Wiping Away the Past

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 are some of the crime writers they deemed « outdated » and thus not worth keeping on its shelves.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.


4 commentaires sur “Wiping Away the Past

  1. I empathise with you on this one as my local library doesn’t even stock Christie by the looks of things. I found two modern reprints of GAD and that was it. But then the library as whole was redecorated which invariably meant more computers and lounging space and much less books on shelves, so I guess vintage crime won’t have survived those inevitable cuts.

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  2. I totally agree with you, Xavier! The Canberra public libraries used to have a huge collection of detective fiction, going back to the ’50s. This included most of the Carrs (only one or two Dicksons), a lot of Queen, Mitchell, Innes, Simenon, all Marsh… I borrowed my first books by Freeman, Bailey, Berkeley, Rhode, and Blake from there. They closed down their Stack section in the late ’90s; most of those books have probably been pulped. A shameful waste! Surely libraries should be *increasing* their collection, not minimising it.


  3. The problem is basically of space. New books are published continuously and the libraries have to stock them. Hence due to limitation of space, some old books have to be discarded continuously. The axe generally falls on « polars et romans policiers » since these are often regarded (perhaps wrongly) as lowbrow stuff devoid of literary merit.
    The problem of limitation of space shows the importance of digitalisation of books.
    Personally, I also am facing space problem. Nowadays, I buy only digital books since there is absolutely no space for an additional book in my house !

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  4. I’m copy/pasting the following comment I posted at the FB Golden Age of Detection board as it highlights another factor that I omitted in my initial article:

     »Every public library in my experience has its own ethos and specialties, depending on various factors such as budgets, storage, public demand and also – sadly – the tastes and prejudices of the staff. To take my local public library as an example again, they have a typically French pro-noir bias, resulting in the genre being a heavy majority of their crime fiction collection. Traditional mysteries on the other hand they don’t get at all, so that they have the whole Robin Cook catalogue 🤮 but couldn’t be bothered to acquire the Father Brown or Albert Campion omnibuses that came out five years ago. Conversely traditional and non-noir mysteries are always the first/only ones to go when the time comes to make room for new (noir) stuff. »

    At which point we French mystery fans living near Paris are to thank Heavens for the BiLiPo – alas, it’s unique in the world and it (understandably) doesn’t lend.


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