Special Collections Show and Tell; Scottish Crime Writing Visit
Recently, The Library’s Special Collections Division hosted a crime-themed Show and Tell for visitors attending The Smithsonian at St Andrews course Scottish Crime Writing: from Gothic Horror to Tartan Noir, a one-week residential course for adults. The Special Collections visit was just a small part of a packed itinerary, which included writing workshops, talks from various Scottish crime writers, and excursions to local historical sites. The course was centred around the study of four diverse works of Scottish crime fiction – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.
At the Show and Tell, the students were introduced to some of Special Collections’ more macabre holdings, from true crime reports to works of crime fiction. Among the material on display was a report on the sensational 1857 trial of Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith for the alleged poisoning of her lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier. The jury’s verdict in the case was ‘Not Proven’ – a form of acquittal unique to Scots Law, which implies that although the defendant is believed to have committed the crime, the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to produce a ‘Guilty’ verdict. This ‘Scotch verdict’ provides the basis of the plot of English author Wilkie Collins’ early detective novel The Law and the Lady, the 1876 illustrated edition of which was also on display. The book’s heroine Valeria, on discovering the secret that her new husband was tried for the murder of his first wife, and acquitted under the ‘Not Proven’ verdict, determines to solve the case in order to ‘change that underhand Scotch Verdict of Not Proven, into an honest English verdict of Not Guilty.’
Of particular interest to the visitors was the Library’s 1886 first edition copy of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which was one of the works being studied on the course. This copy has been bound in quarter red leather and burgundy morocco-grain cloth on boards, but also has the original printed paper wrappers bound in. Jekyll and Hyde is also of relevance to another of our display items: a 1987 first edition copy of Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, signed by the author. Rankin wrote in his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition in 2007:
Knots and Crosses is a pretty nasty book, dealing as it does with a serial killer who preys on children. I’m fairly sure I meant it to be a contemporary reworking of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Having studied Stevenson’s masterpiece as part of my thesis, I was intrigued that he chose to set the story in London. Yet it remains a very Scottish novel, based as it is (at least partially) on the real-life Edinburgh character Deacon William Brodie, who was gentleman by day, criminal by night.’
In addition to these items, our visitors had the opportunity to read an account of the trial of the Scanlan brothers, who were hung in the last public execution to take place in Cupar, Fife in 1852; contemporary reports of the Jack the Ripper murders from The St Andrews Citizen newspaper of 1888; and letters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the subject of spiritualism. Afterwards, course organiser Garry MacKenzie commented:
The visit to Special Collections to view archive material was a great way to complement the readings and lectures with primary documents that relate to the course and its themes, and was also a way to showcase some of the library’s resources and facilities. The students have told me they were impressed by the depth and range of materials they viewed – they were excited to be able to see the books, manuscripts and chapbooks first hand, and to be able to handle them. Julie’s enthusiasm for the materials really shone through – one of the students told me ‘you get the best people to come and speak to us’! We’re hoping to run similar courses in future, and returning to Special Collections is definitely something that I’d like to include.’
We very much enjoyed hosting this event, and hope to have provided inspiration for some future works of crime fiction!
Reading Room Team