“Librarians as Mystery Writers” by Robert Lopresti

Any devoted reader of short stories in the mystery genre knows the name Robert Lopresti. He’s been writing for forty years—mostly short stories—and his story oeuvre now includes more than seventy tales. He has received multiple award nominations and has twice won the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award. Two of Rob’s stories have appeared in EQMM and we have a third coming up later this year. Though his ventures with novel writing are few, the Washington author’s 2015 novel Greenfellas was called one of the best books of that year by Kings River Life Magazine. Parallel to his work as a writer is Rob’s long career as a librarian—something he talks about here!—Janet Hutchings

Sometimes when I tell someone what I do for a living that person will get a dreamy look. “I’d love to be a librarian. Sitting around reading books all day!”

I tend to back away from such people with a fake grin, the same way I react when someone tells me the Martians have been stealing their buttermilk.

(Come to think of it, dealing with Martianphobes is one of the many things librarians sometimes have to do when they aren’t sitting around reading.)

A lot of people have equally unrealistic ideas about writers, assuming we divide their day between attending TV talk shows and literary cocktail parties.

Having a foot in both camps I would like to talk a bit about those two jobs, and specifically how they overlap.

There have been plenty of other librarian/mystery writers, of course. Jon L. Breen, for one, besides reviewing mysteries for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for many years, has also published many short stories in EQMM, and two of his novels have been nominated for awards. You can find a no doubt incomplete list of others of the type here, and some of them set their tales of murder and deceit within the walls of the humble booklender.

But how has my work in the stacks (which is library jargon for bookcases) boosted my writing?

I started my career working with government publications in New Jersey. In one of those documents I discovered an obscure fact: In the south end of the Garden State there is a small community named Mauricetown, and its name is pronounced the same as Morristown, a big city upstate.

Hmm. I had already written several short stories about an Atlantic City private eye named Marty Crow. That coincidence was exactly the sort of thing he would know. The resulting tale, “The Federal Case,” marked Marty’s first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

One day I was looking for something in the reference stacks and came upon the Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Instantly I knew I was going to write a short story about the riot my family had experienced in the 1960s. When Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine published “Shooting at Firemen,” the story began with my protagonist in a public library discovering the same book that inspired me.

While I adamantly deny that we librarians sit around reading all day I will admit that at coffee break there is plenty of interesting material to peruse. For instance, in close succession I read columns in two British magazines, one about a con game, and one about a cunning method for dealing with negative reviews. I put the two together and came up with “Shanks on Misdirection,” set in the good old U.S.A. Hitchcock’s published it in 2009.

Early in my career I had to drive to Newark in the evening to take some courses related to my library job. Most afternoons I would see a young teenager sitting on a sidewalk banging out complex rhythms on an improvised drum set consisting of plastic buckets, cardboard boxes, and quite possibly the kitchen sink. I don’t know if I got much else out of those night courses, but “The Shanty Drummer” marked my first appearance in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Of course, when I need to do research for my fiction I have both the skills and resources to do so. The most extreme case was when I was writing Greenfellas, a comic novel about a Mafiosi who, upon becoming a grandfather, decides to save the environment by any means necessary. He starts out by inviting an ecology professor to dinner and asking: What needs fixing most?

To find out what the professor should reply I contacted three professors at the university where I work. I explained the situation and asked them to put themselves in the shoes of my imaginary source: You are talking to a smart guy with no knowledge of the field, but high motivation to learn about ecological problems. What do you tell him?

Much better to hear it from the experts, than for me to try to dig it out by myself.

Which reminds me: Do you know the definition of a librarian? A person who may not know something, but knows how to find out. 

There’s one more point I want to address: Why are librarians attracted to mysteries? Well, for one subset—the reference librarians, myself included—the chase is very much the thing. We love helping a user dig up obscure facts, tracking down a book someone encountered in decades past (“I don’t remember the author or title, but the cover was green,”), and turning vague clues into solid facts. Does that sound like anyone in a mystery novel?

But it’s not just the reference librarians’ side of the family. Consider this true story.

A decade ago there was a guy who stole books from more than 100 libraries in the U.S. Because of a very alert staff member at the library where I work we wound up being the ones who tracked him down. After his conviction the FBI returned most of the 800+ stolen books they had found on his property to the libraries that had lost them. But there were about 200 volumes whose owners’ labels had been removed by the thief, and the Feds could not figure out who owned them. A judge decided to gift our library with them, since we had been responsible for their recovery.

And one of our catalog librarians got intrigued. Through what I can only call forensic cataloging she tracked down the owners of three of those orphaned volumes.

That’s right. A librarian solved three cases that stumped the FBI. And that’s one for the books.

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7 Responses to “Librarians as Mystery Writers” by Robert Lopresti

  1. O'Neil De Noux says:

    Nice article. I’ll add another librarian who wrote mysteries. Robert E. Skinner (now retired from Xavier University Library, New Orleans) wrote the Wesley Farrell mystery series as well as non-fiction books on Chester Himes.

  2. EARL STAGGS says:

    Fascinating stuff, Rob. In my next life, I want to be a librarian.

  3. Mat Coward says:

    Come on, Rob. Everyone knows it’s the library assistants (which I was, in London, for 7 years) who do all the work, while the librarians just … well, sit around reading all day!

  4. Albert Tucher says:

    Great post, Rob. The Newark Public Library and Newark in general have given me quite a bit of material as well.

  5. Flip Breskin says:

    Great post, Rob! Only you didn’t give yourself enough (any?) credit for tracking down the map thief…

  6. Triss Stein says:

    From one mystery writing librarian to another – I loved this!

  7. Robert Lopresti says:

    Thanks, all. Mat, you caught me. If anyone want s to know more about the book theft try these: http://criminalbrief.com/?p=696 and http://criminalbrief.com/?p=718 and
    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pay-dirt-in-montana-31814889/

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