Name that Not Quite Legible Book Title! The Mysteries on Rowling’s Book Shelf

The picture used for the back cover of the adult edition of Bloomsbury’s Goblet of Fire in 2000 features a picture of J. K. Rowling leaning against a bookshelf. The titles of the books on the shelf are just almost legible; with a little luck and maybe a reference list, you can read the letters on the spine if you magnify significantly and have any clue to guide you.

The two Ian Rankin paperbacks to the left of her right shoulder I’m afraid are indecipherable. Too many of the Rankin paperbacks are in just this format and the specific coloring of the books in question cannot be made out and the letters, beyond the oversized ‘Rankin’ are illegible.

Not so with the three Agatha Christie titles to the right of Rowling’s left shoulder. As Dolores Gordon-Smith first pointed out, these book titles can be read:

JG: Do you think [Rowling has] read any of the Christie Poirot or Miss Marple novels?

DGS: I’m absolutely certain she has. On the back cover of the adult UK edition of Goblet of Fire, because the books were published with two covers, one with the children’s covers and one with the adult covers, on the back cover of that, there’s a wonderful bookcase shot and, obviously, because I love looking at people’s bookcases, I looked at this in fairly close detail and I was delighted to see there were three Agatha Christie paperbacks. I recognized them immediately because I’ve got the same books.

And after some work with a magnifying glass, I got the titles. They were Three Act Tragedy which is a Poirot book, Dead Man’s Folly which is another Poirot book, and is actually set in Agatha Christie’s old home of Greenway in Devon, and Appointment With Death

[From the MNet Academia show on ‘Harry Potter as Detective Fiction (26 June 2012)]

I’ve discussed the great finds to be had in Appointment with Death here and here at HogwartsProfessor and I have ordered copies of the other two titles to see if there are any hidden jewels for Potter-philes to be found in those pages. Stay tuned for that discussion.

But what of the other books on The Presence’s shelf in 2000? Can we see make out any other authors and titles? Given how rewarding Gordon-Smith’s Christie finds have been, the picture deserves a close look.

I think I want to see a Ngaio Marsh book on the bottom shelf to Rowling’s right. One shelf up I’m all but certain of Peter Cook: A Biography. To the right of Rowling’s head is an Adrian Mole anthology (?) by Sue Townsend, I’d guess The Cappuccino Years. There is a guide to an exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on that shelf, too, but which one? No idea. Does anyone know what book by Sigmund Freud or about Freud is on the same shelf as Rowling’s three Christies? The Jane Austen’s… title obscured by Rowling’s head?

Have a look and share your best guesses in the comment boxes below! And your thoughts, especially if you think this is a fool’s errand and not Rowling’s bookshelf.


  1. Evan Willis says

    The Austen book is “Jane Austen’s Letters” in the edition edited by Le Faye.

    Of slightly greater interest is Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, first full shelf from the top, to the right of the red book. The conclusion to this book features the main character elaborating upon Aquinas’s principle that Beauty has threefold aspect according to the human modes of apprehending: unity, harmony, and radiance. These in the tradition are parallel to the Literal, Moral, and Allegorical (in the wider sense that incorporates both Allegory and Anagogy) senses of a text. If we needed a source that ties Rowling to the Pardes, particularly as applied to the apprehension of beauty, this is it.

  2. Evan Willis says

    Four books to the right of the Austen: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.
    Freud, Pelican series vol. 6, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

  3. Evan Willis says

    Right of Pullman(!) on top shelf: Oxford Companion to Military History, edited by Holmes.

  4. Beatrice Groves says

    I have spent many hours in the past trying to read these book-titles – I am sure she has given us a real bookshelf in her home!

    The Jane Austen is her collected letters and the Freud is Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious.

  5. Excellent work, Evan and Beatrice! I am especially excited by Evans’ note about Joyce’s ‘Portrait’ and it’s finale celebration of multivalent meaning.

    Three quick questions:

    (1) For UK readers — any idea from the bottom spine of the Pullman novel on the top shelf which book of his this is? Rowling is said to have told Pullman (his account?) that she’d never read his books, which I’ve assumed was a polite way of saying she didn’t care for them (an important part of the ‘Pullman is Lockhart and vice-versa’ pet theory of mine). Now that we have evidence she owns at least one of his books, it would be great if we knew which one. Could it be one of his four novels featuring Sally Lockhart rather than the more famous ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy?

    (2) Forgive me for being delighted that Hall’s ‘Well of Loneliness’ was not spotted on her shelf by the Harry Haters in 2000. Life was difficult enough for those of us on the barricades defending her against devotional Christian attacks in those days. Now, of course, Rowling’s insufficient celebration of Dumbledore’s ‘sexual inversion’ – insufficient at least in the eyes of the vocal super-woke factions of her fandom – must make the Hall novel evidence of Rowling’s awkwardness and hesitancy in their view. Am I right or wrong in thinking it should be thought of as being no more and no less relevant than the Oxford Companion to Military History or Jane Austen’s Letters?

    (3) Another for UK readers and mystery lovers everywhere: Does anyone by chance have a set of the Ngaio Marsh mysteries in paperback that match with the spine at the picture’s bottom left? How about the four book set of paperbacks in the picture’s upper right corner?

    My apologies for the Rankin paperback mistake in the original post. It is only one, not two, books, and the title might be relatively easy to identify from the pattern on its binding spine. I have the complete Rankin, believe it or not, but have hard cover editions that are mostly anthologies.

    Again, great work, Evan and Beatrice! I hope everyone else will jump in with their technological and bibliophile skills to Name Those Titles.

  6. Evan Willis says

    As to which Pullman, the color is that of the British edition Amber Spyglass, the final book of the trilogy.

    Looked through Google images for used Ian Rankin paperbacks to try to find a match; the book here is definitely Tooth and Nail.

  7. Louise Freeman says

    Sigh. I’ve tried to avoid Freud as much as possible in my 20-odd years as a psychology professor. Now that I know Rowling has his jokes book, I should probably check it out.

  8. ‘Amber Spyglass’… so much for the ‘I haven’t read the books’ comment to Pullman. File this with her comment that she never finished ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ while saying she was disappointed with Susan Pevensie’s death in the last pages of the seventh and last book of that series (echoing Pullman’s criticism). Great find, Evan!

    ‘Tooth and Nail’ is hilarious! Rankin’s John Rebus, a detective who is also a damaged Army veteran struggling with emotional issues from a previous relationship that didn’t end well, is Edinburgh’s hero. Rowling has said that Strike’s mysteries are set in London because Rebus owns her adopted hometown. But ‘Tooth and Nail’ is set in London! If you want a foretaste of ‘Career of Evil’ written by Ian Rankin, check out ‘Tooth and Nail.’ Only ‘Let It Bleed’ and ‘Black and Blue,’ Rankin’s Rolling Stone themed books are more obvious forebears to ‘Career’ with its Blue Oyster Cult backdrops and epigraphs.

    I’ve been working on the Ngaio Marsh cover spine without much success, I’m afraid. It looks like a three word title and there are seven of those in Marsh’s thirty three novels. Narrow it down to titles with longer word-very short word-short word and you get ‘Artists in Crime,’ ‘Overture to Death,’ and ‘Spinsters in Jeopardy.’ I couldn’t find anything via Google images searches for her paperback covers. Let me know if you have better luck!

  9. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for that Rankin identification Evan! Another identifiable David Noke’s Jane Austen: A Life (1997). I’d really like to know what the fat, white-spined novel to the left of her head is. Any guesses anyone? The words sort of scan for Trollope’s He Knew he was Right?…

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Upper right: my guess is more Christie – from right to left, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Taken at the Flood, Parker Pyne Investigates, Towards Zero.

    Lower left: my guess is Overture to Death (given the apparent comparative length of the words, but…?).

    Tangentially, do ‘we’ know if she knows Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae? (I’m finally getting acquainted, and there are things that at least look (to me) to reward HP comparative discussion…)

    The fat white one looks like an Oxford World Classics – any likely Oxford bookshops where one could readily scan all the OWC spines for an illustration-match? (Possible hitch – terminus ad quem 2000 – e.g., it does not look like the 2008 He Knew He Was Right cover illustration at, but was there a different illustration, before?)

  11. Egad! Four more Christies to read… Thank you, David!

  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I only know these three novels, and one of the Pyne stories, via enjoyable BBC radio dramatizations, so far, but have gotten acquainted with other Christie’s via complete audiobooks – perhaps a useful option for you, too, circumstances permitting…

  13. I think you’re right about ‘He Knew He Was Right,’ Bea, but I cannot find an Oxford World Classics or Penguin cover, the publishers that use the cover-cameo on the white spine (?), for that Trollope novel. The closest I could find, a Penguin with white bordering rather than black, was here and here (1996) — and it’s not very close to the cameo we see on the bookshelf. I’m trusting Evan to track this down!

    I searched for a CUP edition because the spine imprint suggested Cambridge and found this jewel of an interview with a mystery writer who loved Trollope:

  14. Just a query John. You say in your comments:
    “File this with her [J.K. Rowling’s] comment that she never finished ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ while saying she was disappointed with Susan Pevensie’s death in the last pages of the seventh and last book of that series”.

    I don’t think Susan Pevensie died. C.S. Lewis left it ambiguous as to what happened to her in the end. Susan was the only Pevensie of the train trash that killed the other three, Lucy, Peter & Edmund.

    J.K. Rowling however IS quoted ( in Time magazine) as saying of the Chronicles of Narnia: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”

    Hope this clears things up.

  15. As a footnote. I wonder if J.K. Rowling got the idea for naming her past memories ‘Pensieve’ in Harry Potter from an anagram of the Narnia children’s surname, Pevensie?

    I suppose you’ve mentioned this already in a previous post.

  16. Typo *only Pevensie survivor of the train crash… that killed the other 3.

  17. See Beatrice Groves’ post on Kipling for the most likely source of ‘Pensieve.’

  18. Will do. Thanks John.

  19. “Lewis wrote to one young reader that Susan was written out of the story not because “I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting into Aslan’s country” — that is, Heaven — “but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write.”

    Lewis admitted fallibility and issued a startling invitation: “But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?”

  20. Lewis’ reply reminds me of O’Connor’s remarks on the Misfit’s salvation in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I think Susan taking a while longer to get to Narnia makes sense–do not most of us?

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