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Really Wicked Books article by Marion Richmond

Ming Books was founded in 1983. At the time my husband Robin and I had busy careers, he was a lawyer and I as an accountant. My work took me to Marlborough Rare Books, an old established firm in Bond Street, London. This glimpse into the Mechanics of antiquarian bookselling fascinated me. In order to explore the idea of going into the trade, we signed up for a week-long course in antiquarian bookselling at the University of Denver, which was, and still is, the only short introductory course available. Someone there pointed out that there was a burgeoning market for detective fiction and relatively few specialists. We decided to have a go. After many years in England, building a strong customer base, we moved to Wigtown Book Town. We sell to our thousands of customers world-wide mainly through the Internet; visitors to our house regularly express amazement at the sheer number of books we have for sale, every room on three floors is crammed with them.

The field of crime fiction is as diverse as the collectors who have a passion for it. This year it is anticipated that at least 500 titles will be published in the English speaking world alone. The problem for collectors is, how many will still be collectable in ten years time? In this article I’ll concentrate on a selection of earlier authors who have stayed the course, and outline some collecting trends.

The murder mystery is more than 150 years old. The originators of the genre were Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins. Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was the first ‘modern’ detective story, Dorothy L. Sayers described it as " almost a complete manual of detective [story] theory and practice". Its first appearance was in the April 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine, Philadelphia. Its second appearance was in The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (1843), and first and only of an intended series of pamphlets from the same publisher, William Graham. The pamphlet is a great rarity, it fetched $60,000 at auction in 1990. W.Wilkie Collins wrote four mysteries: The Woman in White (1860), No Names (1862), Armadale (1866) and his masterpiece The Moonstone (1868). The first American edition of The Woman in White predated the first English edition by a month. The first issue of the English edition, in three volumes, should have the publisher’s adverts dated 1860 bound in at the end of volume three.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes are a huge collecting cult. The very first of them, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. The annual was flimsily bound and very few have survived in decent condition. The first edition in book form was published by Ward Lock in 1887 bound in wrappers, also flimsy, also exceedingly scarce. Collecting Sherlockiana is a vast subject that demands an article of it’s own.

English language editions of the prodigiously prolific Belgian writer, Georges Simenon, are strongly collected, but apart from the early titles are quite affordable. Simenon’s first British publisher was Hurst and Blackett. You hardly ever see the early titles. Collectors of the Maigret books are particularly after The Crime of Inspector Maigret, published by Covici, New York in 1932. I count myself lucky to have a copy, minus dustwrapper. With dustwrapper, these books sell for upwards of £300.

As a bookseller I have to be aware of the differences in collecting trends from nation to nation. The British tend to buy crime fiction for entertainment, Americans appreciate it as popular culture that displays the social mores of its period, while Japanese collectors love English detective fiction from the ‘Golden Age’ of the Twenties and Thirties. Such cultural differences affect the market at all levels, including the books sought by serious collectors and the prices they will pay. Moreover, cultural variations in the criminal justice system necessarily influence the way crime writers plot their stories and allocate roles: powers of investigation that in the UK are firmly in the hands of the police are all in a day’s mayhem for American private eyes. American classic writers of the hard-boiled, wisecracking school, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, are highly prized in the US. Chandler

acknowledged his debt to Hammett (whose major work The Maltese Falcon, 1930, has sold for over $10,000). His advice to budding writers was "analyse and imitate; no other school is necessary". Chandler took to writing detective stories in middle age after he was sacked as an oil executive. His detective stories were first published in pulp magazines, notably Black Mask. First editions of his first four books in dustwrapper are worth four figure sums. The priority of first edition (British or US) is as follows: The Big Sleep New York: Alfred Knopf, 1939; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1939. Farewell, My Lovely New York: Alfred Knopf, 1940; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1940. The High Window New York: Alfred Knopf, 1942; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1943. The Lady in the Lake New York: Alfred Knopf, 1943; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1944. The Little Sister London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949; Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1949. The Long Goodbye London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953; Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1954. Playback London: Hamish Hamilton, 1958; Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

Classic British fiction which has stayed the course through many fluctuations in fashion is epitomised by John Dickinson Carr, who wrote forty-six detective novels as J.D.Carr and twenty-five as Carter Dickson. He also wrote as Carr Dickson, Roger Fairbairn and Robert Southwell. His first book, It Walks By Night (1930), goes for about £1,900. John Dickson Carr gave his detectives impossible crimes to solve and he is particularly well known for his ‘Locked Room’ mysteries: collectors will find the riddle of Carr’s publishing history easier to unravel if they have access to Robert Adey’s bibliography, The Locked Room Murders.

Margery Allingham is also keenly collected. Her fictional detective Albert Campion was apparently inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. She wrote over twenty Campion titles starting with The Crime at Black Dudley (Jarrolds, 1929). Those aiming for a comprehensive collection of her books should also look out for the three crime novels issued under the pseudonym Maxwell March.

Ruth Rendell is a leading writer of the modern period. Her early work, published by John Long in the 1960’s is extremely scarce. People just did not realise at the time that she would continue writing such strong fiction. She wasn’t really collected until the 1980’s.

The greatest seller in crime fiction has to be Agatha Christie, whose books have been translated into sixty-four languages, have sold over 2,000 million copies. The only other crime writer to come anywhere near these figures is Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, whose book sales have crossed 400 million. Agatha Christie wrote sixty-six novels. Early first editions are scarce and expensive, and while later titles were published in far greater numbers and can sometimes be found at modest prices, few have survived in fine condition. In most cases, the British editions of the novels are the true firsts, but there are exceptions. The value of any of these books, as with all modern first, is dramatically reduced without dustwrapper. Her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Hercule Poirot made his first appearance, was published in 1920 in America and then in Britain in 1921. She remained with her British publisher, John Lane at the Bodley Head, for The Secret Adversary (1922), Murder on the Links (1923), The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Poirot Investigates (short stories, 1924) and The Secret of the Chimneys (1925). These are coveted Christie titles, and the prices people are prepared to pay for them are of the ‘arm and a leg’ variety. For The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd (1926), generally rated Christies’ best book, she moved to Collins. The first issue, bound in dark blue cloth with red lettering, can be identified by the two ruled lines at the top and bottom of the spine; later issues have a single rule, or none at all. Five more books followed from Collins before they started issuing her titles under their Crime Club imprint. From The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) onwards, Crime Club Agatha Christie first editions (up to 1964, and apart from By the Pricking of My Thumbs) were bound in orange or red cloth with black lettering; if you have one bound in black or purple, you have a reprint. Only one of her books was published by Odhams: The Hound of Death (1933) is the easiest early title to find. A desirable and rare Christie curiosity is Two New Crime Stories (Readers Library 1929), pairing a Christie short story, ‘The Underdog’ with ‘Blackman’s Wood’ by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

The Christie collector who is after the 154 short stories as well as the novels should watch out for collections published in paperback in the US which were not issued in the UK. One of the problems in the life of the mystery collector is changes of title. For instance, the majority of Christie titles in the US and UK editions differ, and paperback titles sometimes differ from hardback titles. But it’s not all hard work. An advantage of collecting crime is that you can always take your mind off the case by relaxing with a good murder.

There are many reference books for collectors. The beautifully illustrated Scolar Press Detective Fiction: The Collectors Guide by John Cooper and B.A. Pike concentrates mostly on British writers. Edgar Award winner William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopaedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio and Television, (Prentice Hall, New York), is also very useful with over 1,400 entries.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Scottish Book Collector
(Vol. 6 No. 5  -  Summer 1999)

Scottish Book Collector
c/o 36 Lauriston Place.
Edinburgh EH3 9EZ.
Tel  0131 228 4837 (10am - 7pm)
Fax  0131 228 3904
email jennie@scotbooksmag.demon.co.uk

Date posted: 02/11/1999


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