“Collecting Detective Fiction” (by Martin Edwards)

The Ellery Queen Collection of Mystery and Detective Fiction, housed at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, derives from the personal libraries of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee (though primarily from the rare-book collection of the former). It contains first editions of works by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain, and includes many detective short stories—possibly the largest collection of short detective fiction ever assembled. Our post this week is by another award-winning fiction writer, editor, and rare-book collector, Martin Edwards. The Liverpool author has long been known as one of the field’s most important anthologists as well as being the creator of two popular mystery series, one featuring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin and the other crimes set in England’s Lake District (see the just published novel The Frozen Shroud).  Martin is also the archivist of both the British Crime Writers’ Association and the famed Detection Club.  In view of all that, his having a collection of our genre’s rarest books seems fitting. . . . —Janet Hutchings

I’m an enthusiastic reader of crime fiction, as well as a writer, and for many years my approach to collecting mysteries was simply a matter of acquiring as many good books as I could—and reading them. I couldn’t really understand why some people were bothered about the condition of a book, or its scarcity. What mattered to me was the story.

But things changed, and collecting detective fiction now fascinates me. The turning point came some years ago, when colleagues at work generously gave me a present to mark my having spent twenty-one years with the same firm. The present was a first edition of Agatha Christie’s Poirot Investigates. No dust jacket, admittedly, but still a rare book, and a lovely thing to have. I’m afraid that from that moment on, I was hooked.

Eventually I managed to track down one or two more rare and early Christie titles—including a couple that she had inscribed. In my copy of Sad Cypress, published in the very dark days of 1940, she wrote: “Wars may come and wars may go, but MURDER goes on forever.” Quite true, of course, and to my mind a rather neat way of expressing what was in her mind at a very testing time.

This find prompted a fascination with author inscriptions, as well as deepening my interest in the history and collectability of older crime novels. I decided to reflect this in my fiction when I started writing my series of mysteries set in England’s Lake District. The continuing “soap opera” aspect of the books is the slowly developing relationship between DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind, and in the first book, The Coffin Trail, they are both in other relationships when they meet each other. I decided to make Hannah’s partner a secondhand bookseller.

I’ve much enjoyed writing about Marc Amos, although I’m sorry to say that Hannah’s life with him has not gone at all well, and I hasten to add that he’s not based on any book dealer I’ve ever met! Their relationship reaches a nadir in The Serpent Pool before taking a fresh turn in my latest Lake District Mystery, The Frozen Shroud.

Almost every novel in the series features a scene set in Amos Books, a sort of fantasy about my ideal kind of secondhand bookshop. As part of my research, I’ve enjoyed talking to secondhand booksellers who specialize in crime fiction and learning a good deal about how they go about their business. It’s hugely enjoyable, seeking to integrate snippets about the rare-book trade with plot elements that keep moving the story forward.

One of the key points to bear in mind if you are interested in becoming a serious collector is that the more popular the book, the more copies are likely to exist, and therefore the more commonplace it will be—and thus, often, of little value in the collector’s market. The exceptions tend to be books which unexpectedly turn out to be bestsellers—for instance, the debut novels of the likes of Stieg Larsson or J.K. Rowling. Christie’s early books were published in modest numbers, which makes them especially sought after. The same is true of first editions of early books by Dorothy L. Sayers. Intriguingly, though, obscure and even indifferent books written by much less well-known authors of the past, for instance Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, also command high prices, provided they are first editions in dust jackets that are in good shape. The lack of a dust jacket can reduce the value of a first edition in some cases by as much as 90%. Even minor flaws in the quality of a dust jacket of a rare book can knock a good deal of money off the sale price. “Ex-library” or book-club editions are seldom of interest to the serious collector.

There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had, as I’ve discovered, in hunting for rare detective novels. Some take the view that a book that is simply signed by the author, rather than personally inscribed to a named recipient, are more collectible, but some of those inscriptions tell a fascinating story, and are surely much more appealing than an unadorned signature. Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of personal taste.

Odd bits of memorabilia—a printed letter card from that wackiest of writers, Harry Stephen Keeler, for instance— can be extremely interesting. And one day I was lucky enough to meet a crime fan who wanted to swap books, and finished up with the very first issue of EQMM in my possession! Since then, I’ve added a rare Ellery Queen anthology, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes and Queen’s own copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, signed both as Ellery Queen and Barnaby Ross; the latter lacks a dust jacket, needless to say, but it’s still a cornerstone of my collection. And as I’ll never be able to afford a jacketed copy, I’ve wrapped the book in a facsimile of the original. Whatever their detractors say, facsimile jackets do at least help a book to look good on the shelf.

The snag is that finding rarities is far from easy. Yet once the collecting bug bites, it is difficult to shake off. Buying rare books can be a very good investment, but this has to be regarded as a gamble, best suited to those who can afford to lose money. The global reach of the Internet has made scarce titles at last available (although at a price) to enthusiasts who might never have stumbled across them in a lifetime of scanning stock in secondhand bookshops. Even so, one truth endures. For genuine crime-fiction fans, the quality of the story will always matter more than the state of the jacket wrapped around it.

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2 Responses to “Collecting Detective Fiction” (by Martin Edwards)

  1. Douglas Greene says:

    Collectors know that books are not mere texts. They occupy physical space, they are tactile things, they have heft, many even have a feel to the pages and even a small — none of which can be said of e-books. Genuine books are in short something worth having, not only because of the text but because of what they are.

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