You can never have to many books or dead bodies for that matter in R. T. Campbell’s Bodies in a Bookshop (1946)

Bodies in a Bookshop

Apart from the joy of reading an author who is not well known, the book theme was also another big draw for me, a confessed book addict (aren’t we all). The book opens well with the narrator, Max Boyle who is an assistant to the botany specialist, Professor Stubbs, deploring the fact he is going on a book shopping trip when he already has loads of book at home (haven’t we all been there):

‘It wasn’t as if there were not enough books in the house to begin with. There were books on the floor, books on all the tables, books on the beds – and in the beds if one wasn’t careful.’

Thankfully I’m not quite at that stage yet, in my own home, but give me time…

However, Max’s book hunt takes an ugly turn when he arrives at a bookshop where the owner, Allan Leslie and another man afterwards identified as Cecil Baird are found dead on the floor of the bookshop, seemingly gassed to death, the shop doors having been bolted from the outside. Aside from doing the responsible thing and calling the police, Max also puts in a call to his friend at Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Reginald E. Bishop, who is frequently likened to a ‘well-fed Persian cat’. Walking in to murder, for the narrator, is not an unusual circumstance, describing it in a very off hand manner:

‘I say Bishop… I seem to have stumbled into a bit more death.’

‘You would. What is it this time?’

In fact Max’s greatest concern is that the Professor he works for will want to get involved in solving the crime, thus preventing Max’s planned holiday to Sicily. Which is exactly what happens. Max has a love hate working relationship with the Professor, frequently becoming exasperated by his antics and his driving. As the investigation begins with Chief Inspector Bishop fronting the police activities and the Professor leading the amateur side of things, Max’s mind is on other things… books. He notices some books at the scene of the crime he really wants. Collecting them in a pile with his contact details attached, he comments that:

‘I did not see why I should allow the death of the old proprietor to interfere with the growth of my library.’

This reluctance to detect continues the following day when Max attempts to stay out of the investigation:

‘If I wasn’t careful I would be hauled in as his Watson once again; I have no liking for playing Watson to the old man’s Sherlock. I haven’t the right mind. I am not suitably astonished when he produces the solution like the rabbit from the conjuror’s topper.’

Initially, it seems outlandish that anyone would want to murder the book seller, but this soon changes as not only does his niece, Miss Wright say he was very short tempered and hated interference from anyone, it also appears that he was dealing in smutty and stolen books. His known associates are Mr Hunter, Mr Read, Mr Hume and Mr Gray, who all have careers in the book selling and publishing business. The latter two characters are given the most attention, especially since like many other characters such as Allan Leslie, they were being blackmailed by Cecil Baird, the other murder victim. The novel is moved along with Max’s humorous narrative voice:

‘If I kept on at this rate I felt I would mix enough metaphors to make a verbal haggis.’

The character of the Professor is also entertaining to read about and who is described in many different ways such as a ‘philosophic bull frog,’ a ‘baby elephant’ and a ‘Miltonic Fallen Angel’. With such imagery it is not surprising that other bloggers such as Doug Greene have noticed the similarities the Professor shares with John Dickson Carr’s sleuths Sir Henry Merrivale and Dr. Gideon Fell (see blog links below). There are also similarities in voice and unconventional attitudes:

‘Ye see, a respectable upbringin’ is the greatest incentive to crime ye can have – if ye want to remain respectable.’

Professor Stubb’s maverick nature can also be seen in his attitude towards the killer, once he discovers who it is. In fact he only reveals their identity once an innocent person has been falsely arrested.

Rating: 3.5 (The relationship between Max and the Professor is especially entertaining and Max has an engaging way of telling the story. Humour is successfully interwoven into the narrative through both these things. However, the plot itself could have been a little more exciting.)

See what others made of Campbell’s Bodies in a Bookshop:

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