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What Is a Bibliomystery?

Uncover the dark side of libraries, bookshops, and rare manuscripts.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you go to the dictionary (as a traditionalist), you will discover that there is no listing for the word bibliomystery—or hit your computer’s spell-checker and the squiggly little red line in your word processing program will flag the term as a nonexistent or misspelled word.

Nonetheless, bibliophiles who also are mystery fiction aficionados certainly know what the word means, however abstruse or esoteric it may seem to those poor souls who do not share those affections. Books and short stories that fall into this small yet elevated category of literature are, as the name suggests, mystery stories set in the world of books. 

Related: 10 Forgotten Mystery Masterpieces 

Bibliomysteries cross all subgenres, such as the hard-boiled private-eye stories (such as Raymond Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep), cozy mysteries (including Charlotte MacLeod's librarian sleuth), and the mainstream detective novel (such as Booked to Die , by John Dunning). Admittedly, “the world of books” covers a lot of territory and is not nearly as specific as the reader or collector might wish it to be.

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Bibliomystery eligibility is pretty clear if the crime involves rare books, or if a book or books are the primary MacGuffin (another word not in the dictionary or accepted by spell-checkers). If much of the action is set in a bookshop or a library, the novel or story is a bibliomystery, just as it is if a major character is a bookseller or librarian. A collector of rare books counts, and often a scholar or academic working with rare books, manuscripts, or archives may be included.

Related: 9 Mystery Books with Surprise Plot Twists

Publishers? Yes, if their jobs are integral to the plot.

Authors? Tricky. If they just happen to write books (and it is amazing to note the number of fictional mystery writers who stumble onto corpses) and get involved in a mystery, it is a borderline call. If the nature of their work brings them into a mystery, or their books are a vital clue in the solution, they probably qualify.

Otto Penzler is the founder of the Mysterious Press (1975), a distinguished publisher of literary crime fiction whose imprint is now associated with Grove/Atlantic, Mysterious Press.com (2011), an electronic-book publishing company associated with Open Road Integrated Media, and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (1979). He has won two Edgars, for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1977) and The Lineup (2010). He has edited more than 50 anthologies and written extensively about mystery fiction.

This article was first published by Open Road Integrated Media on November 15, 2012.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons