Did you know there’s an apartment in the New York Public Library? A while ago I read this article about the former apartment space in the NYPL where the library’s caretaker lived once upon a time back when clocks needed winding and furnaces needed stoking with coal. I thought it quite a romantic idea to live in the NYPL, so when I discovered that Fiona Davis’ mystery novel The Lions of Fifth Avenue is set in and around this apartment in 1913, I had to read it! Of course this would be the perfect location for a good mystery!
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And as a former Archivist/Special Collections librarian, I’m a sucker for a good archives/special collections mystery. And Davis did not disappoint. I couldn’t put the book down.
The chapters in the book jump back and forth in time between 1913 during which Laura Lyons and her family live in the NYPL apartment because her husband is the library caretaker, and 1993 during which Laura’s granddaughter Sadie works in the NYPL as a special collections librarian. Old and rare books start disappearing from the library’s Berg collection, and Sadie is one of two people working on creating an exhibit from the collection. Sadie then begins to wonder if the book thefts are in any way connected to the unsolved mystery of book thefts that plagued the library in 1913 when her grandparents lived in the library. And of course it’s a race against time to prove her own innocence as it begins to look like she and her ancestors might be at fault.
Normally I’m not a fan of books that jump between time periods, but I found both women’s stories so compelling that I wasn’t bothered by the back and forths of this book. Laura begins as a stay-at-home mother of two who wants more from life. As we begin to follow her story, she enrolls in the Columbia School of Journalism with the hopes of becoming a journalist. Then there’s Sadie, who reminded me very much of myself and the librarian students I lived with in a dorm while completing my Masters in Library & Information Science. She’s socially awkward and loves working with the collections more than interacting with coworkers or members of the library board. Through Sadie’s story we learn that her knowledge about her grandmother is limited except that she knows Laura was living in London with a woman and had become a respected and forward thinking essayist by the end of her life. I couldn’t put the book down because I had to find out how Laura ended up where she did from where she started, and of course I had to find out how books were disappearing from inside the NYPL’s chain link fenced cage in which the old and rare collection material is kept!
Treasures on Display at the NYPL
I finished the book in two days, and promptly made plans to visit the NYPL to case the joint for a book heist- NO! Just kidding! To see the new (to me at least) permanent Polonsky Exhibition of the NYPL’s Treasures that opened in September 2021. The exhibit includes many, many amazing artifacts, one of which Davis specifically mentions in her book, another which I surmise may have provided some inspiration for a plot point, and unrelated to Davis’ novel, but of no less importance to me, Pooh Bear and Friends!
After a quick Google search (because I’m a librarian at heart and couldn’t not find out) I did find that the Berg collection is real and researchers can request ahead of time to view items from the collection. However, being short on time in the city this visit, and not having a good research topic as an excuse, I decided to pass on spending half a day annoying special collection librarians by pretending to be a researcher just to see some of the items from the collection, and instead elected to spend my time at the NYPL more wisely by exploring the Treasures currently on display.
Before entering the Schwarzman Building, the main branch of the NYPL at 5th and 42nd Street, which houses the Treasures exhibit, I stopped to say hi to the library lions, Patience and Fortitude, or as Laura knew them in 1913, Astor and Lenox. For those wondering what the “Lions of Fifth Avenue” referred to, these are the lions. If you also noticed that Laura’s last name is “Lyons” and the family lives at 5th Avenue, give yourself a little pat on the back.
I also took a moment to look back at the city block from which the front library stairs ascend. Davis mentions in the book that this main branch of the NYPL was constructed in 1911. I tried to envision the changes this building has seen around it. It’s seen a street of horse and carriages shared with Ford automobiles turn into the multi-lane road with unending traffic it is today. And the fashions of the people on the library stairs are so far from those of the days where men wore suits regularly and women long dresses and corsets. (Check out photos of the exterior of the library from 1911 through the 1940’s here.) How different the outside world would have looked to the two women in the book if they stood on these stairs in 1913 and 1993. I wondered if now in 2023 it even looked different compared to 1993.
Once up the stairs and through the library doors I briefly turned around again, but this time because the view of the doors from inside the lobby is what’s pictured on the front cover of my book.
While wondering why the book cover doesn’t instead show the lions outside the library, I excitedly made my way across the lobby and through the doors on the other side into the Treasures exhibition. I just love that this exhibit is a totally free experience where you can spend hours with some of the most amazing artifacts in our country! Just another reason to love libraries!
The NYPL website states that you can listen to the audio guide for the exhibit by downloading the Bloomberg Plus app. I’d downloaded the app ahead of time so I now dug out my phone and Airpods from my bag. Unfortunately, despite connecting to the exhibit wifi, I could neither get the audio on the exhibit website nor in the Bloomberg app to play, so I shoved the earbuds back into my bag. Without the guide, I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but after looking to my right, I knew exactly where to start.
I’d found Pooh and the other stuffed animals from the Hundred Acre Woods. Last time I’d visited the NYPL these animals had been in the Children’s Room. Seeing them here actually made me a little sad. Before, they’d been bathed in a warm yellow light with a map of the Hundred Acre Woods behind them. Now they were in a stark white glare, away from the children that might love them in a way that hopefully makes up for Christopher Robin’s ultimate banishment of his childhood toys. I mean children can still visit them here, but looking around me I decided the attendees of the exhibit were decidedly more grown than young. I silently hoped there were more in the crowd that are still young at heart than not. Looking back at the display information I wasn’t surprised that it said nothing about why or how Pooh and his friends had ended up in NYC. I unzipped my coat to show Pooh I’d worn my Pooh t-shirt to visit him. If he and his friends can’t be in Ashdown forest, they should at least know they’re appreciated here!
Unfortunately I only had an hour to spend in the exhibition so I began to move through the rest of the room to see the artifacts, meanwhile wishing I had the time to read each item’s information. I saw a copy of the most checked out book from the NYPL, the children’s book The Snowy Day. There was an original page from The Secret Garden, apparently the author’s last home had been in New York! And then there was a writing desk once used by Charles Dickens. I wondered how many “desks of Charles Dickens” are out there considering I’d seen one already at his London home. And a copy of David Copperfield with annotations made by Dickens as prompts for public readings of his work. And then an item I was so surprised to see, and at the same time not surprised at all.
Near the beginning of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Sadie gives a tour to a few library trustees and shows them some of the artifacts in the library’s special collections. One of these is a letter opener owned by Charles Dickens on which he had had one paw of a beloved cat taxidermied and stuck on the top of the letter opener.
“Is it real? Asked Mrs. Smith […]
“Yes,” said Sadie. “The cat, called Bob, was so beloved by Charles Dickens that he had his paw put on a letter opener after he died.”The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
This had sounded so ridiculous to me that I had put down the book to google “Dickens Cat Paw” and sure enough a photo of this bizarre letter opener had shown up. And now here it was! Right in front of me! I’d say I was surprised, but if you had a cat paw letter opener from Charles Dickens, wouldn’t you too put it on display? And if you were an author looking for bizarre facts to put in your book, I would think this would top the list.
Moving on through the room I saw the giant Birds of America book by John Audubon, and a comic book depicting Harriet Tubman. There was great representation of items from authors of diverse backgrounds, and religious texts of all sorts.
My eyes stopped at a walking stick. This was familiar from the book, only in the book it had belonged to Laura, who’s fictional. It was another item Sadie showed the trustees during her tour.
“Sadie replaced the letter opener and looked around. ‘Over here is a walking stick that belonged to the essayist and writer Laura Lyons. […] She had it with her when she died in 1941.’”The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
After examining the explanation I learned that the walking stick before me was Virginia Wolff’s and she had had it with her when she died! Again, there was no information as to how the library had ended up with it. This artifact must have been Davis’ inspiration for the walking stick artifact in her book.
SPOILER ALERT – highlight the next part of the paragraph to read it, but skip it if you don’t want the end of the book ruined!
The walking stick becomes important at the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try and sneak a peek at the bottom of Wolff’s stick just to check if it was similar to Laura’s… sadly, I think this excellent detail in Davis’ tale was fictional.
What else was real and/or fictional?
Now that I’d learned the cat paw letter opener was real, but the walking stick had been real but fictionalized, I did what any self-respecting librarian would do… more research into the facts in the book to find out just where real ended, blended with fiction, and fiction took over. According to Davis’ website, book thefts did happen, but not at the NYPL. Rather, at the Columbia University Butler Library, where the author spent much of her time while completing a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School. The same journalism school, her character Laura Lyons attended.
The Heterodoxy Club, which Laura falls into through her journalism school assignment, was real. Davis’ website states that it was a women’s group begun in 1912 in Greenwich Village where women were encouraged to speak openly. However, Dr. Potter in the novel, was fictional, but based on a real woman, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker.
And finally, Book Row, where Sadie went undercover to see if any of the stolen books from the library had been sold to second hand bookstores, was real. The blocks of NYC’s 4th Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place were once known as Book Row. Today the only surviving bookstore from this row is The Strand, except it’s moved one block over to Broadway from 4th. This is where I was headed next.
Davis has a Book Club Kit on her website which includes a map for a Lions of 5th Avenue NYC Tour, and while I didn’t have time to do a full tour, I had just enough time left to hit up the bookstore.
On my way out of the library, I wished I’d left myself time to try and find the entrance to the apartment hidden away in the library, now probably just used for storage. I pondered whether I’d like to live in this building or end up like Laura, thinking it more of a cage than a quaint living arrangement.
Now having read The Lions of Fifth Avenue, and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, both mystery books set in an iconic NYC building, perhaps I should continue the trend next time I visit the city by reading another mystery set in a different iconic building. Davis has six historical fiction novels so far set in different NYC iconic buildings so she could keep me going for a few more trips to NYC. I’m especially excited to read the one that takes place in Grand Central Station and her newest one coming out in June about Radio City Music Hall.
If you were to write a mystery novel that takes place in an iconic building, where would you set it? Have you been to the Treasures exhibition at the NYPL? Would you love to live in an apartment in a library? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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