Antiquarian booksellers are a breed of odd, voluble people who’d seem to make better extras in a film adaptation of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop than as the catalysts of anything remotely dangerous. High-end mysteries are generally dominated by the visual arts, wherein the instant recognizability of a Rembrandt or a Brueghel heralds all sorts of mayhem. But the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer’s works? Audubon’s Birds of North America? The unassuming first edition Dracula, in yellow cloth, identifiable as a true first simply by the exclusion of an advertisement? These are not the stuff of havoc. Art heists are all about convoluted plotting and usually are depicted in fiction as almost balletic in their pulling off. On the other hand, thievery in the antiquarian book trade requires only a slightly large overcoat. In real life, bibliomysteries are acts of unromantic solitude perpetrated by people like William Henry Ireland, an eighteenth century aper of Shakespeare, or of John Charles Gilkey, the subject of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a contemporary bibliomaniac scattering rubber checks around the world. With a little bit more exoticism, there’s Harry Gold, who hired a bunch of Bowery thugs to steal an ultra-rare 1829 poetry collection by Edgar Allan Poe. Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row highlights Gold’s grand-scale renaissance of crookedness in the depression-era book trade. The first and only instance of biblio-crime altering the course of history, though, belongs to Onomacritus (530-480 BCE), a forger whose screwy divinations prompted Xerxes I to go to war against Greece. These examples are, however, exceptions to the common view of bookselling as a staid occupation.
In fiction however, bookishness has its own small niche of murder and violence. From nefarious bibliophagy in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, fabricated bookmen and bookwomen make up for their unadventurous non-fabricated colleagues. Possibly the first bibliomystery is an obscure 1840s pulp fiction called Clement Lorimer; or, The Book with the Iron Clasps, notable primarily for its illustrations by George Cruikshank, and which is, as far as I can tell, the only book to blend mind-altering drugs with horserace fixing. There’s the diabolism of The Club Dumas (reworked for film as The Ninth Gate, with Johnny Depp as the book scout tracking down a grimoire). The Big Sleep has a lengthy exchange between Marlowe and a bookseller on the flummoxing first edition states of Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur; while the 2004 thriller The Rule of Four is about an enigmatic tome by Aldus Manutius, the early printer who’s believed to have originated modern semi-colon usage and italic type. However, few biblio-centric mysteries showcase the actual purveyors themselves. Here are a half dozen that do.
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley:
This is possibly the most charming novel about anything ever, let alone bookselling. (The title refers to “the ghosts of all great literature”found in the store, and isn’t an actual ghost story). Morley’s 1919 sequel to Parnassus on Wheels sees opinionated second-hand dealer Roger Mifflin embroiled in the affair of a vanishing and reappearing biography of Oliver Cromwell. Cheesy romance between an advertising salesman and the daughter of a businessman, serious commentary on the necessity of books, post-WWI intrigue—it’s all here. The Haunted Bookshop is as erudite as a trunkful of scholars, with some early-period Hitchcock suspense thrown in for good measure. An earnest rumination on the culture of literariness, it’s also as breezy and winsome as is humanly possible.
The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning
Raymond Chandler meets Nicholas Basbanes in Dunning’s second title to feature detective-turned-bookman Cliff Janeway. Arguably the best of the series, this one has Janeway tracking down a rare limited copy of The Raven and Other Poems, printed at a fine press in North Bend, Washington and a bibliophile who’s been murdering people for decades to get it. Along the way he’ll tangle with some nasty book-hunting figures and tease out the enigma of Eleanor Rigby, the girl’s he’s been hired to find. The author, a renowned Denver bookman, has the interior knowledge of the trade, a mastery of tough-talking dialog and a knack for totally labyrinthine plotting. It all equates to a smart, Edgar Award-nominated entry in the world of hardboiled book dealing. You’ll learn a ton about remainder marks and first edition states, and feast on lines like this: “Bookscouting gives you the same kind of thrills as gambling. You flirt with the Lady in much the same way. You get hot and books won’t stop coming; you get cold and you might as well be playing pinochle with your mother-in-law”.
Death’s Autograph by Marianne McDonald
The somewhat inappropriately named “Dido Hoare, the world-famous soft-touch antiquarian book dealer”is the hero of McDonald’s series of bibliomysteries. It begins not innocuously enough when Dido is tailed and nearly killed on her way from an appraisal. Then her shop is ransacked and a bunch of shady bookmen become fixated on getting their hands on a scrap of forged Shakespeare ephemera, which may turn out to be not quite so forged. The aforementioned William Henry Ireland lingers on the periphery of this thriller, a man whose forgeries are today avidly collected in their own right and the subject of Doug Stewart’s The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. McDonald’s debut grazes the philosophical nature of genuineness and fakery—of people and of books. The novel, however, focuses less on the London antiquarian trade and more on the thrills of disrupting it’s rarefied setting.
Like a Hole in the Head by Jen Banbury
A scarce first edition of The Cruise of the Snark is the centerpiece of Banbury’s frenetic bibliomystery starring equally frenetic bookseller Jill. Finding herself in perpetual harm while trying to locate a Jack London first edition that was sold to her and subsequently stolen back. She’ll find herself face-to-face with a giant thug named Joke Man, a host of oddballs, one jittery dwarf, and some “central casting rejects”. If that weren’t enough, she’ll end up being tortured and seduced, while keeping her sarcasm well-honed in the process. Beyond all the madcap eccentricities, Like a Hole in the Head looks at Jack London’s habit of signing his works with others’names and especially at the weirdos who’d go to all the trouble of caring. This is definitely the funniest, most spastic bibliomystery in the canon: madcap, uneven and filled with the eccentricities of the trade.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Peter Byerly, an antiquarian bookseller, is looking through a tome of forgeries when he comes across an illustration that resembles far too closely his dead wife, a discovery that leads back in time to the origins of the Shakespeare debate. Lovett’s who-done-it moves from Byerly’s rare book internship to the late 16th-century roguishness of bookseller Bartholomew Harbottle (he who wrongheadedly, though cleverly, called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), thence on to a murderous family feud in the drear English countryside. Lovett’s present-day mystery is overshadowed by the book’s forays into the sordid dealings of the Elizabethan age: Harbottle’s schemes, theatrical rivalries, Christopher Marlowe, literary poaching, debauchery, and a play called Pandosto that could settle the question of Shakespeare’s identity once and for all.
The Forgers by Bradford Morrow
“They never found his hands” is the terrifically memorable opening line of The Forgers. Morrow’s short novel smacks of all things antiquarian; the author’s very name conjures visions of gilt leather and badly-lighted bookshelves. Among criminals, there’s possibly no more respectable pursuit than literary forgery, and here that forger (and our narrator) is Will, a former bookman whose specialty is penning and then proffering Arthur Conan Doyle facsimiles to unwitting dealers and collectors. The novel opens when Will’s ex-lover’s hermit brother, Adam Diehl, is found murdered, sans hands, in a mess of manuscripts. Will starts receiving threatening letters from deceased literary celebrities, executed by a blackmailer who knows more about the narrator than Will is letting on. The Forger’s pseudo-Victorian tone and mood lends itself flawlessly to this bleak exploration of veracity and fraudulence. After all, who could make a finer unreliable narrator than a confessed, though unrepentant, falsifier?
Michael Peck is the author of the novel The Last Orchard in America. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Pank and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon City, where he deals in rare books at Blue Roof Books.