July 30, 2014

Q&A with Heffers bookseller and crime fiction connoisseur Richard Reynolds


Reynolds cuts a crime-themed cake (image via rsdownie.co.uk)

Reynolds cuts a crime-themed cake (image via rsdownie.co.uk)

As International Crime Month comes to an end, I spoke to Richard Reynolds, bookseller and buyer at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge, as well as a crime fiction connoisseur.

Reynolds has worked at Heffers for over thirty years, and in that time has been responsible for building an impressive and expansive crime section, making it surely one of the greatest in the country. Featuring crime classics as well as international and translated crime, the selection reflects Reynolds’s expert knowledge of the genre, his keen eye for trends and his sensitive reading of crime fiction past and present.

Tell us about Heffers in Cambridge

Heffers has been selling books in Cambridge since 1876. It has been based at its current location on Trinity Street  since 1970, and is part of the fabric of the historic city centre. We are one of the region’s most comprehensive bookshops stocking an extensive range of academic and general books, with a vast range of titles from all kinds of subjects. The secondhand department houses a treasure trove of old books looking for a new home —the selection changing so rapidly that it’s well worth visiting regularly to see what gems you can unearth!

In addition to books, there’s a specialist music department stocking classical music and jazz CDs, sheet music and DVDs. Heffers is the only place in Cambridge that can print personalised Ordnance Survey maps —you can even watch your map being printed! With a world class university on our doorstep and many visitors, our knowledgeable booksellers love talking to customers about books and helping them to discover new authors  — it’s a privilege to be able to deliver just the right book to each person.

How long have you been working at Heffers?

Having stayed in Cambridge several times in the late 1970s and enjoyed spending time in Heffers, I moved here permanently in November 1981 to start working here—nearly thirty-three years ago! I’ve specialised in a variety of subject areas, including local History, Travel & Biography, before turning to crime fiction and English literature.

How did your interest in International Crime fiction begin?

My reading habit for translated crime fiction began at school in the 1970s with Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo’s yellow-jacketed Martin Beck series published by Gollancz.

Can you tell us about the crime fiction section at Heffers? It’s so extensive and varied!

The crime fiction section has a substantial area devoted to it on the right-hand side gallery of the shop, certainly a vast change from its beginnings more than twenty-five years ago, when as a small section it was housed in the below-the-waist shelves near the top of the stairs on the ground floor, where most customers had to crawl on their knees for their crime fiction fix!

As well as stocking a wide selection of books published in the UK, some of my time is spent perusing American publisher catalogues as well as several specialist detective websites noted for their recommendations. I’m always interested to learn what our customers are reading too as it informs my buying —many a good book has been discovered that way!

For the last twenty-two years I have produced a ‘Bodies in the Bookshop catalogue —with bibliographic details on the latest publications— and hope to produce another one later this year, if enough publishers can be found to make monetary contributions towards it! Time is also taken up with the collation of a number of sub-genre handouts, the most popular being those of Cambridge Crime, Murder in Academe, Synod of Sleuths, Cloak & Dagger, Historical Whodunits (pre-history to the 1950s), and several ‘Greater Sense of Place’ lists, including ones on Scandinavian, Italian and French fiction in translation. There are a number of other lists currently in preparation…

Other enjoyable tasks include the planning of a varied programme of crime fiction events and hosting Crimecrackers, a discussion group of wonderful folk who meet once a month to talk detective fiction— and naturally there’s a comprehensive handout commenting on all the books we’ve read! All in all I consider myself fortunate to be paid for doing their number one hobby! 

Which crime fiction do you like to recommend to customers?

1992 saw the publication of Danish-writer, Peter Hoeg’s terrific mystery classic Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow and thinking about it now makes me want to find the book and re-read it!

Last year, I found reading the opening chapters of Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex not an enjoyable experience, and I almost put it down until the Quercus representative convinced me to continue. I’m glad I did as it’s now one I often recommend.  It deservedly won the 2013 CWA International Dagger award for best translated work together with another favourite author of mine, Fred Vargas for her novel The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.

Another one to recommend is Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full, translated by Anthea Bell,  in which Miss Maple, a sheep, investigates the death of the shepherd —terrific book —with wonderful line drawings at the bottom of each right-hand page, and if you flick the pages… a real treat. I believe it’s fairly easy to convey our enthusiasm about the books we love – though, it’s often the quirkier the better in my case – authors fitting that description include Fred Vargas, Luis Fernando Verissimo, Leonie Swann and Andrey Kurkov.

As a bookseller, how easy do you find convincing people to try translated crime?

With the interest in Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, it wasn’t difficult to sell translated fiction as long as it was —Swedish!  More recently, the success of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series has prompted readers to experiment with the lighter side too, and now with the proliferation of translated fiction there’s so much to choose from —and no sign of abating.

Who are your favourite international crime writers? 

Peter Hoeg, Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Helene Tursten, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Arnaldur Indridason, Wolf Haas

How else are you involved in crime fiction culture? 

Presently I’m chair of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Goldsboro Gold Dagger panel for best crime novel of the year, as well as being the editor of the Oleander Press London Bound series of classic crime novels, largely from the Golden Age of detective fiction, faithfully transcribed, re-set and reprinted under the series name  —due, unsurprisingly, to their all being set in the nation’s capital!

In an attempt to see as much locally-based crime fiction available, I’ve enjoyed success in seeing many favourite Golden Age Cambridge-based classics re-published by Ostara Publishing, including May Week Murder by Douglas Browne, and five Dr Davie mysteries by V C Clinton-Baddeley —a favourite title being Death’s Bright Dart, where a death at a Cambridge conference in the vacation causes much mayhem—terrific treat!

I’m a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and The Dorothy L Sayers Society. Occasionally I’m asked to speak on the subject of the Golden Age of Detective fiction which is a special area of interest.  I regularly attend the wonderful Crimefest convention in Bristol each year, and was thrilled to be a panelist at the 20th St Hilda’s conference in Oxford last year.

If you could pick one detective to solve a crime for you, who would it be and why? 

Hercule Poirot because he’s a class act.

Heffers is the most well-known bookshop in Cambridge, who are your local authors and can you name any prominent academics who are regular customers?

Cambridge-based crime writers include: Alison Bruce, Sophie Hannah, Michelle Spring, Barbara Cleverly, Emily Winslow, Jim Kelly (Ely-based), Kate Rhodes, Penny Hancock, Nicola Upson, Jill Paton Walsh and Mandy Morton.

Other local authors and academics include Mary Beard, Paul Cartledge, Clive James, Helen Moss, Adrian Reynolds, Julian Sedgewick, Christopher Clark, Robert Macfarlane, Christopher Catherwood

Upcoming crime events at Heffers include an event with Jacqueline Winspear on 20th August 2014 at 6.30pm. If you would like to be on the Heffers events mailing list contact Reynolds on [email protected].



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.