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The Smithsonian in Books


SI in Books The Smithsonian and its staff began to appear in fiction writing shortly after it was founded, reflecting popular ideas of what this new institution was. References to the Smithsonian appeared in biographical novels, satires, murder mysteries and adventures, ranging from a few words to complete novels set at the Smithsonian. The first novel we have found that portrayed the Smithsonian was Mark Twain's 1869 Innocents Abroad, and we find here the caricature that will soon give the United States National Museum the nickname, "The Nation's Attic." Several interesting works of historical fiction incorporate the Smithsonian. The largest subset of novels to utilize the Smithsonian are the murder mysteries. The Smithsonian's museums, quirky staff, spooky exhibits, forensic scientists, and endless collection storage areas have provided local color for many of these stories. Some authors turn to the Smithsonian for background research but don't actually mention the Institution, such as Patricia Cornwell, the prolific mystery writer who consulted with Smithsonian staff at length while developing her forensic anthropologist, Kay Scarpetta, who appears in twenty novels.

Connection to the Smithsonian
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The Innocents Abroad

By: Mark Twain

1869 Fictionized account of Mark Twain's real excursion aboard a refurbished Civil War ship the Quaker City (USS Quaker City) to the Holy Land. Twain's trip includes stops in Paris for the 1867 Paris Exhibition, the Black Sea and numerous Mediterranean ports. The story reveals Twain's reflection on Americans in foreign countries and the reaction of history meeting modernization.
1. A fellow traveler collects for the Smithsonian.     
2. Twain remarks about the Smithsonian man:
"Ah, if I had only known then that he was only a common mortal, and that
his mission had nothing more overpowering about it than the collecting of seeds and uncommon yams and extraordinary cabbages and peculiar bullfrogs
for that poor, useless, innocent, mildewed old fossil the Smithsonian
Institute, I would have felt so much relieved."
University of Virginia Library

The Professor's House

By: Willa Cather

1925 The story of Professor St. Peter as he struggles with the path his life has taken. Professor Godfrey St. Peter tells the story of his student, Tom Outland, who discovered a great archeological site and invented a successful vacuum cleaner. As Tom seeks Smithsonian help to preserve his site, he learns that Smithsonian staff are more concerned with appropriations for an exposition that will then provide them with additional salary and free travel. Outland's disillusionment grows when his partner sells pottery to a German collector, which leads to a sophisticated discussion of the value of antiquities to local people and a nation.
1. Tom Outlaw tries to interest the Smithsonian in his site.
2. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "The architect had had a good idea, and he very nearly succeeded in making a good thing, something like the old Smithsonian building in Washington. But after it was begun, the State Legislature had defeated him by grinding down the contractor to cheap execution, and had spoiled everything, outside and in."
3. The Smithsonian is also mentioned in these lines: "'You must go to the Director of the Smithsonian Institution,' he said. 'He will send us an archaeologist who will interpret all that is obscure to us. He will revive this civilization in a scholarly work. It may be that you will have thrown light on some important points in the history of your country.'"
Willa Cather Foundation Website

Wing of Fame: A Novel Based on the Life of James Smithson

By: Louise Wallace Hackney

1934 Story about James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution. Loosely based on fact, the book explores Smithson's struggles to make a name for himself in science and his life in France and Paris.
1. The novel is about James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution.
Google Books

The Man Who Loved Children

By: Christina Stead

1940 Story of the Pollit family and their dysfunctional relationships. Sam Pollit, a government naturalist, is mediocre in most things in life, especially in regards to the family finances. However, he excels in entertaining his children's lives. His wife, Henny, is bitter; bitter about taking care of too many children and contemptuous of her husband's impractical idealism. This novel of opposites shows the decline of this middle class family, and how children must sometimes break away to survive.
1. The novel has Smithsonian characters.
2. Discusses a Smithsonian Expedition to the Pacific and Malaya.
The New York Times Website

The French Lieutenant's Woman

By: John Fowles

1969 While walking a pier, naturalist Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, encounter a woman named Sarah Woodruff. Smithson learns from Ernestina that Sarah, a disgraced woman, was abandoned by a married French naval officer. Smithson becomes intrigued by Sarah and they begin an intimate relationship.
1. The role Charles Smithson is loosely based on James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution.
John Fowles Website


By: Michael Slade

1984 Detective Robert LeClercq must stop a killer on a murder spree in the city of Vancouver.
1. A character mentioned in the novel is a Smithsonian staff member.
Open Road Media Website

Murder in the Smithsonian

By: Margaret Truman Daniel

1985 Heather McBea's fiancée, historian Dr. Lewis Tunney, has just uncovered an international art scandal. When he is brutally murdered in front of guests at a Smithsonian gala, McBea is determined to solve the mystery.
1. Dr. Lewis Tunney's murder takes place at a Smithsonian gala.
Google Books

A Perfect Spy

By: John le Carre

1986 Magnus Pym, British spy, has gone missing. Has he defected? Has he been killed? As the layers of his life are peeled back the only thing clear is that nothing is as it seems and the race is on to find him.
1. Mentions the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
2. Spies passed packages in theSamuel P. Langley (third Smithsonian Secretary) projection room as explained in this line: "The trick was to leave their packages in separate lockers in the cloakroom, and swap keys in the darkness of the Samuel P. Langley Projection Theater while the audience gasped and clutched the handrails as the screen dazzled them with the thrills of flight."
3. NASM was a favorite rendezvous point for Pym Masterson's childhood best friend and Czech spymaster Axel: "But Axel's favourite place of all was the newly opened Air and Space Museum, where he could gaze his heart out at the Spirit of St. Louis and John Glen's Friendship 7, and touch theMoon Relic with his forefinger as devoutly as if he were taking water from a holy shrine."
John le Carre Website

Trace Elements

By: Kathryn Lasky Knight


Astrophysicist Tom Jacobs is killed in a Nevada desert by a rattlesnake, followed shortly by the similar death of another researcher. With a second death of similar circumstances, Jacob's widow, Calista, and her son Charley, set out to find the truth. The search for answers goes through university politics and a high-level government cover-up.

1. Harvard astrophysicist Tom Jacobs is sent to conduct research in Nevada by someone from theSmithsonian.
2. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "'I think Peter Gardiner seeded the site with artifacts from somewhere else.' 'No!' 'Yes.' 'But why?' 'Probably to get more funding from National Geographic, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and God knows what else.'"
Fiction DB

The Silence of the Lambs

By: Thomas Harris

1988 Young FBI agent Clarice Starling works with the notorious, brilliant criminal Hannibal Lecter to try to capture the serial killer Buffalo Bill.
1. Starling takes the moth pupa to the Smithsonian where it is eventually identified as the Black Witch Moth, which would not naturally occur where the victim was found.
Google Books

Foucault's Pendulum

By: Umberto Eco

1988 Three friends, all editors in Milan, decide to invent a conspiracy for fun. They call it "The Plan," a hoax involving the Knights Templar, Freemasons and other occult groups and their quest to find energy flows that could control earth's powers. However, fun turns to horror when occult groups begin to take "The Plan" seriously.
1. A Foucault's pendulum was installed at the National Museum of American History for over twenty years but removed the year this book was published, as part of a renovation.
Google Books

Talking God

By: Tony Hillerman

1989 Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee are reunited to work together when their separate cases of murder and grave robbing begin to intertwine.
1. Anthropological specimens in the story come from the Smithsonian.
2. Officer Jim Chee arrests Smithsonian conservator Henry Highhawk for grave robbing.
3. Scenes in the book take place at the National Museum of Natural History.
Google Books

Mortal Words

By: Kathryn Lasky Knight

1990 Calista Jacobs, a children's book illustrator, and her computer savy son Charley, return in this murder mystery novel. The two, with the help of Calista's new love interest archaeologist Archie Baldwin set out to solve the murder of children's book author Norman Petrakis. The search takes the characters into the worlds of fundamentalists, genetics, and creationism.
1. Character Archie Baldwin is a Smithsonian anthropologist.
Fiction DB

The India Exhibition: A Mystery at the Smithsonian

By: Richard Timothy Conroy


Foreign Services officers Henry Scruggs is on loan from the State Department to serve as the head of the Smithsonian Institution's foreign affairs office and has agreed to assist with the Institution's exhibition on K. V. Chandra, an Indian philosopher. Soon, Scruggs begins a close relationship with Smithsonian exhibit designer Violet Strauss who is sent to India to photograph locales to include in the exhibit. When she and the statue that she planned on bringing back to display go missing, Scruggs must save her and his career.

1. Henry Scruggs is stationed at the Smithsonian.
2. The K. V. Chandra exhibit is sponsered by and being held at the Smithsonian.
Google Books

Mr. Smithson's Bones: A Mystery at the Smithsonian

By: Richard Timothy Conroy

1993 Henry Scruggs, a not so successful foreign service officer, is still on loan from the State Department to the Smithsonian Institution. Scruggs spends his days assisting foreign researchers and providing tours to foreign dignitaries. However, his Smithsonian career begins to take a new turn when he decides to investigate who is really buried in James Smithson's tomb.
1. Henry Scruggs is stationed at the Smithsonian.
2. The main plot line uses the Institution's founder James Smithson's remains (which really are in a tomb in the Smithsonian Castle) to create a mystery.
Library Thing

Old Ways in the New World

By: Richard Timothy Conroy

1994 In this third installment of Conroy's Smithsonian series, Foreign Service officer, Henry Scruggs, is once again entangled in mystery and murder at the Institution. As participants in the nation's bicentennial celebration, the Smithsonian decides to invite representatives from around the world to celebrate culture and history. Scruggs helps organize the visitors for the museum, but when an ethnomusicologist from Aganga is murdered, it falls to him to solve the crime.
1. Henry Scruggs is stationed at the Smithsonian.
2. The story takes place at the Smithsonian during a Bicentennial of the American Revolution event.
Fiction DB

Ghost Singer

By: Ann Lee Walters

1994 Smithsonian researchers are haunted and murdered by a ghost who has been called back by a box of Native American artifacts. Their only hope lies in the hands of medicine men.
Native American artifacts in an obscure corner of the Smithsonian cause spirits to haunt, torment, and murder researchers -- even as they themselves are tormented by the items in the museum's collection. Only sacred rituals can allow the spirits to rest.
Google Books

White Orchid

By: Linda Ladd 

1995 In 1866, Stuart Delaney, an ex-Confederate solider, is paid to travel to India and bring back Anjelica Blake, an Englishwoman, destined to fufill her arranged marriage. However, the two fall in love and must deal with the consequences.
1. A character in the book, Cassandra Delaney, was a mentee of first Smithsonian SecretaryJoseph Henry, as explained in these lines:
"All of her (Cassandra Delaney) colleagues, including myself, were even more impressed with her knowledge. In fact, a friends and I had considered going to the United States to study under her mentor. His name is Joseph Henry and at that time he was at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington."
Fiction DB

Ship Fever

By: Andrea Barrett

1996 This collection of short stories by Andrea Barrett explores the science and naturalists of the 19th century. She intertwines historical figures with fictional characters to explore the triumphs and tribulations of working in this field.
1. The story Birds with No Feetmentions the Smithsonian when the main character Alec Carriére donates his collection of birds to the Smithsonian; but to his disappointment the collection is overshadowed by the events of the Civil War, as explained in these lines: "His crates of skins lay uncatalogued at the Academy of Sciences. And the curators at the Smithsonian seemed less than grateful for his beautiful birds. No one had time to look at birds, their eyes were fixed on battles."
2. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "He [Alec] might not have a hypothesis about the divergence of species, but he knew how these birds lived. At the Smithsonian Institution, where he thought to donate them he could point to their sturdy pink feet and say, 'Look. I was the first to bring these back.'"
National Book Awards Blog

Consider Her Ways

By: Fran Vincent

1996 While on a dinosaur dig in Montana, geology professor Marla Carter, deals with life, science, faith, and love.
1. Uses a picture of the Smithsonian Triceratops on the cover.
Fiction DB


By: Philip Kerr

1996 The discovery of a fossil skull in a fobidden Himalayan mountaintop Machhapuchhare set mountaineer Jack Furness and his ex, scientist Stella Swift, off in search of a mysterious creature.
Need Info
Google Books

Twenty Blue Devils

By: Aaron Elkins

1997 When the manager of Tahiti's Paradise Coffee Plantation is found dead, a relative of the coffee dynasty family, FBI agent John Lau, grows suspicious. He invites his friend, Gideon Oliver, the world's most famous forensic anthropologist, to help with the case against the family's wishes. Oliver finds roadblocks at every turn, but soon discovers that the death might actually point to foul play.
1. The novel quotes Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Ubelaker:
"We are the final chance for the voice of the victim to be heard."
2. Gideon Oliver teaches part of a week-long forensic seminar that the Smithsonian Institution hosts for law enforcement personnel from around the country.
Fiction DB

The Smithsonian Institution: A Novel

By: Gore Vidal

1998 In 1939, 13-year-old "T" is summoned to the Smithsonian Institution under mysterious circumstances. The young math genius soon discovers that he is there to help Robert Oppenheimer solve the problem of nuclear fission. Along the way, "T" learns how to manipulate breakthroughs in the time continuum and interacts with historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Lindbergh.
1. Story takes place at the Smithsonian, specifically theSmithsonian Castle.
2. "T" interacts with collections from the Smithsonian by breakthroughs in the time continuum.
Google Books

Voyage of the Narwhal

By: Andrea Barrett

1998 Naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells joins a ship setting sail for the Arctic to look for an expedition crew that went missing ten years before. The rescuers are ill prepared and need  to be rescued themselves by Native Americans, but when an Eskimo who returned with them, dies, her remains are sent to the Smithsonian for exhibit; she does not get a human burial, testing the morals of men of science.

1. The novel's expedition is based on Robert Stein's 1894 proposedEllesmere Island expedition to rescue Alfred Björling and Evald Kallstenius.

2. The novel includes scenes that take place in the Smithsonian Castle.

3. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "He had her buried down there?" Erasmus asked.  Linnaeus gulped, "There was no burial," he said. "No body even. There are men at the Smithsonian who--who do this sort of thing. I don't know how. I don't want to know how."
3. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "Linnaeus wrote again: Last week they went to Washington, to attend the ceremony at the Smithsonian; the collections of the Exploring Expedition have all been arranged in the Great Hall, and with them Annie's skeleton in a central display case. Zeke was given some sort of award....
NY Times Book Review

Letters from Yellowstone

By: Diane Smith  

2000 A. E. (Alexandra) Bartram, a young woman studying botany, joins an 1898 expedition to Yellowstone National Park. Taken for a man from her letters, Bartram must deal with the other scientists and her evolving views on both science and her life.
1. The Smithsonian sponsors the expedition to Wyoming's Yellowstone Park.
2. Characters Dr. Philip Abner, Dr. William Gleick, and Dr. Roger Johnson come from the Smithsonian.
Penguin Group Website

Code to Zero

By: Ken Follett

2000 It is 1958 and a man wakes up at a train station in Washington, DC. Who is he; what is he doing here? He does not know. The man, not convinced that he is the bum that he is dressed as, starts piecing back the puzzle of his life. He learns that he was a brilliant scientist Claude "Luke" Lucas, who was assisting with the American effort to beat out Sputnik. Who did this to him and why drives the rest of his journey.
1. Dr. Claude "Luke" Lucas, who has lost his memory, heads to the Smithsonian when he hears of a lecture in the Aircraft Building on rocket fuels. Luke hopes that at the lecture, a scientist will recognize him and help him find out who he is.
Ken Follett Website

Blue Gold

By: Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos

2000 Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala are investigating the deaths of rare whales off the coast of Mexico for the National Underwater & Marine Agency. But the investigation turns into whirlwind adventure to stop a California agribusiness tycoon trying to monopolize the earth's freshwater reserves.
1. Kurt Austin visits the National Air and Space Museum's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility.
2. Character Fred Miller works at the Garber Facility, he is described as "a trim middle-aged man arrived carrying a clipboard. He wore paint-splattered jeans, a denim work shirt, and a baseball cap with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum logo. He gave Austin a firm handshake and introduced himself."
3. The Smithsonian gives Kurt Austin files mentioned in this line: "This is a picture from the Smithsonian files of the YB-49A, the last Northrop flying wing bomber to take the air..."

4. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "I don't know much about the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility. Your web site says you restore historical and vintage airplanes."

5. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines: "Paul Garber was a plane nut, which was fortunate for us. When he was just a kid he saw Orville Wright fly the world's first military aircraft. Later he worked for the Smithsonian and was instrumental in creating the National Air Museum."
6. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines:
"They refused the Smithsonian's request for a plane to put on exhibition and ordered all production jigs and dies destroyed. All the official records on flying wing were 'lost,' supposedly under direct orders from Truman."
7. Kurt Austin does a fly-over for the Smithsonian as mentioned in these lines:
"The preliminary work has already begun. I've got a date with the Smithsonian. They're planning a memorial to the last pilots of the flying wing, and they've asked me to do a few fly-bys to publicize the campaign."
Google Books

Bones of the Earth

By: Michael Swanwick

2002 When a mysterious stranger named Harry Griffin walks into his office, Richard Leyster, renowned Smithsonian paleontologist, is tempted to leave his dream job. He soon finds himself traveling through time, observing the creatures he once unearthed.
1. The main character, paleontologist Richard Leyster, works for the Smithsonian.
Michael Swanwick Website

The Bone Vault

By: Linda Fairstein

2003 Assistant DA Alexandra Cooper is enjoying the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new controversial exhibit, the "Temple of Dendur," when suddenly the Met's director, Pierre Thibodaux, asks her to assist with a problem. It seems that a Twelfth Dynasty mummy has been replaced with the remains of a centuries younger victim. This sets Cooper off on search for answers with stops along the way at New York institutions such as the Cloisters and the American Museum of Natural History.
1. The museum had amphorae on loan from the Smithsonian.
2. Trucks accidently picked up birds, mollusks and shells that were being transferred to the Smithsonian.
Fiction DB

Capital Mysteries Number 3: The Skeleton in the Smithsonian

By: Ron Roy

2003 KC Corcoran and her friend Marshall Li seem to get into one adventure after the next. In this third book in the Capital Mysteries series, KC and Marshall stumble upon a mystery at the Smithsonian Institution.
1. The main plot of the story involves James Smithson.
2. The story involves James Smithson's remains located in the Smithsonian Castle.
3. When Marshall grows up he would like to work with insects at the Smithsonian.


Ron Roy Website

SIGMA Force Series

By: James Rollins

2004- In this series author James Rollins tells the adventures of SIGMA Force, an elite fictional division of the U.S. Department of Defense, who combine military skills with specialist knowledge. Thus far the series includes eleven novels that explore the world of counter-terrorism.
1. After the first novel Sandstorm, SIGMA Force moves its headquarters to the sub-basement of the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle.
James Rollins Website

Digging to America: A Novel

By: Anne Tyler

2006 Story of two couples, one American, the other Iranian-American who adopt daughters from Korea.

1. The Smithsonian is mentioned in these lines:

"Why should they have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the Smithsonian for that."

NY Times Book Review

Capital Mysteries Number 9: A Thief at the National Zoo

By: Ron Roy

2007 In their latest adventure, KC Corcoran and her friend Marshall Li, must solve the mystery of who stole the Tiger Jewel on loan to the Smithsonian's National Zoo.
1. KC and Marshall volunteer at the National Zoo to work with baby tigers.
2. The story takes place at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.


Ron Roy Website

The Lost Symbol

By: Dan Brown

2009 Robert Langdon, Harvard University symbologist, heads to Washington, DC, on his latest adventure. There at the request of his mentor Peter Solomon, a 33rd degree Mason and head of the Smithsonian Institution, Langdon soon realizes that his mentor has been kidnapped and he must save him by discovering the Mason's Pyramid and their Lost Word.
1. Peter Solomon is the Secretary or head of the Smithsonian Institution.
2. The Smithsonian Institution'sMuseum Support Center (MSC) is featured in the novel.
3. Dr. Katherine Solomon, Peter Solomon's younger sister, works in a Smithsonian-sponsored laboratory where she has conducted experiments in Noetic Science located at MSC.
4. Smithsonian mentioned in these lines:
Peter Solomon: "It's my job. The Smithsonian was established to advance scientific knowledge. As secretary, I must take that charge seriously. I believe the experiments you've proposed have the potential to push the boundaries of science into uncharted territory."
5. Smithsonian mentioned in these lines:
"The Smithsonian Institution, despite having more than a dozen massive museums on the national Mall, had a collection so huge that only 2 percent of it could be on display at any one time. The other 98 percent of the collection had to be stored somewhere. And that somewhere… was here (MSC)."
Lost Symbol Website

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A Novel

By: Reif Larsen

2009 Story of T.S. Spivet, a 12-year-old boy from Montana who loves to map things. He maps faces, the dinner table, and the geology of his home state. His geology map receives acclaim from the Smithsonian, who not knowing his age, award him with the Baird Award. The book follows his roadtrip to the event and the lessons he learns on the way.
1. Smithsonian invites title character to speak at the Institution.
2. Award given to title character, the Baird Award, is named for second Smithsonian SecretarySpencer F. Baird.
T.S. Spivet Website

The Spy

By: Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

2010 It is 1908 and international tensions are on the rise. The United States, England, Germany, and Japan are each trying to build the world's greatest naval fleet, and spies from every country want to hinder the progress of their rivals. However, when a rogue spy is bent on undoing fleets for other unknown reasons, Van Dorn private detective Isaac Bell must find and stop him before more people get harmed.
1. A Japanese spy uses the front that he is in the United States as a curator helping catalog the Smithsonian's Freer Collection of Asian art.
Clive Cussler Website

The Bowl is Already Broken: A Novel

By: Mary Kay Zuravleff

2011 Promise Whittaker is the newly named acting director of the Museum of Asian Art who has to deal with large problems, including the Castle's wish to move the museum's objects and reconfigure the space to allow for more food services. 
1. Museum of Asian Art is the Freerand Sackler Galleries.
2. Author worked as an editor for Smithsonian Magazine.
3. Does not mention Smithsonian by name, but refers to the "Castle" and "Natural History."
MacMillan Publishers Website

Specimen Song: A Montana Mystery

By: Peter Bowen

2012 Cattle inspector and sometime lawman Gabriel Du Pré travels to from his home state of Montana to Washington, DC, to perform music from his Métis Indian heritage on his fiddle in a Smithsonian festival. While in DC,  Du Pré becomes entangled in solving the mysterious death of a Cree Indian woman and when he returns to Montana the murders follow, each with the same "MO."
1. Du Pré travels to DC to perform in the Smithsonian festival (Folklife Festival).
2. Character Paul Chase is a Smithsonian employee.
3. Du Pré travels with a curator from Smithsonian along a Canadian fur-trade route.
Open Road Media Blog

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