Several years ago when it appeared that the J.D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi might become the state’s “Center for the Book,” I decided to broaden our collection of Mississippi popular fiction by acquiring more of the books readers actually read. Even though the Center project never materialized within the state, we maintained a commitment to expanding our genre holdings.
As a long time fan of murder mysteries, particularly those written by contemporary women novelists, I decided to solicit a few Mississippi-connected authors for their papers. Two prominent names immediately came to mind -- Nevada Barr and Julie Smith. The former is a resident of Clinton and a ranger on the Natchez Trace Parkway; the latter, an Ole Miss alumnae. Both graciously agreed to our proposal. More recently, we have also acquired the papers of contemporary Mississippi mystery writers Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Charlaine Harris, and Martin Hegwood.
Having manuscripts, proofs, and other early textual materials was an essential building block for an exhibition. But we wondered how extensive the universe of Mississippi mysteries was and how far back in time we might find them. The eventual answers to these questions would prove surprising.
Among the most useful resources in our quest was a work compiled in the late 1970s by Special Collections staff and published by the University Press of Mississippi -- The Life of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. A meticulous search through this reference unearthed numerous authors from the state not represented in our existing book collection. Filling in these gaps was an obvious next step. In so doing, we benefited enormously from internet databases of out-of-print books and from the auction services of eBay. Several of the acquired volumes were the only copies available on the internet. Some on Ebay were hotly contested – especially volumes from Virginia Fairfax’s 1930s Girl Scout Mystery Series.
Over time we acquired a substantial number of missing first editions, usually with dust jackets and, if available, in foreign editions as well. Thanks to a donation from Leila Clark Wynn of Greenville, Mississippi, we also replaced titles lacking dust jackets. One such example is Murder with Southern Hospitality, a Natchez-set mystery whose title we have adopted for our exhibition. This novel is one of many in the exhibition written by a non-Mississippian but set in the state.
Putting everything together, we discovered an unexpected depth in Mississippi mysteries. Our earliest titles go back well into the nineteenth century, contemporaneous with the pioneer works of Edgar Allen Poe. Included is one of the first stories to feature an African-American detective. From the “Golden Age” of mysteries during the 1920s and 30s through the “Noir” and “Hard-Boiled” periods to more contemporary novels, the exhibition reveals a rich history of the genre in Mississippi.
A final aspect of mysteries in Mississippi explored in the exhibition is their publication by small presses within the state itself. The earliest title in our collection, Lucian Osgood’s Murder in the Tomb, was published in Columbus in 1937.
Much of the work and preparation of text for the exhibition has been accomplished by Jennifer Ford and Leigh McWhite; both avid readers of mysteries. Jennifer Ford is responsible for, among many other things, acquiring the manuscripts of several of the authors. Leigh McWhite has been persistent in tracking down many of our more elusive authors, particularly Muna Lee and Virginia Fairfax. Finally, thanks as well to the University of Mississippi’s new Library Dean, Julia Rholes, whose enthusiasm for our unorthodox project is appreciated.
Thomas M. Verich