Exhibition Review: Murder In The Library! @ The British Library

The British Library’s latest exhibition is a celebration of crime fiction.

Called Murder In The Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction, the free show aims to give a quirky snapshot of some of the themes, authors and characters that make up this popular genre, rather than offer a complete history.

It’s a smart touch, and the result is a manageable show offering 26 themes, ranging from the familiar to the newly fascinating. Agatha Christie comes first, of course, and Sherlock’s in there for S, with Soji Shimada’s illustrated detective novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders bringing up the rear. Along the way there are nods to literary devices (L for the locked room); locations (O for Oxford); and real-life inspiration (T for true crimes) including a map of the house at Road Hill, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s brilliant book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, among others. Murder In The Library crosses international borders too, with features on American crime thrillers and a nod to Nordic Noir under N.

Look out too, for some of the oddities on show. Two lesser-known authors included are Pele and Terry Venables; under J you can find a 1930s novel which required readers to complete a jigsaw in order to solve the murder mystery; and don’t miss Dennis Wheatley’s murder mystery dossiers which included “real” physical clues like human hair and cigarette ends to help readers through the riddles.

At a sneak preview yesterday, curator Kathryn Johnson told us she and her colleagues had each compiled a personal A to Z of crime fiction and then combined their ideas to come up with the show. “We scheduled the final showdown for a Friday afternoon, knowing there could be some debate on what a particular letter should stand for. And in fact we didn’t finish til past 6.30. Whether P should be for police or poison was a particular sticking point.” (Police won the day.)

If you’re used to exhibitions following a chronological channel, it can feel strange to suddenly stop at I, which ponders “Is this the first?” of a 1841 Edgar Allen Poe short story entitled The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But the benefits of the alphabetical display mean you can dip in and out of the different themes as you wish. The info is short and snappy enough for the twitter generation; if you’re a crime fiction fan you should still find some new gems to whet your appetite to find out more elsewhere.

Running alongside this entertaining show, we’re told there are a series of “crime events“, including discussions and family whodunit workshops: hopefully no actual library-based crimes though.

Murder In The Library! An A-Z of Crime Fiction runs until 12 May in the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery. Entrance is free. Visit bl.uk/whatson to find out more.

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