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26 September 2017

The mysterious pleasures of Golden Age detective fiction

Antidote to Venom Death of an Airman
Detective stories from the “Golden Age of murder” between the world wars are being discovered all over again. A new generation of readers is now sharing the pleasure I’ve long taken in these entertaining mysteries of the past. This strikes me as all the more pleasing because so many of these books have been under-estimated for so long. Many of them haven’t even managed to be under-estimated – because they have been out of print for three-quarters of a century.

The British Library’s highly popular Crime Classics series has introduced today’s crime fans to forgotten authors who were once big names – like Anthony Berkeley and Freeman Wills Crofts – and those who, for all their consummate professionalism, were never best-sellers – such as John Bude and Miles Burton.

Portrait of a MurdererThe 50th British Library Crime Classic, Portrait of a Murderer, by Anne Meredith.

Bude has become a real readers’ favourite – five of his books have now reappeared, with two more in the pipeline. And now plenty of other publishers are following suit, bringing back authors as diverse as Sir Basil Thomson, once a kingpin of Scotland Yard, and former naval commander Peter Drax.

Of course, nostalgia plays a part in this revival. The gorgeous period artwork of the British Library paperback covers has led many people to collect the whole set. But there’s much more to it than fascination with the past and high production values. The fundamental appeal of Golden Age detective fiction is that the leading authors knew how to tell a good story. And story-telling has an appeal as powerful as it is timeless.

These books tell us a great deal about life during the Twenties and Thirties, even though the authors aimed simply to entertain. Read Antidote to Venom by Crofts, for instance, and you’ll be presented with an interesting picture of life in a provincial zoo, as well as a tricky murder method, and an interesting moral at the heart of the story. Christopher St John Sprigg was a poet and a Marxist, but his playful Death of an Airman offers a glimpse of the workings of a small Thirties airfield that is not only authentic (Sprigg was an expert on aeronautics) but also highly engaging. A visiting bishop from Australia does the detective work – you don’t find sleuthing bishops nowadays!

Poisoned Chocolates Case Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books
Sprigg’s book illustrates the truth that the best Golden Age writers were much more skilled at evoking character and setting than is often thought. But of course, for many Golden Age writers, the plot was the thing. And what plots they supplied! A personal favourite is The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley, a writer Agatha Christie much admired. Berkeley’s witty and highly ingenious mystery offers no fewer than six different solutions to a baffling whodunit puzzle. And the British Library edition now includes a new, additional solution – by me. It was great fun writing a new finale to a Golden Age classic, and fun is the key to these books. In uncertain times, they offer welcome escapism, and delightful entertainment.

Martin Edwards


Martin Edwards is the Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and President of the Detection Club, and is a consultant to The British Library Crime Classics series. His book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books was published by us in July this year. It is available at the British Library shop and at all good bookstores.

The 50th British Library Crime Classic, Portrait of a Murderer, is available now. Order it here.

27 July 2017

Going global – the British Library Annual Report 2016-17

Annual Report cover-571
Did you know that the British Library last year collected more than 70 terabytes of UK web domain content? Or that we opened Business & IP Centres in Exeter and Northampton, with two further pilots launching in Norwich and Hull?

These and a wealth of other facts and figures can be found in the Library’s 2016-17 Annual Report, which has just been published online, having been laid to Parliament shortly before recess. The Report includes a wealth of detail across the six Living Knowledge purposes that define our activity: Custodianship, Research, Learning, Culture, International and Business.

As well as a narrative account of the year’s achievements, the report includes full details of how we have delivered against Key Performance Indicators such as satisfaction levels with our Reading Rooms and exhibitions and user numbers for our online resources.

Highlights from the past year included:

  • 330,000 physical items added to the collection through Legal Deposit
  • 174,000 digital publications added through Non-Print Legal Deposit (14.5% above target)
  • World-class acquisitions including P G Wodehouse’s archive, Will Self’s archive and works by Elgar and Handel
  • British Library status as an Independent Research Organisation (IRO) expanded to all UK research councils
  • Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Business & IP Centre with an open day for entrepreneurs
  • 636 jobs created in SMEs and other business thanks to Business & IP Centre support
  • Major exhibitions to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and exploring maps in the 20th century
  • Our first ever touring exhibition programme – on subjects ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Punk – and reaching more than 40,000 people beyond London
  • A record-breaking 7 million visitors to our Learning website, and 35,000 teachers and students taking part in on-site learning experiences
  • 250 international engagements with more than 50 countries, including major loans and touring exhibitions to India and China
  • A major collaboration with Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 manuscripts from the period 700-1200

In their introduction, Chairman Baroness Blackstone and Chief Executive Roly Keating expressed their pride in what they described as “an exceptional year for advancing the Library’s international purpose, working with partners around the world to advance knowledge and mutual understanding.”

The Report is illustrated throughout with vivid photography of collection items, events and exhibitions, along with the vital facts and figure of the Library’s financial operations in the clearly laid-out Accounts section. Whether you wish to explore in depth or prefer a swift flick through, the Annual Report and Accounts offers an unparalleled picture of the breadth and diversity of British Library’s activities and ambitions. Explore it here.

Rob Field

Public Policy Manager

Editor, Annual Report and Accounts 2016/17


12 July 2017

Bricks and knowledge: my week of work experience at the British Library

Sorcha Vieyra - blog

I would say I’m not particularly a shy person, yet it’s strange how daunting the British Library can seem, partly because of its immense size, but also due to the constant hum of noise from the public going in and out of the Library – confirming just how loved it is by the public of not only London, but by people from all over the world. The British Library is, essentially, a national treasure in itself.

My week of work experience at the British Library was one that helped me both to understand the reality of the working world, and also helped me to engage with my thoughts and ambitions for the future. Although walking in admittedly terrified, due to the sheer size of the Library alone, my nerves quickly faded as I was greeted with my supervisor, Ella Snell (pictured above, right, with Sorcha, left), who instantly made me feel welcome and at ease. My first day felt like the start of secondary school all over again, the excitement of a new beginning, and the nervous butterflies of the unknown – feeling so small in such a vast area of bricks and knowledge.

My first morning consisted of the typical routine of learning the basics: what to do if a fire alarm sounds and where the exits are, what was expected of me and what opportunities the Library has to offer – in which I can safely say that the British Library provides countless opportunities as it covers so many broad areas. I worked in Corporate Affairs, and from this team alone I had meetings with the staff from marketing, the press office, staff from public and international affairs, all explaining their involvement in the library and what their jobs actually consist of. They also introduced me to curators.

The meetings were mostly 1:1’s and would usually occur over a cup of coffee and would be casual, which I greatly appreciated. It allowed me to be myself and not feel intimidated about learning something completely new, but comfortable enough to be able to interact with the team and ask questions in order to gain as much experience as I could before the week ended.

I was almost overwhelmed by how lovely everyone in the Library was, not only making me feel welcome on just the first day, but throughout the whole week, and I owe the whole team a massive thank you for really making me feel like I was part of the team and not the ‘rookie’. Throughout the entire week I was constantly kept active and accompanied with events or tasks to complete, such as touring the Library, filling in spread-sheets or learning how the library works together to keep such an impressive building, the second largest in the world, running – it’s now in its 44th year. During one of my days throughout this week, I was placed in the Humanities 1, in which I shadowed the Reading Room team and learned the process behind giving out and retrieving books, and what to do if a problem occurs, understanding the process of overcoming the problem, and in turn acknowledging how much the British Library has developed, now relying heavily on modern technology to speed up situations that would have otherwise taken days and even months to overcome manually.

Being able to do my work experience in such a positive and warm-natured atmosphere made it feel like I wasn’t actually completing the strenuous task of ‘doing work’, but was as if I was achieving a goal that I had set for myself, and inspired me to want to complete my tasks in order to feel a sense of proud accomplishment. Perhaps the frequent reminders of my “school years” being the “best of my life” may not be entirely true. Being as welcomed as I did into the Library this week, caused me to become accustomed very quickly to this new way of life I’d been routinely doing, and to say that I’ll no longer be an active part of this amazing group of people installs a sense of great sadness, but also gratitude for being able to have experienced this inspiring and thought-provoking work placement.

However, upon reflection of leaving the Library, I’ve realised that I’ll never really leave, I can always come back as a visitor or a studying student and familiarise myself with the same geometrical design of each floor, or the long corridors, or the ever-changing countless wonders and treasures that the British Library holds, all of which I will miss seeing every day. But to Ella, my supervisor, (and basically mentor that helped me through the entire week), I owe the biggest thank you possible, as I would never have been able to achieve what I have done through this experience without her guidance. Her support and kindness made this already fantastic opportunity into something that can only be described as a week of fulfilment of learning, creativity, and positivity.

So, as I leave the British Library having come to an end of my very first and very eye-opening work experience, I gain a new perspective of the ‘working world’, something I could never have been given without coming here and experiencing what exactly ‘working’ is all about. Before coming here, I was scared of starting something completely new, I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, and fearful of not being able to do whatever it was they were going to give me, but having gone through the week with such an amazing team and work placement in the Corporate Affairs Team, I can promise that my apprehensions were completely irrelevant, my experience here was the most inspiring, informative and thought-provoking week I’ve encountered. So, to my team, and all of the British Library, thank you for giving me this opportunity, and thank you for the lessons you provided alongside it – I had an amazing week.

Sorcha Vieyra

Work experience student