I’m often complaining on this blog about the mystery community’s short memory and how it affects the survival (or non-survival) of the genre’s heritage. Things have been slowly moving in the right direction lately, mostly thanks to specialty and small presses that rescued whole catalogues from the limbo in which the big houses had left them for decades. The e-book revolution was particularly helpful in this welcome development. That’s the good news.
Now for the bad ones. Vintage crime fiction is progressively becoming fashionable again but not everyone got the memo. A FB friend has informed me that his local public library in an effort to appear more « modern » recently purged a large section of its mystery catalogue – Geoffrey Household, Maurice Leblanc (!) Ellery Queen (!!) and Georges Simenon (!!!) are some of the crime writers they deemed « outdated » and thus not worth keeping on its shelves. As of the writing of this article, Rex Stout and a handful of Ngaio Marsh still hold on, but for how long? Frequent complaints from members of the Golden Age of Detection board prove that this is not an isolated case – when time comes for librarians to make room, mysteries are frequently the first to go. This applies here as well; my local library used to own the whole or so John Dickson Carr catalogue but has since purged it so that only two books survive now – and I doubt they last long as they haven’t been borrowed in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not dissing public libraries. I owe them a lot as a reader in general and a mystery reader in particular. I realize that you can’t push the walls indefinitely and that sooner or later you have to make choices that can be painful. The problem here is that public libraries often provided, or used to provide, young or less young readers with their first entry into crime fiction, including that which wasn’t readily available in bookstores. I read Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle thanks to my local library which retained a copy (it’s gone now) long after it had gone out of print. My millenial readers may have difficulty envisioning it but that was a time when neither Amazon or eBay existed and ALL used books were hard to find. Luck was your only ally as you roamed used bookstores and garage sales in search of the Holy Grail – and the price often turned to be prohibitive when you finally found it. Had the public library not existed, I might still be on the hunt for a copy of the book and many others I was able to read thanks to them. I guess I’m not the only one in this case.
Since even the current « vintage » mini-boom cannot cover all bases (I don’t hear or see much clamouring for the reissue of Albert Harding’s Death on Ravens’scar) it is thus of vital importance that public libraries keep the old stuff’s flame alive. A library like a museum exists to keep the past alive so that people who weren’t born then can get a glimpse of it – and it encompasses crime fiction that only a small figment of the general readership still reads. Ditching it makes all of us poorer.