaculate manuscript for The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (what a gift to be able to write so well without need of emendation!).
This show is not a history of crime writing; rather, it is a selection of revealing curiosities designed to surprise even crime devotees. It is successful in this aim. I did not know, for instance, that high-quality jigsaw puzzles forming part of a detective novel’s narrative were manufactured between the wars as after-dinner entertainment. Seeing one in the flesh puts fresh gloss on the tired ‘murder mystery party’: the technicoloured pieces still glistening like wet blood 80 years on. And, although I knew that Dennis Wheatley had, in the early 1930s, designed the ‘crime dossier’ (a box of clues) with which readers were to solve a mystery, I had never seen one before, such is their rarity. The dossier looked engrossing; I wanted to touch it. Today’s publishers would probably fail if they tried a similar gimmick online because I don’t see how it would work without being able to turn the contents over in your hands.
These detours away from dust jackets and foxed copies produced so many pleasant surprises. I have always imagined that John Gielgud’s eccentricity was not mere play acting, so it was delightful to find his script for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) decorated with sprawling, Dali-esque doodles: testament to the persistence of boredom on a film set. The script was also pocked-marked by his professional foibles. He copied out his lines in the adjacent margin, in handwriting that must have been easily legible only to him, and he marked the tricks of his characterisation in imperative capitals. ‘SPECTACLES ON,’ he demands of himself on one page.
The exhibition is made by such weird and wonderful artefacts. Each one speaks of the simple joys that the genre has brought. They remind you that people both large and small have been thrilled by crime writing, a great leveller. Murder in the Library made me smile on an otherwise bleak midwinter day.