For most visitors to the Huntington Library, the lush grounds and stately buildings probably bespeak elegance and tranquillity.
Gay Toltl Kinman, an author of mystery novels and short stories, has an entirely different perception. She looks at the sprawling former estate of railroad tycoon Henry Huntington and sees hiding places, treasures ripe for theft, envy and murderous intent, and get-away routes.
The famed institution in San Marino has found its way into a couple of Kinman’s books, including a self-published collection of juvenile short stories called “Super Sleuth: Five Alison Leigh Powers Mysteries” ($9.99) — which was available in the Huntington’s gift shop until it sold out — and a book of adult short stories titled “Murder and Mayhem at the Huntington Library” (Mysterious Women, $9.99).
Kinman, who lives in Alhambra, has conducted research in the bowels of the Huntington as a reader and has also worked at the institution as a docent. Through both roles, she has gained keen familiarity with this literary turf.
“When I was there doing research, I always walked for half an hour around the grounds,” Kinman said last week. “You just sort of come up with these stories, particularly where the man is murdered in the research room. That was quite plausible. And the family of coyotes — what if they found a skeleton?”
Her stories feature Jane Jillson, a pistol-packing investigator with the Huntington’s security staff who always seems to solve crimes before the cops can. At an institution such as this, the allure of profiting from the black-market sale of pilfered rare books is an obvious one, but simple conflict between family members or co-workers is also fertile ground for fiction. The author’s imagination runs wild — and, at times, comically, as in the attempted theft of a rare plant by a crook who disguises himself in palm fronds.
Kinman can craft a clever line:
• “On Saturday, the corpse flower bloomed — and a corpse lay at its base.”
• “Miss Parker’s Civil War sword, actually a replica, complete with pearl handle and tasseled hilt, was used to stab her in the back. The irony was not lost on those of us in the library school … for back-stabbing was something Miss Parker was good at.”
• “What she was looking for she had no idea, and she was rewarded with exactly that.”
Familiarity with the territory is also a plus. Kinman is able to describe the catalogue markings on books in the Huntington’s collection, the process by which scholars can get access to them for research and the protocols for reviewing the rare books in the Closed Stacks.
Local readers might be amused by some of the author’s inside jokes. In one story, the people working in security at the Huntington have the names Chester Hampton, Lorain Monterey, Orlando Tai, Horace Oxford and Keith Wembley. Of course: many are lifted from San Marino street signs.
Some of the stories, however, have awfully convenient plot points. After a coyote exposes a skeleton, an investigator pokes around for items that might have been carried from the crime scene by nesting rats. She finds a piece of cloth that just happens to have a Huntington Library name tag attached to it. That certainly made it a lot easier to find the killer.
But the stories are no less enjoyable, especially for those who live in the area and can relate to the familiar settings.
“It’s very easy to find stories there and get your imagination going,” Kinman said. “I don’t know, I just see these possibilities running around.”
“Super Sleuth” and “Murder and Mayhem at the Huntington Library” are available at Amazon and Kindle.