“Books to Die For” (by Jeffrey Marks)

Jeffrey Marks is one of the best-known contemporary biographers working in the mystery genre. After writing numerous short mystery-author profiles he produced his first book-length biography, Who Was That Lady?, in 2010. It chronicles the life of mystery writer Craig Rice, and the research for it inspired him to write about other authors from the same era in Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s. His more recent biographical works include Anthony Boucher, which won an Anthony Award and was nominated for an Agatha; a newly completed biography of Erle Stanley Gardner; and his work-in-progress, a biography of Ellery Queen, which he draws on for this post.
Like many dedicated fans, historians, and critics of the genre, Jeffrey also writes fiction. His recently published novel The Scent of Murder was a past winner of the yearly Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished writers.—Janet Hutchings

No man has done as much as Fred Dannay for the short form of the mystery since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. Dannay is better known as half of the team who wrote the Ellery Queen mysteries as well as the first editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. However, another aspect of his life is equally important; his superlative short-story collection revolutionized the genre.

Dannay’s knowledge of the short form of the mystery was unparalleled. In part, this was because he possessed a stellar mystery short-story collection. Dannay was a born collector. In 1941, he determined that of the 360 known mystery short-story collections, he personally possessed copies of 300 of the books. He had his own group of collectors in every part of the country, scouring used bookstores for the volumes he didn’t yet have. However, Dannay did not collect just to own “a copy.” He collected to own “the copy.” As a result, his collection was one of the finest in the country.

Dannay wasn’t selfish about these works. He shared the content of his collection through a series of themed multiauthor anthologies, including Rogues’ Gallery and The Female of the Species. 101 Years’ Entertainment, published in 1941, was undoubtedly the best of the Queen anthologies. As well as being a collection of the best stories over the past century, the anthology included a brief narrative of the genre thus far.

His first forays in writing about the genre led to other works related to mystery short stories. By the 1940s, little critical research had been done and there was not much literary scholarship of genre fiction. The genre was still relatively young and had not received much respect from scholars.

Dannay used his collection to develop a bibliography of the mystery short story. The Detective Short Story: A Bibliography allowed others to look at what had been published and gave a description of each volume’s appearance. While not complete, the book was an important first effort in defining the works in the genre.

Dannay wrote to a friend:

Except for Scribner’s catalog and Bates’ and Carter’s article on the detective story, there is virtually no printed information available. Mine would be the first bibliography in the field—the first comprehensive attempt. It should become an important book—and because I think it will, I’m willing to go to the terrific trouble to do the job.

Dannay soon found that his ebullience over the collection and its uses had a downside. Booksellers who had heard of Dannay’s plans soon began increasing prices on the volumes he needed. While Dannay made good money writing as Ellery Queen, he did not have unlimited funds for the demands of his collection.

Dannay was not finished with writing critical works about his collection. Queen’s Quorum, which is subtitled A History of the Detective Crime Short Story as Revealed in the 100 Most Important Books Published in This Field Since 1845, which appeared nearly a decade after the bibliography, explained why these books were worthy of mention and contextually placed them in the history of the genre.

These two books helped enlarge academic scholarship on the mystery genre and led to biographies of many of the important authors of the twentieth century (including my works) as well as surveys on the genre and specific eras. In no small part because of these works, the mystery genre is now taught at many universities.

Ironically, the books that Dannay did not possess were first editions of his own novels. While he professed to be keeping copies of all of his own works for his sons, by the early 1940s Dannay had given away all his personal copies of The Roman Hat Mystery. As a result, he turned to others to look for and purchase copies of that title as well as the short-story collections.

For anyone who wants to see Dannay’s priceless works from our favorite genre, the collection was donated to the University of Texas in Austin in 1958 and now resides in the Harry Ransom Center at the university. A recent exhibition showed off the collection and some of the rarer pieces, which include:

  • Beeton’s Christmas Annual, from November, 1887 which published the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet. Now called the most expensive magazine in the world with a recent copy selling for over $150,000.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles in the original dust jacket, one of the most pristine copies of the century-old book in existence
  • The original hand-written manuscript of the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which includes letters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s biographer, John Dickson Carr, regarding Doyle’s handwriting
  • Austin Freeman’s John Thorndyke’s Cases, the British edition from 1909 and the author’s personal copy
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles, first edition signed by Agatha Christie. Christie was notoriously reclusive, and any edition signed by her is automatically rare. Unsigned first editions of her first book currently run $5000 or more.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers’s first novel, Whose Body? signed by the author to her parents, Reverend and Mrs. Sayers.

At this juncture, the sheer number of mystery short- story volumes produced means that Dannay’s collection could never be replicated. The prices alone would require the fortune of Bill Gates. And even then, many of the best copies of early works are now snatched up by museums, rare-book libraries, and dedicated collectors, leaving only a few lesser copies of the books available to collectors.

So what does a collector do once he gives away his life’s work? He begins collecting again. After donating his works to the Harry Ransom Center, Dannay, a poet himself, began to collect volumes of poetry. He continued to add to his collection until his death. The collection was sold at auction posthumously.

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2 Responses to “Books to Die For” (by Jeffrey Marks)

  1. Great piece, Jeff. And today one can, of course, have everything in e-form, so you can have a pretty complete collection. But it’s not the same as hard copies. The question is is the physical book important or the words. If the latter, then e books are good. Though I do prefer actual books still.

  2. Pingback: POETS AND SLEUTHS | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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