Libraries: My Life Support

Mystery Writer Peter Lovesey Pays His Dues

BUDGET CUTS FORCE LIBRARY CLOSURES is a headline that sends shivers up my spine. For me as a career writer, libraries are my life support system. I couldn’t have survived forty years in the business without you. I am thankful, of course, for the steady sales of my books, but there is much more I rely on. From the beginning libraries have provided me with happy discoveries, inspiration, guidance, research opportunities, the chance to meet my readers and, in a way I shall explain, the opportunity to travel across America.

I’m a library junkie.

The addiction dates from 1944, when I was eight. World War Two was raging and our house in suburban London was destroyed by a V1 bomb. Miraculously my family survived. My two brothers crawled out of the rubble. My father was away in the army, my mother was out shopping and I was at school. But of course we were homeless and for a long time we had other priorities than books and reading. The time came when we were in temporary housing and I felt the strong need of something to read. At an age when my imaginative life had been transformed by the magic of reading, we didn’t have a book in the house. I joined the junior section of the Whitton branch library and soon appreciated the treasures there, hidden as they were in dreary cloth bindings and printed on wartime economy paper. Richmal Crompton’s William books were an early discovery, funny, anarchic and beautifully written. I have been a regular borrower of books ever since.

Fast forward to the 1960s and the British Newspaper Library at Colindale in north London, the nearest place to a time machine that I know. This was before newspapers were microfilmed, let alone digitalized. I handled real papers more than a century old. I’m not sure how I qualified for a ticket, but there I could travel back to the 1860s gathering material for articles on sports history that ultimately were shaped into my first book, The Kings of Distance.

About the same time, I started a bibliography of all the track and field books ever published in Britain. This took me to Bloomsbury and the Reading Room of the British Library. The staff allowed me access to the card index to fill in gaps in the main catalogue and I passed many hours listing long-forgotten works. The project got into print in 1969 and was updated in 2001 as a British Library publication, An Athletics Compendium, with my co-authors Andrew Huxtable and Tom McNab.

My crime writing career grew out of the sports interest, strongly backed by library research. Wobble to Death (1970), was about murder in a Victorian long distance race and won a £1000 first crime novel prize. The historical basis for this was discovered largely at the newspaper library but also at Islington public library, close to the Royal Agricultural Hall, where the story was set. My policemen, Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray, continued into seven books and later a TV series. Each novel and script reflected some aspect of Victorian entertainment researched in my local library or from books borrowed through inter-library loans.

One of the unsung joys of using a library is browsing the shelves and making discoveries impossible in any other situation. I can’t recall why I was looking at books on wine-making one day. It’s not a hobby I’ve ever taken up, or wanted to. I picked one off the shelf and came across a description of the way cider was made on farms in the pre-war era. The farmer would suspend a joint of meat in the keg to assist the process. When the cider was ready, only the bone was left, picked clean by the action of fermentation. This was the inspiration for a mystery of mine called Rough Cider and featuring a human skull discovered in a barrel. That kind of serendipity illustrates the magic of libraries.

By this time I had received my first invitation to speak to a local audience in a library. Daunting, when you haven’t done it before, even in a setting that is your second home. I struggled through and got better at it by trial and error. Some time after, at a lunch organized by the Crime Writers’ Association, several of us happened to get talking about the loneliness of the library lecturer. Wouldn’t it make the ordeal easier to endure if three or four of us got together as a team, gave short presentations and shared any questions? We must have drunk heady wine. We decided to give the idea a shot, found it agreeable and began approaching libraries looking for gigs. In no time, the “presentation” took on entertainment elements such as a mock radio reading with sound effects, something called “crime mime time” and a re-enactment of the secret initiation ritual of the hallowed Detection Club. We called ourselves Murder We Write.

Now it happened that two of our team, Paula Gosling and Michael Z.Lewin, were American writers living in England. The others, Liza Cody and I, were the Brits. Mike Lewin made a family visit to New York and decided to sound out some American public libraries about the possibility of bringing Murder We Write across the ocean. He’s a persuasive man. He was using the phone, for this was before the internet became a universal tool. Not only did he set up a tour of seven States, but he negotiated fees that more than paid for the trip. The American Bookseller in July, 1990, wrote “What do you get when you combine a Plymouth Grand Voyager, four prominent mystery writers living in southern England, and an itinerary that includes stops in 10 American cities from Massachusetts to Michigan? For three weeks this last May, they became the Murder We Write roadshow. The performances were a far cry from the traditional author tour . . . They mixed dramatic readings, skits and discussions of issues in their works and the genre that was part literary event, part vaudeville.”

A major factor in the success of the roadshow (it continued through the nineties in various incarnations and combinations as Partners in Crime and Wanted for Murder) was that we visited libraries, rather than bookstores. Large audiences, accustomed to attending lectures and talks, enjoyed the performance aspects of our show. We even learned juggling to illustrate the complexities of writing a book.

The web may have changed the way things are done, but there’s a massive difference between sitting in front of a computer and visiting a library. I won’t deny that I use Google for information I need, but there are limits to what a search engine can provide. It can’t offer me the joy of meeting readers in a library or getting advice and expert help from real people who know more than I about resources. Human contact needs to be cherished in this computer age. I’m even wary of computers crowding out the book space in libraries. A few years ago I wrote a competition story for the local paper, called Murder in the Library, with a plot involving a blackmailer murdered, appropriately, in a carrel containing a microfilm viewer. His victims had been paying him with banknotes secreted in returned library books. It’s always worth leafing through the pages; you never what you’ll find.

And what joy there is rooting around in card indexes and files of newspaper clippings. For my latest book, Stagestruck, set mainly in the Theatre Royal, Bath, I asked to see Bath library’s clippings from the local paper. There I found graphic accounts of sightings of the theatre ghost, the grey lady, and of the mysterious butterfly that augurs a success or a death. Of course this had to go into the novel.

Let’s admit I have a vested interest in the future of the library system. I rely on it more than most. But I can see how important it is in the lives of many others: the children who come to listen to stories, the students wanting a congenial place to study, the people seeking information, the audiences enjoying talks and lectures and the older generation glad of a place to sit down and read a magazine or a newspaper. The library is the hub of the community. Every closure diminishes our society.

Peter Lovesey is the author of more than thirty mysteries and numerous short stories. His work has been adapted for radio, TV and film. He has won many awards including the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2000. His latest novel featuring Bath detective Peter Diamond is Stagestruck, published by Soho Press.