The Mysteries of Mysterious Bookstores

Death on Demand by Carolyhn HartReaders of mystery fiction may or may not be the most avid fans of their particular genre but they’ve got to be high on the list. Which might go a long way toward explaining why so much mystery fiction takes place in and around bookstores, and particularly mystery bookstores.

It would take someone much better versed in the history of mystery to cite the earliest instances of this sort of thing, but even I can go back at least a quarter of a century or so to Carolyn G. Hart’s Death on Demand series. which concerns the exploits of amateur detective and mystery bookstore owner Annie Laurance Darling. The series—and the bookstore, which is located on a South Carolina island and tourist destination known as Broward’s Rock—share the same name: Death on Demand. So does the first book in the series, which was published in 1987 and found a group of mystery writers serving as chief suspects in a series of killings. If it sounds like something you might like to read, take Hart heart. Hart has written nearly two dozen installments of the Death on Demand series thus far.

In Alice Kimberly’s Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, protagonist Penelope Thornton-McClure owns a mystery bookstore in a small seaside town in Rhode Island. It happens to be haunted by a chap named Jack Shepard, a private investigator of the hardboiled flavor who was killed while investigating a murder in 1949. The pair work hand in ectoplasmic hand to solves crimes in the five installments of the series published between 2004 and 2009.

Murder is Binding by Lorna BarrettYet another such series, albeit ghost-free, is set in New England, this time in Stoneham, New Hampshire, home base for the mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue. Its owner Tricia Miles is the protagonist of Lorna Barrett’s Booktown Mystery Series, which features such appropriately witty titles as Chapter & Hearse, Murder is Binding, and so on. The series also numbers five volumes, with the latest book, Sentenced To Death, released in summer of 2011.

The Mystery Woman bookstore doesn’t appear anywhere in written fiction (at least not that I’m aware of) but it was the home base for amateur detective Samantha Kinsey (Kelli Martin) in the eleven installments of the Mystery Woman TV movies that aired on the Hallmark Movie Channel between 2003 and 2007. Like Hart’s character, Annie Laurance, Kinsey got into the mystery bookselling business when her uncle died and left her the business. She’s assisted in her crime solving activities by a part-time employee with a shadowy past who’s simply known as Philby (Clarence Williams III). (I’ve written about the Mystery Woman series in the past.)

If it’s crime solving cats that get your fur up look no further than the Big Mike Mysteries series, six volumes of which appeared between 1994 and 1999. Author Garrison Allen penned the books, which feature Penelope Warren, an ex-Marine and owner of a mystery bookstore located in the fictional town of Empty Creek, Arizona. Warren does her amateur detective routine with a little help from her appropriately named cat, Mycroft, who provides the series with its name.

Christmas at the Mysterious BookshopChristmas at the Mysterious Bookshop is not a series of mystery novels, but rather a collection of short stories by assorted crime and mystery luminaries, including Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, and Mary Higgins Clark. It’s a collection that tends to blur the boundary between reality and fiction, as the bookshop of the title is a real one, Otto Penzler’s well-known New York-based Mysterious Bookshop. Originally commissioned one at a time by Penzler each Christmas as a pamphlet to be given to customers, the stories are collected here in book form for the first time.

Of course there are plenty of other bookstore owners who solve crimes but the stores they operate tend to be of a more general bent, along with some that specialize in antiquarian tomes. One of the better known bookstore owners in the annals of mystery and crime fiction, Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr has another vocation, of course. A burglar who accidentally, and to comic effect, finds himself stumbling upon crimes that need solving, Rhodenbarr is also proprietor of an antiquarian Manhattan bookstore known as Barnegat books.

For more book-related mysteries, check out the cozy-mystery blog’s section.


  1. Deborah Lacy

    I read all of the Death on Demand series as they came out and loved every one. Haven’t picked up one in years though. This inspires me to pick up one to re-read. I think I still have them around here somewhere.

    I’d like to add a couple of others to your list here: The Cliff Janeway books by John Dunning ( Bookman’s Wake, Booked to Die to name two); and Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone — although the latter is more of a thriller series than a mystery.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Terrie Farley Moran

    Thanks for this wonderful look at bookstore cozies. I wasn’t familiar with the Booktown Mystery series, and will definitely look for some of those books. @Deb, I’ll have an eye out for the Cliff Janeway books as well.

  3. donna 2t

    what is the samantha and philly(sp) bookstore mystery where a mystery writer is murdered in the store. They find out she and her friend once murdered her mother and spent time in jail in Canade. I think this mimics the life of a real life mystery writer who had a similar history in Australia

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