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Murder by the Book: Cambridge crime writer Nicola Upson curates a new exhibition at the University Library





The typescript of Agatha Christie’s final Poirot novel, which was locked away in a bank vault for 30 years so it could be published on her death, is the star exhibit in a new show about crime fiction.

It’s a sign of just how much power a gripping crime novel can hold over our collective imagination that Christie’s neatly printed bundle had to be kept under the same security as diamonds and gold bars.

The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, curator local author Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, curator local author Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell

But Cambridge crime author Nicola Upson, who writes the Josephine Tey detective series, understands readers’ obsessive love of the genre and its true value to literature. She has curated the Murder by the Book exhibition at the University Library, which is a celebration of 20th-century British crime fiction that puts on display first editions of nearly 100 of the most famous, influential and best-selling crime novels in UK history.

The free exhibition highlights some of the most famous and formative works in the canon, with Nicola interrogating why crime remains by far the UK’s most read, bought and borrowed genre of fiction.

“Crime fiction brings every emotion into play,” says Nicola.

“Love and murder are the ultimate ways that we relate to each other as human beings. It is the exploration of all those different emotions that circle around that and when you create a crime novel and create suspects you have to go into all the jealousy and hatred and revenge they feel.”

Now she is hoping the exhibition will bring to visitors’ attention the legacy and influence of some of the genre’s forgotten classics and their writers – with Murder by the Book examining some of the early voices that influenced not just crime fiction, but sometimes the nation as a whole.

“I’m determined to not just to celebrate these books, but also to give them the respect they deserve,” says Nicola.

“There is nothing like the thrill of reading a great book for the first time. I want people to realise that these books were banished to the tower because it was thought they wouldn’t be borrowed and read and now they have got an exhibition in their own right. I hope people will get rid of that notion that there is genre fiction and literature that crime is not the poor relation and I hope this exhibition will show that it never should have been.”

The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, the notes and script of the final appearance of Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, the notes and script of the final appearance of Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot. Picture: Keith Heppell

The vast majority of novels in the show are drawn from the library’s unique, world-class Tower Collection of first editions in their original dust jackets.

But there are also wonderful artefacts from the life of Agatha Christie, loaned to the exhibition by the Christie Archive Trust, that will be a must-see for any die-hard fan, as well as a writing desk belonging to Wilkie Collins, letters from PD James and a covetable collection of first edition crime bestsellers.

“This exhibition is a glorious selection of the novels that have influenced the genre and made household names of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Jane Tennison and Inspector Morse,” said Nicola. “We look at the brilliant ideas, atmospheric settings, vivid characters, the dark and dangerous themes – and those perfect, unguessable endings.

“Within each section, Golden Age classics sit alongside books by contemporary authors, revealing what these stories have in common and how much the genre has evolved. If you love crime podcasts or programmes, you’re going to love this exhibition.

“There are books which have pioneered the genre; you’ll meet the detectives that we’ve grown to know and love via extraordinary novels and TV adaptations; and you’ll also see the first use of things like forensics in crime fiction, which perhaps started much earlier than you might think.

“I wanted to have something from Agatha Christie because obviously she is the reason we are all here really not just her own ingenuity and creativity but her books created the appetite for fiction amongst in readers that has passed down the generations and allows crime novelists like ne to do what we love because there is that enthusiasm for it

“Originally, we went to her house, Greenway, in Devon, which belongs to the National Trust but they had reached their quota of loans for the year, so that was disappointing

“Then I contacted Agatha Christie Ltd and their generosity has been extraordinary! They put me in touch with the archivist who told me about her 1937 Remmington typewriter. I heard this little timid voice asking, ‘Can we have that?’ and I realised it was me. And look!,” she says with a flourish, pointing at the glass case containing Christie’s faithful typewriter on which she wrote most of her novels. “We have a first edition of And Then There Were None, which she would have written on this typewriter.”

The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction. Picture: Keith Heppell

Christie wrote of her Remington: “I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write … all I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.”

Nicola says: “She put this up on washstands or dining room tables, it’s a portable typewriter although it is really heavy so portable is a qualified word.

“When I was looking at this in conservation before it was put safely in its case, I discovered if you bend down to it you can still smell the ink and that’s lovely. The things I have around me when I’m writing are really important, so to have something of Christie’s like this is fantastic.”

Nicola admits that she only writes on an ancient laptop - called Leonard - and she is dreading the day that gives up the ghost, touching wood as she describes the machine.

“I had it serviced recently and I stood over the IT man’s shoulder watching because I was so worried. He had to clear out tons of cat hair from under the keyboard because we rescue long-haired tabbies and they do like to sit on the keys,” she says.

The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, 1959 reel tape recorder. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, 1959 reel tape recorder. Picture: Keith Heppell

Aside from Christie’s typewriter, and a dictaphone upon which she recorded her memoir, one of the star exhibits of Murder by the Book is the typescript of her final Poirot novel Curtain – locked away for nearly 30 years and originally supposed to be published posthumously. It was the last novel published before her death in 1976 and finally revealed the death of Christie’s beloved detective Hercule Poirot – an event so culturally significant, his demise was covered in a front page New York Times obituary.

“It’s one of my favourite things in the exhibition actually because I just find it so moving,” says Nicola.

“The fact that Christie wrote it while the Second World War was raging around her in the early 1940s. Her husband was away. And her writing obviously was a very welcome distraction because it must have been a terrifying time when no one knew how long they would live.

“But because it’s Poirot’s final appearance, she wanted it to be published posthumously. So she put it in a bank vault. And she wanted it too as a nest egg for her daughter, Rosalind, so she could have the royalties from that book.

“I think she said ‘It’s something to cheer you up when you come back from the funeral’. So there’s that practical side of her you know, she knew that her work would look after her family. But in the end, Collins persuaded her to have it published in September 1975 for the Christie for Christmas for that year. And she died just a few months afterwards in January ‘76. So Poirot’s farewell to Hastings, which is very movingly written in the book, in a funny sort of way, becomes Christie’s farewell to her readers and I just found that poignant.”

The exhibition also had Christie’s notebooks in which she worked on ideas for her novels. Nicola says she loves that they are “so random and chaotic” with notes on several stories in one book.

“I think you can see her process. You can get an insight into the ideas she had and how she developed them. They made me feel better about my own notebooks being chaotic,” she says.

The exhibition spans the 20th century (and a bit before) to bring us the story of the crime novel and how it has become the most popular fiction genre today.

Starting with the first ever detective novel, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix published in 1863, which even has a Cluedo-style map at the front of the book so readers can imagine the scene of the crime, the exhibition leads us on a story of the emergence of crime fiction from the earliest tropes - the detective, the country house, the clues, the red herring - to the first instance of the forensic science novel back in 1907 - The Red Thumb Mark, by Dr John Thorndyke - and the importance of setting, whether that’s the moors in the Hound of the Baskerville or their reappearance in On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill.

The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, curator local author Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new exhibtion at the Cambridge University Library - Murder by the Book: A celebration of 20th Century Crime Fiction, curator local author Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell

We also have the first ever domestic noir novel, a subgenre of crime that is huge now - with The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin. “Long before anyone used the phrase domestic noir she was writing it,” says Nicola.

“This is about her experience of being sleep deprived when she had a child and it’s a book where you don’t know what is real and her experience of motherhood from her personal life came into play.”

One section of the exhibition is about the starting point, or where authors get their ideas. Novelists are often told to write what you know, but how can they take that advice when writing about gruesome crimes?

“As PD James says, ‘Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted’, ” explains Nicola.

“With violent crime, 99 per cent of crime authors, thank God, will have never experienced anything like. But there is always some element of a writer’s experience they can bring in. For lots of writers the thing they know is a profession, so with Dorothy L Sayers she was a copywriter who invented the slogan ‘Guinness is Good For You’ and she set her book in an advertising agency.

“Ellen Wilkinson was a Labour MP in fact she wrote this book (The Division bell Mystery) in a gap between two stints as a Labour MP so it has that authenticity of the insider,” she says.

Others relied on their legal knowledge - Cyril Hare was a county court judge, Michael Gilbert was a solicitor.

And a near miss hit-and-run that happened to the son of author Nicholas Blake inspired him to write The Beast Must Die, with its famous opening line, ‘I’m going to kill a man’.

Also among the exhibits is the beautiful writing desk of Wilkie Collins, the author generally credited with writing the first great detective story with The Moonstone. On loan from Pembroke College, it was modelled on a desk belonging to his friend Dickens.

“It also contains his diary, which is very sad, because it is from the last year of his life and details all the opium doses he was taking because he suffered from ill health, particularly gout, all his life, and he became addicted to opium,” says Nicola.

“So you can see that decline in his health and on the day that he died in September somebody else has written about his death.”

The exhibition has a first edition of The Moonstone and a copy of the periodical in which it was first published.

“It has all the elements which we then go on to recognize as classic tropes of crime fiction. It’s got the English country house, it’s got detection, it’s got a policeman, called Sergeant Cuff who is a wonderful character and more concerned about his roses than the crime; and it has the false suspects, it leads you up the garden path until you get to the solution.

“It was unusual in the respect that the vast majority of crime novels that followed then dealt with murder whereas The Moonstone doesn’t. There are deaths in it but the central crime is the theft of the moonstone diamond. But in many ways, it did set the path. Henry James says, ‘The Moonstone introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors,’.

“I think it was the domestic quality and idea of crimes going on in people’s houses behind closed doors that the Golden Age novel and the detective novels that came after really took and ran with,” she says.

Nicola has done so much careful research and enjoyed reading every booking in the exhibition but, she complains: “I had to be careful when writing the descriptions of the books that I didn’t give away the plot or the twist - even though that is probably the thing that makes the book remarkable”.

She reckons there are two camps in crime fiction readers - those who want to work out the culprit and those who want to be surprised. “I’m in the latter,” she says. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to make up their own mind.

Murder by the Book: a celebration of 20th century British crime fiction is at the Cambridge University Library 23 March – 24 August. Booking is essential. Entry is free. Closed on Sundays.

Visit lib.cam.ac.uk/murderbythebook.



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