Partners in Crime

Writers' panel at Paddington Library for National Crime Reading Month. L-R: Graeme Cameron, Claire Seeber, Simon Toyne and SJI Holliday
Writers’ panel L-R: Graeme Cameron, Claire Seeber, Simon Toyne and SJI Holliday

Paddington Library last week hosted a panel of four crime fiction writers as part of National Crime Reading Month. They discussed their work and crime fiction in general with a large and engaged audience.

Normal by Graeme Cameron Books by Claire Seeber Books by Simon Toyne Black Wood by SJI Holliday

Authors SJI HollidayClaire Seeber, Graeme Cameron and Simon Toyne enthused and entertained the crime fans with their views on writing, and offered for sale signed copies of their books.

The month-long reading campaign is co-ordinated by the Crime Writer’s Association.


I need to get rid of the Ferrari

Yellow Diamond by Andrew Martin A great discussion took place in Mayfair Library last week, at the end of author Andrew Martin’s talk about his latest book Yellow Diamond – a crime of the super rich.

The book is set in Mayfair and Andrew has included in it many comments overheard as he wandered the streets and smoked in the cigar shop. One brilliant example was “I’m going to have the change the Ferrari – it’s no good for my back”!

The audience, made up of residents and workers in Mayfair, became passionate about how the area has changed. Some believed it was for the better and others thought it was for the worse. We were queuing up to buy the book from him at the end of the evening, especially to see if we recognised any of the characters in it (although I am sure Andrew will have a disclaimer at the front saying it is not based on any living person).

Author Andrew Martin at Mayfair Library, November 2015

Andrew took us down memory lane to his childhood in York when riding the trains of his youth was a joy rather than the painful experience of commuting many of us take now, and this was a real insight into the creation of his historical crime novels featuring Jim Stringer, railwayman and detective. We’ve previously featured Andrew’s books in a blog about railway-themed crime writing – read more.

“Super interesting … loved the chat at the end.”

“Fantastic, fascinating- could have listened to Andrew and the Q&A all night.”


Libraries in fiction

I was prompted to these thoughts having recently re-watched Ghostbusters which, as you may remember, starts inside the magnificent New York Public Library with the ghostly terrorisation of a librarian by levitating books and flying catalogue cards. In the future remake of this film I wonder how the film makers will get round the inconvenient fact in the intervening years catalogue cards have gone the way of the dodo in most libraries…

In this example the library was simply a location for the plot. Another example is Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. Here the library is used as an example of locked room murder mystery so popular in early crime fiction. Other authors such as Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse) and Dorothy L Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) used college libraries as part of the Oxford setting of their novels.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter

Libraries however have played a more significant role in some relatively recent crime novels. Sue Grafton’s detective series is set in the 1980s, in other words pre personal computers / the internet and such library resources as Newsbank. Therefore in several novels in this series, the investigator Kinsey Millhone visits her local library to consult old newspapers issues on microfilm.

More recently I have enjoyed reading Donna Leon’s novel By its Cover, set in an Venetian academic library. This novel starts with the discovery of a theft of an early printed book from the collection and leads to a murder. As a librarian I was cheering Commissario Guido Brunetti on in his efforts to solve these crimes.

G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton By its Cover by Donna Leon Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

One fictional library together with its orangutan librarian loom large in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. It would be a very foolish thief or murderer to enter this library to commit a crime. If The Librarian did not apprehend the felon the chances are that the magical books would. This is the library whose contents were chained to protect the user from harm rather than to protect the books from theft. In fact there was one library book theft in Pratchett’s novel Guards! Guards! A book on summoning dragons was successful stolen to order as part of a plot to overthrow the city ruler. Not that it did the conspirators much good, as the summoned dragon quickly incinerated them.

A hero to many library staff, Discworld’s The Librarian is a member of a small elite group of senior librarians who have the knowledge and ability to travel through L-space, an extradimentional space that connects all libraries and other large accumulations of books; a skill that alas has not passed onto this member of staff. I can’t speak for my colleagues.


Reading Agatha Christie on her 125th birthday

Book by Agatha ChristieOutsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie (15.9.1890 – 12.1.1976) is the best-selling novelist of all time.

She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap.

Described as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie was born in Torquay, Devon in September 1890. Educated at home, she taught herself to read and was soon writing poems and short stories.

It was during the First World War that Agatha turned to writing detective stories. Her debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles took some time to finish and even longer to find a publisher. She started writing partly in response to a bet from her sister Madge that she couldn’t write a good detective story and partly to relieve the monotony of the dispensing work which she was now doing.

It was not until 1919 that a publisher, John Lane of The Bodley Head (the fourth to have received the manuscript) accepted The Mysterious Affair at Styles for publication and contracted Agatha to produce five more books. She chose a Belgian refugee detective, Hercule Poirot as her sleuth – Belgian refugees were a common feature in England during the war.

Subsequent books introduced new characters – Tommy and Tuppence and Miss Marple who were to feature in many further titles.

Endless Night by Agatha ChristieRecommendations from Westminster library staff:

“The Agatha Christie novel I remember most clearly is the one-off Endless Night. Part romantic gothic, part murder mystery, the story is unlike most other Christies I’d read and I can still remember my shock and disquiet at the ending.
To say more would ruin the mystery!
– Maarya

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie“I love Murder on The Orient Express. The plot is so well organised, so many red herrings, you could not possibly work out who the murderer(s) are. A complicated homicide as the murder depicted here would never happen in real life.
The book was made in to a stylish film with a glittering array of high end actors which is a joy to watch.”

A Murder is Announced, by Agatha ChristieA murder is announced – our family listened to it in the car on talking book cassette (borrowed from our local library of course) on a very long drive all the way down to the Pyrenees. Despite it being very sunny and French outside we were all enraptured by the rather old and stuffy villagers of Chipping Cleghorn. It is the first Agatha Christie I came across and do to this day prefer Miss Marple to Poirot.”
– Amy

Lord Edgware dies, by Agatha Christie“I love Lord Edgware Dies because it’s the perfect example of Agatha Christie’s skill in creating a murder mystery which seems utterly impossible, but once explained feels so simple you can’t believe you didn’t solve it yourself.”
– Grainne


Christie’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1928. She travelled to the archaeological site of Ur where the following year she met Max Mallowan who was to become her second husband. Several books were influenced by their travels in the Middle East such as Death on the Nile and They came to Baghdad.

Agatha Christie writing as Mary WestmacottFrom 1928 Agatha also wrote non-crime novels under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. She continued writing through the war and post-war period, although now there was much time-consuming work with theatrical productions which limited the time Agatha could devote to writing.

On 3 December 1926 Agatha Christie’s life featured a real life mystery when she left her home alone. Her car was found abandoned the next morning several miles away. A nationwide search ensued. The press and public enjoyed various speculations as to what might have happened and why but no one knew for sure. It eventually transpired that Agatha had somehow travelled to Kings Cross station where she took the train to Harrogate and checked into the Harrogate Spa Hotel under the name of Theresa Neale, previously of South Africa. She was eventually recognised by the hotel staff on 14 December, who alerted the police. She did not recognise her husband when he came to meet her. Possibly concussed but certainly suffering from amnesia, Agatha had no recollection of who she was. An intensely private person, made even more so by the hue and cry of the press, Agatha never spoke of this time with friends or family.

Agatha Christie died in January 1976 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Cholsey, near Wallingford.

You can find out about events being held all over the country to celebrate Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday by visiting If you’d like to read books by Christie, take a look at our new Agatha Christie reading list.



Making the most of the ODNB

Oxford dictionary of National BiographyWarning! Searching the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) can be addictive. As the saying goes,“all human life is here”.

Most people use this dictionary to search for a specific individual. However you may not be aware that using the advanced search options selecting other search criteria will create lists of names of the great and the good and also, it must be said, the not-so-good. It is this searching capability that makes the online version so much more powerful than the paper volumes.

To use the advanced search facility, click on one of the “More Search Options” displayed beneath the main search box.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Curiosity led me to check how many people with Westminster borough connections are listed. The answer is currently 3980. However this figure is misleading as a casual check of a few entries revealed than the connection was often limited either to their unfortunate death in one of the borough’s hospitals, attendance at one of the borough’s schools or the fact they were politicians so had the obvious Westminster connection.

I reduced this huge number of entries firstly by selecting Marylebone for the location and further whittling down the number of entries by selecting the “Law and Crime” category. Amongst the list of lawyers and judges I found Henry Fauntleroy, a banker employed in the bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co. of Berners Street, Marylebone, He began a criminal career by fraudulently appropriating trust moneys and securities deposited by customers in the Berners Street bank and by forging powers of attorney, he was able to sell consols, annuities, navy loans and other government stock to support the credit of the bank and personal gain. The fraud totalling £36,000 was discovered in 1824, the current value equivalent of £36 million. Despite appeals, Henry Fauntleroy was publicly hanged in front of an estimated crowd of 100,000 outside Newgate Gaol.

You may wonder why he is included. The DNB does not only include the great and the good. To quote the website “the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century”. Henry Fauntleroy’s significance in British history is that his fraud led to major banking reforms with the passing of the 1826 Banking Act.

Finally it is also worth investigating the ‘Themes’ tab to display the large number of collective biographies brought together under such topics as climbers of Everest, British monarchs, First World War poets and significant military and political leaders involved in that conflict. Other lists include founder members of institutions and significant groups in British history.


(For other examples of how to dig deep into the resources of the ODNB, see this post from 2012.)

The British Amateur Sleuth

The Secret Adversary by Agatha ChristieThe BBC recently started a new 6-part series Partners in Crime. It stars David Walliams and Jessica Raine as Thomas (Tommy) and Prudence (Tuppence) Beresford, an unsuccessful businessman and his wife who get drawn into a world of espionage and crime-solving during the Cold War days of the early 1950s.

The series has been adapted from two of Agatha Christie’s books – The Secret Adversary and N or M?  Agatha Christie wrote a number of books featuring these amateur sleuths interspersed between her other books. N or M? by Agatha ChristieThese books were actually first published in 1922 and 1941 respectively, and the last novel she wrote – Postern of Fate (1973) also featured the duo, having aged in keeping with the novel’s setting.

Christie’s best-known amateur sleuth is of course Miss Marple, who has been played by various actresses on film and TV, notably Margaret Rutherford and  Angela Lansbury on film, and Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan on TV.

Other contemporary authors from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing also featured amateur sleuths. They usually came from an upper-class background, for only they would have the time or the money to get involved. Margery Allingham had the aristocratic Albert Campion as her protagonist. Dorothy L. Sayers had Lord Peter Wimsey. But this was not always the case – for instance G.K. Chesterton created the priest-cum-detective Father Brown.

Books by Margery Allingham   Books by Dorothy L Sayers   Books by GK Chesterton

The concept of the British amateur sleuth is far from dead. There are a number of current authors who have created characters and written books in the style of the ‘Golden Age’ originals. One such is the US author Carola Dunn with her British 1920s heroine Daisy Dalrymple.  Simon Brett revives the aristocratic sleuth with his Blotto and Twinks series set around the post-First World War period. He has also created another character Mrs Pargeter, a widow who solves crimes with the help of her dead husband’s friends.

Books by Carola Dunn   Books by Simon Brett   Books by MC Beaton

Amateur sleuth stories do not have to be set in the inter-war period! A present-day setting is the format for M.C. Beaton’s popular Agatha Raisin series featuring a former public relations executive who retires to the Cotswolds and soon finds herself involved in crime-solving. The first book in the series was Agatha Raisin and the quiche of death (2002).  On TV, the most popular amateur sleuth series is probably Rosemary & Thyme – the gardening duo who are always coming across dead bodies.

This year – 15 September, to be exact – would have been Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday. Reading – or re-reading – her novels or watching the BBC’s new series are just two ways to mark the occasion – visit for more.


A taste for crime

National Crime Reading Month

June is National Crime Reading Month, and Paddington Library Reading Group celebrated by delving into the works of a number of our favourite contemporary authors:

Books by C J SansomCJ Sansom

Some of us felt that Dissolution by CJ Samson was worth reading for its historical details about monasticism in Tudor England, but that the overall tone and style was a bit gloomy and claustrophobic. One reader had to put the book down on more then one occasion to avoid feeling down!

Henning Mankell

Books by Henning MankellAuthor Henning Mankell made a big impact with his award-winning novel Sidetracked, which features Inspector Kurt Wallander. The author takes the reader into his confidence and shares hints and speculation – of which the main character is unaware, so much so that one reader felt the need to leaf ahead to see what happens! The good Inspector is a likeable, thoughtful, character with whom the reader can engage and we would not want to lose him.

Arnaldur Indidrason

By contrast, Icelandic author Arnaldur Indidrason makes the reader rely solely on his hard working detective Erlendur and his colleague Sigurdur Óli for leads and insights into murders in and around Reykjavík.

Books by Arnuldur IndridasonIn the novel Jar City, the opening passage relates the murder of an elderly man alone in his flat. [Spoiler removed!]. The author explores an interesting aspect of Icelandic society: the problems of rare genetic disease, Iceland being a country which until relatively recently was isolated from the world, which meant everybody was related to everybody else – a surefire recipe for inbreeding and its consequences.

Books by Ian SamsonIan Sansom

A much lighter tone is depicted in Ian Sansom‘s novel The Norfolk Mystery, which features the eccentric and eclectic Professor Swanton Morley and his assistant Stephen Sefton, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. They travel round the country collecting information for a series of County Guides for travellers and yet find themselves solving murders at the same time.


Finally, the National Crime Reading Month website contains some fascinating blogs on what makes a criminal mind. Some speculate that an inadequate upbringing (child abuse, neglect, etc) is a factor, others point to the correlation between head injuries and behaviour changes. For example, the notorious murderer Fred West suffered head injuries in a motor cycle accident. Interesting.


London in fiction – for World Book Night

The Hidden Girl by Louise MillarOn World Book Night Pimlico Library hosted a talk by two psychological thriller authors, Louise Voss and Louise Millar, who are part of the Killer Women group.

Focussing on the representation of London in their fiction, the authors also discussed their respective routes into writing and the creative process.

There was a lively discussion on many topics. The audience was particularly interested in the fact that Louise Voss co-authors books with Mark Edwards. They were intrigued by the writing process and the experience of writing alongside another author.

World Book Night 2015 at Pimlico Library, with authors Louise Voss and Louise Millar

As it was World Book Night, after the discussion attendees were given free copies of either the Cityread London title Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch  or the WBN title Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by MC Beaton.