I have written before about how I think Nancy Drew, perhaps the most famous amateur detective of them all, would have been an awesome librarian. And I’ve written about the crossovers in skills between librarians and private investigators.
So let’s follow this thread by looking at private eyes who show up in reel librarian films. Sometimes the reel librarian becomes the private detective, as well!
Private eyes in reel librarian films:
Please note that the list below is not an exhaustive list, and it is arranged in chronological order. To compile this representative list of reel librarian films also featuring private detectives, I consulted my own files, as well as the invaluable 2005 book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, by Ray and Brenda Tevis, which I reviewed here.
The Captain Hates the Sea (1934):
An alcoholic newspaperman boards a ship, hoping for a restful cruise and the chance to quit drinking and begin writing a book. Also on board is a private detective hoping to nab a criminal with a fortune in stolen bonds — and a librarian on vacation! However, this reel librarian may be using this occupation as a cover for illicit activities…
Quiet Please, Murder (1942):
A public librarian helps a private detective who is investigating book forgers. The plot also includes Nazis and five (!) reel librarian roles. This film sounds AWESOME.
The Big Sleep (1946):
This is a classic, complex crime story featuring private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), who is hired to keep an eye on General Sternwood’s daughter (Lauren Bacall). In a brief library scene, a young librarian is curious about Marlowe’s reading choices.
Another young librarian also features in the film’s trailer, seen below:
Special Agent (1949):
In this crime thriller, special railroad agent Johnny Douglas is on the trail of an armed railway robbery. The TCM site provides a detailed synopsis, which outlines how a librarian fits into the plot:
As part of the investigation, Johnny brings the Devereaux’ belongings to University of California criminologist Jerome Bowen, who studies the items for clues about the killers. Although many false leads are phoned in by the public, Johnny finally gets some real clues … from a librarian who gave the brothers the news clipping.
I Was a Shoplifter (1950):
Mona Freeman stars in the leading role as shoplifter Faye Burton, an attractive 22-year-old librarian suffering from kleptomania. Plus, there’s a shoplifting gang and an undercover agent. What a plot line!
In this film noir, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) gets involved in a real-life mystery involving a woman’s disappearance. His main squeeze is a sexy librarian (Marilu Henner).
The Empty Beach (1985):
In this Australian thriller, based on the novel by Peter Corris, Bryan Brown stars as private investigator Cliff Hardy, who inquires into the disappearance of a beautiful woman’s wealthy husband from Bondi Beach. Deborah Kennedy plays the minor role of Newspaper Librarian, who aids Hardy in his investigation.
The Golden Child (1986):
In this Class III film, private detective Chandler Jarrell (Eddie Murphy) sets out to find the “Golden Child,” a Buddhist mystic who has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. Early on in a scene set in a nondescript building, a mysterious lady named Kala supplies Jarrell with information about the Golden Child and his quest. It is revealed that Kala is a librarian and a half-dragon lady over 300 years old (!). Although not the only not-quite-human reel librarian (see Necronomicon, Book of the Dead, 1993), she is quite memorable, even outside her Sacred Depository library.
Clicking here will take you to an audio clip of her brief scene.
A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (TV, 2015):
Aurora Teagarden, or “Roe” for short (played by Candice Cameron Bure), is a librarian and amateur sleuth. Her master’s thesis was in true-crime literature, which she puts to good use to solve local mysteries! This was the pilot episode of a TV series.
The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Well-known private detective Philo Vance returns again in this film, based on the series of novels by S. S. Van Dine, and this is William Powell’s fourth appearance as Vance. This is often regarded as the best of the Philo Vance screen adaptations, and it is a classic “locked room” kind of mystery.
No librarians, unfortunately, but the film does feature a private library, and this library, plus a book in its collection called Unsolved Murders, are central to the mystery plot.
The FBI Story (1959)
The history of the FBI unfolds through one agent’s (Jimmy Stewart) perspective. His wife (Vera Miles) was a public librarian, and there is one early scene set in the library. Admittedly, Stewart does not play a private detective — rather, he is an official FBI agent — but he does often go undercover, so that’s why I’ve added this film to the honorable mention list.
Any favorites here? If I’ve missed a major film, please let me know!
- The Big Sleep. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers. Warner Bros., 1946.
- A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (TV movie). Dir. Martin Wood. Perf. Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Bruce Dawson. Hallmark, 2015.
- The Captain Hates the Sea. Dir. Lewis Milestone. Perf. Victor McLaglen, Wynne Gibson, Alison Skipworth. Columbia, 1934.
- The Empty Beach. Dir. Chris Thomson. Perf. Bryan Brown, Anna Maria Monticelli. Jethro Films, 1985.
- The FBI Story. Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Perf. James Stewart, Vera Miles, Murray Hamilton. Warner Bros., 1959.
- The Golden Child. Dir. Michael Ritchie. Perf. Eddie Murphy, Charles Dance, Charlotte Lewis. Paramount, 1986.
- I Was a Shoplifter. Dir. Charles Lamont. Perf. Scott Brady, Mona Freeman, Tony Curtis. Universal, 1950.
- Hammett. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Lydia Lei. Zoetrope Studios, 1982.
- The Kennel Murder Case. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. William Powell, Mary Astor. Warner Bros., 1933.
- “Overview.” Special Agent (1949), TCM.com.
- Special Agent. Dir. William Keighley. Perf. Bette Davis, George Brent. Warner Bros., 1935.