“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library…” Guarding Shakespeare author Quintin Peterson takes us into the high-security vaults of Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare treasure house

I’ve often jokingly said words to the effect of “Bloody Americans! Nicking all our Folios…” So it amused me greatly that Guarding Shakespeare’s opening scene featured a couple of Brits saying something similar. Have you encountered many English people who really do feel that way?

“I started working for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Department of Safety and Security in December 2010, after I retired from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. In the four years I have worked there, only one British gentleman who visited the library expressed that sentiment. I reminded him that all of the Folger Library’s copies of the First Folio were purchased, not pilfered.”

The next thing I noticed is that your book is virtually a How-To guide to robbing the Folger Library! Do you worry you may have given too much away?

“Not at all. Like all good fiction authors, I mix lies with the truth. Any thief who attempts to use Guarding Shakespeare as a how-to guide to try to rip off the Folger Library is in for a rude awakening. I used the Folger Library as the backdrop for a good old-fashioned heist story, but I didn’t give away the farm. I would never put the library’s security at risk for the sake of a story. I write crime fiction, noir mysteries, thrillers and simply followed the guidelines for creating an entertaining noir heist story. However, this story enlightens as well as entertains.”

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I was reminded of Ian Fleming’s note at the beginning of From Russia With Love, where he mentions the accuracy of his descriptions of people and places. Were all your Folger descriptions real or did you invent some rooms, passageways and so on?

“That certainly is not true of my depiction of the Folger Shakespeare Library, except for the common areas open to the general public. Guarding Shakespeare is part fact, part fancy. Like I said, I mix lies with the truth.”

Apart from the main conspirators, how many of the characters are real Folger people? I noticed you gave yourself a cameo role…

“Characters in the book who have anything to do with the plot are purely fictitious. The rest are actual people the fictional characters either interact with in passing, or who witness the actions of the fictional characters. Fact and fiction collide. It’s also my way of acknowledging coworkers.”

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I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently how important the Folger is as a storehouse of Shakespeare treasures and a centre of study. Your book conveys a sense of it as a place of almost religious significance…

“It is. People from around the globe come to the Folger to either work with rare materials housed there or to appreciate the various exhibitions on display in the Great Hall. One of the best exhibits was Manifold Greatness: The Life and Afterlife of the King James Bible. The exhibit consisted of various King James Bibles – one owned by Queen Elizabeth I, another by Elvis Presley, which he’d acquired from the Estate of Frederick Douglass, et al. And yet always on display in the Great Hall, no matter what exhibit is featured, is one of the Folger’s 82 First Folios. It occurred to me that the two most influential books of the English language were on display together. For the first time, perhaps…”

Another Ian Fleming comparison is the audacious scheme to heist Fort Knox in Goldfinger. Has anyone ever actually succeeded in robbing the Folger in real life?

“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library.”

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I know that real-life criminal gangs are increasingly targeting rare books, but the target in Guarding Shakespeare isn’t actually a book, is it?

“No. Nefarious businessman Rupert Whyte describes the MacGuffin – the object of desire – as something so small, all protagonist Special Police Officer Lt. Norman Blalock need do is put it in his shirt pocket and then just walk out of the Folger Library.”

And it does seem entirely plausible that the Folger could have acquired some amazing Shakespeare items without anyone realising quite what they were…

“Yes. In my novel, the object of desire is hidden inside of a jewelry box the Folger Library recently acquired.”

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You also touch on the frightening idea of what would happen if an unstable employee went berserk in the Folger. It’s a chilling reminder that Shakespeare books and artefacts are vulnerable to vandalism – as well as the kind of cultural terrorism practiced by IS.

“Yes. It’s one of the reasons why the Folger Library has its own Department of Safety and Security, not only to safeguard the collection, but its employees and visitors as well.”

Finally, can you tell us one mind-blowing fact about the Folger that didn’t make it into your book?

“The underground complex of the Folger Shakespeare Library is a bunker. In that bunker along with priceless treasures is the Special Collection, consisting of works of fiction depicting scene(s) inside of the Folger Library or that merely make mention of the library. Guarding Shakespeare is among them. However, it is the only work of fiction that is actually about the Folger Library. My novel has gone where no crime fiction has gone before.

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“On Thursday, 23 April, 2015, I autographed 30 copies of Guarding Shakespeare for the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library’s Board of Governors, and inscribed each book: ‘All the world’s a stage…’

“Coincidentally, 23 April is Shakespeare’s birthday, but it is also the day I retired from the Metropolitan Police Department. D.C., five years ago, after more than 28 years of public service. It was a great day.”

UK readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.

US readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.