“The place was worse than a morgue” – Libraries and librarians in hard-boiled detective fiction


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The connections between crime fiction and libraries are well established. The term bibliomystery is used for a detective story in which libraries, books or the publishing world plays a central role. There are a number of studies on libraries and librarians as depicted in fiction and popular culture.

When talking crime fiction, the library setting is primarily associated with the whodunit type of mystery. Here I will explore the topic as portrayed in the hard-boiled type of detective story.


Philip Marlowe and colleagues visit the library

If you pick up a random hard-boiled detective novel, there is a reasonable chance that the book will include a visit to a library by the detective. As a tradition, the library visit goes back at least to the 1930s and the most classic of hard-boiled detective heroes, Philip Marlowe, who made his first appearance in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep in 1939. Many later detectives have followed Chandler’s hero in this regard, including Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder.

Perhaps more surprising, even the hard-hitting and constantly revenge-seeking Mike Hammar visits libraries in books by Mickey Spillane. In I, the Jury (1948), Hammer has joined forces with police officer Pat Chambers. Together they visit a public library in the middle of the night in search for clues. Using old college yearbooks, they are able to find out the true identity of the killer. Their library visit therefore results in a breakthrough in their investigation.


More hard-boiled library patrons

Although quite common, the typical library visit by a hard-boiled detective is short in duration. Often the detective-as-library-user will check up a few facts by consulting old newspapers, rolls of microfilm or using a phone directory. Rarely do we get many details about the visit or in-depth descriptions of the library milieu, its users or its personnel.

But there are exceptions. A recurring library visitor is Kinsey Millhone, the hero of Sue Grafton’s alphabetically titled series of books set in the 1980s. Millhone is a patron of the Santa Teresa Public Library, for example in G is for Gumshoe (1990). Unlike many of her older male colleagues, she does not regard information seeking as a necessary evil but finds delight in searching for information and looking up facts (E is for Evidence, 1988).

Another classic female hard-boiled detective, V. I. Warshawski, created by Sara Paretsky, is also a frequent library user. Especially in Blacklist (2003), she spends extended periods of time visiting both public and research libraries as a part of her investigation. She also expresses a positive view of libraries in general, characterizing them as places where people of different backgrounds and needs can meet, and concludes that libraries therefore will never be replaced by the Internet.

Similar views of libraries are rarely expressed by other fictional private investigators. In fact, some hard-boiled heroes are more likely to display feelings of uneasiness regarding libraries. For example, Mike Hammer considers the library he visits in I, the Jury as a “place worse than a morgue”.


The changing view of libraries

Based on my own reading of hard-boiled detective novels, I have a feeling that the view of libraries has changed over time. In the classic stories of the 1930s and 40s, there is usually a distance, sometimes underpinned by irony, between the hard-boiled hero and the libraries he visits. Although he needs the library as a source of information, the detective is clearly in the category “atypical library user”. A good example of this can be found in the movie version of The Big Sleep (1946), where Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) is seen at Hollywood Public Library reading a book titled Famous First Editions. When he returns the book at the library desk, the young woman there comments: ”You know, you don’t look like a man who’d be interested in first editions”. The detective quickly replies: ”I collect blondes in bottles too”.

The implication of this conversation seems to be that Marlowe is not perceived as a typical library patron, and that it is necessary to point this out to the movie audience. Is his hard-boiled image at risk, perhaps, if he should be perceived as bookish and as a frequent library visitor? One wonders why the library is a potential stigma to a hard-boiled detective.

But the hard-boiled image has evolved over time. Although there are still some ironic comments regarding libraries in later hard-boiled fiction, in the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker for example, the hero is as well-read as hard-boiled. There no longer seems to be any contradiction between the two. And as we have seen, a modern-day private eye like Warshawski can make comments endorsing libraries in a very positive way.


Librarian stereotypes

There is no denial that literature and popular culture has often portrayed librarians and the library profession in a stereotypical way. Under ”Library milieu”, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing lists a number of stereotypes connected to libraries in crime fiction:

● the psychotic library patron
● cranky old maids
● the unsuitably sexy librarian
● helpmates
● the almost magically skilled reference librarian

And how does hard-boiled detective novels portray librarians? Over all, there are no surprises here and all examples of librarian stereotypes mentioned above can also be found in hard-boiled detective novels. Theresa McGovern in Joe Gores’ Spade & Archer (2009), for example, is a classic case of an “almost magically skilled reference librarian”. Young and attractive female librarians often also serve in a helpmate role, for example in Wim Wenders’ film Hammett (1982), based on another novel by Gores, and the 1980s TV series Magnum, p.i. (in the episode “Woman on the Beach”)

Another stereotype not named in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing is the old, nervous librarian. An example of this is the elderly male librarian attending Hammer and Chambers in I, the Jury.


Pastiches and parodies

The library makes a difference to hard-boiled detectives. There are plenty of evidence of this not only in the hard-boiled genre itself, but also in hard-boiled pastiches and parodies. For example, in the celebratory anthology Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (1989) two of the stories include library visits by the detective (authored by Dick Lochte and Jeremiah Healy). Spade & Archer, already mentioned, is a prequel to the classic detective novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The Dewey Decimal System (2011) by Nathan Larson is a sort of cross-over between hard-boiled detective novel and dystopia, where the protagonist, named Dewey Decimal, has made a library his home and spends his spare-time sorting books according to the classification system DDC. Finally, Dead Men don’t Wear Plaid (1982) is a film noir parody starring Steve Martin as private eye Rigby Reardon who has a contact at the library and is well-versed in “standard library talk”.


Select bibliography


Block, Lawrence, The Sins of the Fathers (New York, 1976).
Chandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep (New York, 1939).
Chandler, Raymond, The Long Goodbye (Boston, 1953).
Gores, Joe, Spade & Archer (New York, 2009).
Grafton, Sue, E is for Evidence (New York, 1988)
Grafton, Sue, G is for Gumshoe (New York, 1990).
Larson, Nathan, The Dewey Decimal System (New York, 2011).
Macdonald, Ross, Black Money (New York, 1966).
The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert (New York & Oxford, 1999).
Paretsky, Sara, Blacklist (New York, 2003).
Parker, Robert B., Hugger Mugger (New York, 2000).
Parker, Robert B., Stardust (New York, 1990).
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Celebration, edited by Byron Preiss (London, 1989).
Spillane, Mickey, I, the Jury (New York, 1948).


Films & TV series episodes

The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks (1946).
Dead Men don’t Wear Plaid, directed by Carl Reiner (1982).
Hammett, directed by Wim Wenders (1982).
Magnum p.i., season 2 episode: “The Woman on the Beach”, directed by Donald P. Bellisario (1981).


by Peter Igelström, librarian, Valla Library

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