Murder in the Library

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W.H. Auden once called crime fiction "an addiction like alcohol and tobacco" - a vice to be furtively consumed in secret. This is a commonly held view of the genre.

Isn't there something insufferably old hat about crime fiction, with its village greens and grizzled old detectives wearing fedoras? Apparently in answer to this, Murder in the Library, a small exhibition at the British Library, takes a look at this much maligned genre.

The problem is: how do you faithfully represent a genre that accounts for a third of books published today, with protagonists that range from 7th century Irish nuns to a 21st century boy with Asperger's Syndrome, and whose authors range from Jorge Luis Borges to Terry Venebles?

The subject matter is organised alphabetically under headlines such as "P-Police" in a valiant attempt to bring some cohesion to this broad genre. In the end we are presented with mere curios like author Dennis Wheatley's mystery "dossiers" which contain physical clues like hair and a cigarette butt.

The title of the exhibition itself is a play on Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library. Unfortunately the exhibition never challenges the misrepresentation of crime fiction as being a genre that always reaffirms the status quo in society that we find in Christie's novels.

Who cares if Major Jingo coshed Sir Stately-Home over the head with an ornamental boar's tusk? But what truly makes crime fiction great is that, as a rule, it foregrounds questions of society and justice. The nearest the exhibition gets to this important aspect is under the N-Nordic Noir category, where Swedish husband and wife writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are mentioned, as is, rather limply, the fact that they write about "the welfare state".

Another important exemption is the African-American author Chester Himes, who in his "Harlem Detective" novels Cotton Comes to Harlem and A Rage in Harlem depicts the ambivalence of two black police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones as they try to intervene in the brutal racist treatment of black people by white police officers. The novels demonstrate how the officers end up reinforcing the racism they are supposed to be confronting.

Nonetheless, the exhibition is lovingly put together and is worth a browse. However, readers hoping to see the original manuscript of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's scintillating Murder in the Central Committee will be disappointed.

Murder in the Library is in the British Library until 12 May