David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
A Cold Cambridge Case

November 24, 2020

Cambridge University Library is reporting two original notebooks of Charles Darwin have been stolen from the library. The crime apparently happened  . . . in 2001!  Talk about a cold case.  Apparently someone made the natural selection to pilfer the 1837 leather notebooks at the time they had to be moved out of a Special Collections room. O, the descent of man!

Where does one even begin investigating a cold case like this one? I invoke the spirit of Peter Thomas, original narrator for Forensic Files.

{Opening shot of Cambridge, England, in the fall. Coeds shuffling between buildings.}

Thomas: Cambridge, England.  One of the most storied universities in the world, the kind of place a couple of leather-bound notebooks from an influential writer and scientist would like to spend eternity.

Grizzled University of Cambridge Don Professor of Natural Sciences: They were beautiful first editions, if you will.  Everyone was delighted to have them as part of the campus. Finest of original texts.

Thomas: They were a secretive couple of texts, however. Elusive, never seen in public, able to entertain visitors only upon special request and with several weeks notice.

Bubbly blonde-haired local t.v. reporter: Everyone wanted to be seen with them!  They were the toast of the town.  But they just stayed behind closed doors. Everyone in town probably imagined those pages filled with the most amazing calligraphy and illustrations, but truth of the matter is few of us knew.

Thomas: It was that reclusive lifestyle that may have contributed to no one noticing their absence sometime in 2001 when their home in the library's Special Collections room was temporarily besieged by a photographic crew for the "Lifestyles of the Richly Famous First Editions."

Retired University of Cambridge Security Guard: There was a bit of a hullabaloo after the camera crew left.  Many residents couldn't be found, but seeing that everyone going in and out of this little gated community were being searched, administration felt it was merely a matter of time before they would be found

Thomas: Unfortunately, that unwillingness to secure a potential crime scene was to only make matters worse.

{Dramatic music. Fade out to commercials for Medicare Advantage, featuring Joe Namath, medications for arthritis, and 3 different HLN shows on serial killers.}

Thomas: When University of Cambridge Library curators first noticed the absence of original Darwin notebooks in 2001, they didn't call the police. Instead they launched a staff-wide search to find where the notebooks, among with other missing artifacts from the Special Collections room, might have been mis-shelved.

Former Library Student Worker (face hidden in shadow): It wasn't a bad idea on the surface. Some of us took the responsibility very seriously. I headed straight to Fiction and S to see if they had been mistakenly shelved with Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. Another girl said she checked the geography section to see if someone had put them with the Darwin, Australia, collection. She did find the original loan request for Outback Steakhouse there, another item that had disappeared from the Collections room.

Thomas: The finding of the Outback artifact made administration all the more resolute that the Darwin notebooks had to be somewhere misplaced. Nevertheless, their searches were fruitless, although rumors quickly circulated faster than the latest John Grisham.

Former Library Student Worker (face still hidden in shadow): One student worker didn't seem to be trying very hard.  We all were a little freaked out by him as he was really creepy. We actually called him "The Ghoul."

Thomas: The Ghoul? The Ghoul was Thomas Arlington Smith-Covington, a fifth-year senior, studying history and notorious for sneaking off during his shelving shifts to smoke pot in the 8th floor bathrooms.

Retired University of Cambridge Security Guard: Thomas Smith-Covington did appear on administration's radar.  At the time of the photo shoot, he was supposed to be moving the collection of first editions of Agatha Christie to the West Wing, as administration felt they were too popular to be out in the main collection.  However, no one saw him in the main collection and the next day, only one cart of Christie books had been moved. Just the Poirots.

Former Library Student Worker (face still hidden in shadow): Those Poirots had been on that cart for weeks.  Everyone preferred Marple, so we all had set the Poirots aside to free up shelf space for the Eco collection.

Thomas: Security Guard Arthur Flattington interrogated Smith-Covington for hours in the Commons area outside of Smith-Covington's dorm room.  However, the report he submitted to administration barely covered a half page typed, double-spaced.

Retired University of Cambridge Security Guard Flattington: The kid was not very coherent most of the time. I felt no need to record his ramblings about Mesopotamian law texts.  He outright admitted to smoking dope in the 8th floor bathroom at the time the notebooks were reported as missing.

Thomas: And with no other information, Cambridge administration filed no police report, sending student worker after student worker year after year into the stacks to find what they believed were mis-placed books. And it would be almost two decades before there was a break in the case.

{Dramatic music. Fade out to commercials for the Humane Society, Progressive insurance, and 3 different HLN shows on women who kill.}

Thomas: In Fall 2020, the University of Cambridge finally decided to come clean about the missing Darwin notebooks.

Steely Local Policeman: When they called the station to report the theft, none of us expected for them to tell us that it had occurred 19 years earlier.

Bubbly blonde-haired local t.v. reporter: At first the police didn't want to help them.  Who could blame them?  But eventually the pressure got to be too much, those notebooks were one of the draws for the community.

Thomas: The police brought in a Spectrofactodemagnitizer to help search for clues.

Handlebar-moustached Lab Guy: A Spectrofactodemagnitizer uses laser rays to search for the specific magnetic stripes associated with theft devices.  Luckily the librarian still had the card collection record for the notebooks, and so we took the information recorded there, entered it into the spectrofactodemagnitizer and followed the track left from the Collections room.

Thomas: The Spectrofactodemagnitizer led the police from the collection room to a fifth floor carrel by the women's bathroom in the Movie collection.

Bubbly blonde-haired local t.v. reporter: It was quite the break, really. That's the smallest collection in the library. With only about 200 books, the police were able to review a list of the patrons who had reserved that carrel over the years. Turns out that no one had reserved that carrel between 1999 and 2005. The break was quickly a dead end.

Thomas: Police called in the staff working that day in 2001 for questioning and ran the Spectrofactodemagnitizer over them in the smallest of hopes that one of them might still have a residue. Outside of finding a theft-preventer clip from the local Wal-Mart still on one now out-of-work library clerk, they found nothing else.  Police are still truly baffled.

How will this cold case end? How will this Forensic Files end up? Was it a family member?  Was it a drifter?  A serial thief?  Let's hope we eventually can write Act IV of this drama.