Crime fiction – a British Library A to Z

Murder in the LibraryDid you know that one in three of all novels published in English around the world are crime fiction? No, neither did I until I went to the Murder in the Library exhibition at the British Library where I discovered that and all sorts of other interesting facts.

The exhibition is an A-Z of crime fiction that works its way through a selection of crime writing from the past two hundred years, starting with A for – yes, you’ve guessed it – Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie wrote sixty-six detective novels and fifteen books of short stories. Between them they’ve sold four billion copies, making her the all-time best -selling novelist. Her play, The Mousetrap, hold the record for the longest run, currently at 25,000 performances.

Her autobiography is a fascinating read if you want to know how a novelist’s mind works – it even throws some light (but not much) on the mysterious disappearance, where she went missing for ten days and then turned up at a hotel in Harrogate. (Personally I incline to the Dr Who ‘giant wasp’ theory).

They’ve recently put up a ‘statue’ to her (well, it’s not exactly a statue, more of a monument), called The Book, on the corner of Cranbourn Street just up from Leicester Square tube station (near the St Martin’s Lane junction if you have trouble spotting it, like I did).

The Book also features her most famous creations, including the two best -loved characters in crime fiction – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

But back to the British Library. I liked Ronald Knox’s rules for detective fiction, which include: no chinamen; no more than one secret room; no appliance that needs a long scientific explanation at the end; no unaccountable intuitions that turn out to be right.

The exhibition picks out key authors and key features and genres, so we have kidnapping, locked rooms, nordic noir – a nod to recent fashion – Oxford (a popular place for fictional murders apparently), Sherlock Holmes (another ‘of course!’) and, interestingly, Xenophobia.

This is where the chinaman Knox warned us against rears his head – the master criminal and evil genius, Dr Fu Manchu, the face of the ‘Yellow Peril’ – an expression encapsulating the fear and suspicion that existed of Japanese and Chinese people in the early part of the twentieth century.

Sax Rohmer started out writing comedy sketches for Little Tich, the music hall artist but moved into writing about the occult and from there to creating Dr Fu Manchu. The first novel in the series, The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, which he published in 1913, was an immediate success and Rohmer eventually wrote thirteen Dr Fu Manchu books despite criticism from the Chinese government for its negative ethnic stereotyping.

The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu - book cover

Oddly enough, at the same time the West was getting paranoid about the East,  in Japan they discovered Sherlock Holmes in what proved to be a lasting love affair, as the queues of Japanese visitors to Sherlock Holmes landmarks in London attest.

There’s even a Sherlock Holmes statue in Japan – erected in Karuizawa in 1988 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, the previous year. Karuizawa was chosen because it was where Ken Nobuhara completed the translation of all sixty Sherlock Holmes stories into Japanese in 1952.

Sherlock Holmes statue in Karuizawa

The Sherlock Holmes stories inspired Okamoto Kidō, then a leading light of the New Kabuki theatre movement, to create Inspector Hanshichi – the Japanese Sherlock Holmes.

Kidō began writing the stories in The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi (Hanshichi Torimonochō) in 1916. They were published intermittently in monthly magazines from 1917 to 1937 and total sixty-nine tales in all. They’re set in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) in the 1840’s to 1860’s and are rich in the colour of the period.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Hanshichi has an insight and perceptiveness far beyond the normal and often finds a prosaic human explanation for crimes that those around him think can only be due to supernatural intervention. His tales are told to his equivalent of Dr Watson – a young admirer who writes them down for posterity.

The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi has never gone out of print in Japan since it was first published. It’s been filmed and adapted for television any number of times. The NHK television version made in 1992 starring Kōtarō Satomi is still available on Amazon Japan.

Inspector Hanshichi - NHK DVD

The book (sadly, only the first eleven stories) is available in translation on Amazon and there’s also a free download at Scribd.

The British Library Exhibition runs to 12 May. It’s free and fairly compact so you could see it in your lunch hour if you wanted. Or, if you’ve got a bit more time, you can do what Yannick, Tina and I did – pop next door to the St Pancras hotel and have tea in the opulent surroundings of their Hansom Lounge.

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