While researching my articles on biblio mysteries, I again came across the dust jacket art for a title called The Bookshop Mystery, by James Saxon Childers. And as I usually do, I judge a book by its cover, and since the cover is a Deco delight–I hunted one down–not as easy as one would think–they seem to be pricy on bookfinder, but miraculously I came across a nicely priced copy sans dust jacket on ebay. The story turned out not to be what I had expected.
First, it isn’t a whodunit. It’s espionage. How does a story called bookshop mystery relate to spies? I asked myself the same question. Published in England, in 1930, the plot has all the melodrama of a silent film, including an alluring vamp. And yet, I was curiously intrigued. I honestly enjoyed reading it, even though no one is murdered within a bookstore, actually, only one corpse turns up, and that one is iffy.
It begins with Gordon Parker meeting with a mysterious individual who summoned him without explanation to his home in New York City. The man had an offer for Parker, to haunt the little bookstores within London and surrounding areas for certain titles he needed for his library. He is not able to return to London himself, and since he has heard of Parker’s excellent personal library back in Georgia, he believes Parker is the perfect person for the job.
Naturally, Parker being a bibliophile, needs no urging and agrees to sail to England, where he had attended Oxford, and seek out manuscripts and books on a list provided by the gentleman, Mr. Leighton-Smith. The reader is given the information that Leighton-Smith is a traitor to his country, and is trying to locate a very important diplomatic paper, believed to have been laid within the leaves of Ann Yearsley’s The Rural Lyre. And this is where the book loses me, a bit. I’ve no idea if said book is a real book, or fiction within fiction. There is a very nasty villain, Poitin, a frenchman, who is working to undermine England’s relationship with the rest of the world. His partner in crime is s sultry seductress, Marie Saval, who pretends to be a fellow book collector and attaches herself to Parker almost immediately, upon the boat, even with Parker engaged to be married, and in love. Marie is described as such: “tall, perfectly dressed, a turban upon hair of blackest midnight, thin black curves over black eyes and cheeks only touched with rouge.” Naturally she has an accent–Belgian to be exact, and she plays upon his ego like an expert harpist. She pulls him in with “Once I found a rare book. It was a first edition of a Balzac novel. I was so excited I slept with it beneath my pillow.”
Sexiness and a book nut? What man could ask for more? The story moves them along to Oxford, where he visits his old bookshop haunts, making discoveries and statements like: “Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell, illustrated by Frank C. Pape. Here’s a book, Marie, that’s now selling for ten times its issue price. That’s partly because meddling old women had it banned—just as today they are still disgorging other dishes too dainty for their coarse and vilely trained palates.”
Sounds familiar. Throughout the book little pieces of book history and trivia are disclosed, which is what I was looking for when I bought the title. Parker tells of a time he had to sell a book he dearly wanted to keep, due to his horse not coming in as expected. The only time he sold a book he wanted. The author describes Parker’s searches through dusty shelves, on his knees looking for treasures, for hours at a time. And of the bookstalls.
“Outside the usual crowd of bibliographic prowlers poked in the stalls containing cheap books. Men dressed in tailored suits wearing spats and carrying sticks, rubbed against dirty fellows with baggy trousers and broken boots. Young women, evidently shop girls reached eagerly for the same volume desired by the elderly matron with a golden lorgnette.” I loved these passages within the book. The author is describing exactly what he had experienced and therefore it’s a snapshot into a particular era of time in regards to the collecting and reading of books.
Parker comes upon an old chum from Oxford, Wilmot, who claims he has taken to collecting books too, now that nightclubs, race horses etc., have lost their appeal. He’s specializing in “books about wines, hunting, and the private lives of great men, you know, intimate glimpses into the boudoir of Napoleon and Josephine–that sort of thing.”
My favorite tidbit in the book is about a volume of Alice in Wonderland–actually–Through The Looking Glass.
” I found my first edition of Through the Looking Glass. It’s a magnificent copy with the printer’s error at the bottom of page 21.. . . . In the second line of the first verse of ‘Jabberwocky’, the last word is incorrectly spelled–in the first edition, the 1872 edition, the word is ‘wade’ afterward it is corrected to ‘wabe’; but of course every book lover wants it with the error, wants it as it was originally issued.”
Wilmot asks: “Why”
Parker answers: “Why! Why do the sparks fly upward? Why do I like old claret? Why”–Parker’s jaw slowly dropped and an expression of bewilderment spread over his face. “Dammed if I know why. I’ve chased books for ten years and loved them longer than that, yet now you’ve asked me, I’ve no idea why I want a first edition rather than a second. And still though I can’t tell why, I do know that now and forever a first edition or an autograph copy or a bit of manuscript can send my blood rushing to the tips of my fingers, there to tingle out an electric exit, while a second edition usually is merely another book–to be loved even for that, yet not to be revered, not to be placed in a satin and vellum casement.”
And that paragraph nicely sums up what many bibliophiles feel about collecting. I may not desire a first edition in the same way Parker does, but I do know that my heart beats faster, my face flushes with pleasure, when I come across a title or illustrated book I know I will want forever. And when I find a book I’ve been searching for, well that feeling is indescribable. And then it fades and I move on to the next precious find!
The rest of the book has more lovely thoughts on collecting books, intermingled with intrigue. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, for both the typical style of writing and subject of the day, and for the insights into collecting it gives the reader. If you are a collector, dig up another copy and read it for yourself, I bet you’ll find it worthy, if not for satin and vellum, at least for a place on your shelf.