Caroline: For some readers , whodunnits are transient, disposable things. Once you’ve read a murder mystery once, there’s no point keeping it or reading it again, according to this school of thought. You already know who did it, and there’s little use in cluttering up your shelves with books that are now redundant.
But for others, this is complete heresy. It isn’t enough just to read detective novels once — we want to own them so we can return to them again and again. For me, there’s so much more to a good mystery than just finding out who the culprit was. Personally, I read my favourites at least once a year just to enjoy the atmosphere and characters.
Beyond the pleasures of rereading, though, lies a whole world of collecting. Lots of detective novelists who started writing between the world wars, like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, went on to publish dozens of books over their long lives, and you can collect them all. For some lesser known writers who are now out of print, just tracking down all their titles can prove to be a life’s work. And then there are different editions and covers from around the world, not to mention other associated ephemera like autographs, stamps, pens, film posters and more…
The perfect collection is never complete.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Books can be beautiful objects, as well as historical artefacts. There’s a particular kind of satisfaction you get from seeing a completed set up on your shelf, especially if you had to spend many hours in secondhand bookshops and charity shops to track them down. Of course this can be true for any kind of book, but golden age murder mysteries are especially suited to the amateur collector. This is partly because the period produced plenty of prolific authors, and partly because detective novels have always had a large audience, so there even for the rarest titles you tend to have at least some chance of finding a copy eventually and being able to afford to buy it.
It’s not important to everybody, I’m sure, but I also think there’s something special about reading a book from the 1930s in a copy that was published in the 1930s. Beyond just the cover art or dust jacket, even the typeface and page layouts can tell you something about how books were made then, and I enjoy absorbing all of that context alongside the story. And you learn new things all the time. I got a copy of Margery Allingham’s historical novel Dance of the Years for my birthday last month that was printed in 1943, and there’s a special stamp on the cover page that explains that the book was produced in accordance with wartime regulations on paper rationing, meaning that thinner paper was used to save resources. Turning those wafer thin pages makes me feel closer to the time when Allingham was writing it, and I think that’s a valuable experience.
But that’s just how I feel about collecting detective novels. Owning books is such a personal thing and our collections often represent emotional connections to the past that others will never be able to see from the outside. So to try and capture some of that for this episode I asked listeners to send in their own stories about what their detective novels mean to them.
Lesley: I grew up in the sixties and seventies when Agatha Christies had covers painted by the illustrator Tom Adams. My mother didn’t think these were suitable, she worried that they would upset us because they had still lives of skeletons, skulls. I don’t know, nasty things.
So she cut the covers off. And I grew up in a world where there were a few covers which we were allowed to see. But a lot of the Agatha Christies had no covers at all. When I was in my forties, I found that there were a lot of these in charity shops. And I began to collect them because some were familiar and they just brought back that time when I was a child and I was first reading Agatha Christie and some were new, some must have been the covers she’d cut off. So I began to collect them.
At first it was easy. Some were much more common than others. And I built up my collection. But of course, there are over seventy Agatha Christie books and Tom Adams did at least one illustration for almost all of them. And for several he did two and even three different covers. So there were 100 plus to collect. The ones that I found most difficult were some early ones, like the first version of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? with the golf ball. But the one that really eluded me was the first version he did of Five Little Pigs, which is a cover with a kind of crazy paving background with a mini cannon on it and a ball of wool and a pipette.
I searched and searched for this one. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I looked online. I put a track on it on Abebooks, but absolutely nothing came back. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d even done it properly. A couple of years went by and then one day I saw a copy of it on eBay and was just beside myself with excitement. So I put a bid on it. I waited a week. I watched it every day. I couldn’t believe that I might not get it. I was so worried it would be snatched away. Anyway, I won the auction. I was absolutely delighted. And I got my beautiful copy of Five Little Pigs, illustrated by Tom Adams. And then I had an email from Abebooks books and they’d found it and I bought that one. So now I have two. And that completed my collection of Tom Adams covers. And it was a really strange feeling. It was very connected into my childhood and my memories of the books that did have covers in the books that didn’t and my curiosity about what I’d missed.
Caroline: The connection to childhood is something that came up in a lot of the stories that I received for this episode. Here’s Helene, a listener from France, explaining how her Agatha Christie books connect her to her family, and to a specific piece of furniture at her grandparents’ farm.
Hèlène: I remember my grandparents farm. We went there like every three weeks with my mother and my sister. It was very modest and poor. They had like animals and garden and a field of cornfield. But they had a wardrobe that was magical. And in there it was a lot of books. Seventies and sixties editions of Christie novels, the Zola novels, the French writer in Emile Zola. Of course, they were all in French. Yeah. So whenever when we went there with my sister and my mother, we would be with my sister very bored because my mother and my grandparents would talk about people we didn’t know, like who died, who had kids, who got divorced, etc. So we would go see the hands in the garden picking strawberries or tomatoes or parsley, would eat parsley from the stem and get lost in the cornfield, maybe get cherries off the tree, count the baby rabbits. This was all very nice and fine in summer, but in the winter it was cold and damp and we had the wood stove and everything. So we played Ludo. We played cards. We tried not to fall in the little water piece they had. And then we went to the magical wardrobe.
It was different every time. Sometimes we’d spend hours there looking at every book and like cataloguing them and putting them in piles. And sometimes just as we went home was, oh, I need a book from the wardrobe. So it was a very large wooden dark wardrobe that had like napkins and such in it. And in the bottom part, it was like a pile of 100 or so books. And from this I read my very first Christie books. So in the end, when my grandmother left the farm, when she was, I don’t know, 88 or something, the shelf was empty and the books are scattered among the family. And I have some of those books and I think they are still my most beloved possessions. I don’t think I have any recent editions of Christie books in French because I have those and I just I can’t live without them, really.
Caroline: Handing books onto the next generation is a common tradition, and it’s never not wonderful as an adult to be the one who introduces a young person to the wonders of detective fiction for the first time. Except, as Mary’s story shows, creating an obsession with whodunnits isn’t always what the grown up has in mind…
Mary: I grew up in a small town in 1980s Ireland that didn’t have a library. I was lucky to be the youngest of a bookish family, and so there were lots of books in the house, but there was a definite emphasis on the classics. There were regular exciting parcels from America, though they came from my mother’s cousin Mary in New Jersey and were filled with exotic things like pencils that had our names printed on them and sachets of hot chocolate that had marshmallows in them. And from her husband, Norman, hardback books. Norman and Mary were in their seventies and had no children of their own. He was a great reader and wanted to get rid of as many of his books as possible before he died. He used to say frequently that he didn’t want his lawyers making a bonfire. They visited Ireland every summer. And when I was eight or nine, Norman stopped me in my uncle’s kitchen doorway and demanded to know what type of books I liked. Mysteries, I said, a bit stuck for an answer. Mysteries, he shouted, as if I couldn’t possibly have made a more disappointing response.
Mary defended my choice and started listing books he could send me, they love to argue as loudly as possible. And that was the start of Norman sending me books. They would arrive in large padded envelopes, often full of dust. No letter, because he had arthritis in his hands. Just a book with a book plate inside the front cover saying it came from Norman and his address in Lakewood, New Jersey. I would write back a thank you letter and finish with my childish news and book reviews. I’d get another book in return. He sent me hardback American editions of Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey and crucially, Agatha Christie.
He still disapproved thoroughly of my love of mysteries, despite obviously owning so many himself. Every summer he would brusquely tell me so, you gotta stop reading those stupid mysteries. He’s sometimes tried to send me books he thought I should be reading, to which I owe an enduring love of Mark Twain. But mostly those choices didn’t work out. Norman died when I was 17. I’m 41 now. I’m still reading mysteries. The most prised books on my shelves are the ones Norman sent me. Particular favourites are a gorgeous edition of all the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories, a Cards on the Table that has a very pretty dust jacket. One of my favourite mysteries. And that first ever Mark Twain anthology, he sent me.
Without Norman, I don’t know if I would ever have read some of those authors. I’m so grateful to him for taking the time. There’s a framed photo of us together on my landing. But I think it’s when I open a new mystery that I honour his memory most. The fact that it would really annoy him is just a bonus.
Caroline: Not everybody who collects detective novels wants to own them, though.
Brian: My name is Brian McGackin and I’m a poet and educator in Los Angeles. My first Agatha Christie book I got at a library book sale for about 25 cents. It was Postern of Fate, which isn’t really the best place to start. I didn’t have a really good idea who Tommy and Tuppence were, but I enjoyed the mystery and I enjoyed the writing. So I went back the next week and picked up the complete short stories of Miss Marple. I loved them. So I’ve been going back ever since, just picking up, you know, two, three, four books at a time. I got really lucky when my isolation period started that I had just gone and gotten Death on the Nile and a few others that I hadn’t read on before, Murder in Mesopotamia. So I met, I think, forty eight Agatha Christie books that I’ve read at this point, which is probably more than any other author I’ve read, but I don’t own any of them. I only get them from the library. And it’s been really kind of freeing because it would be daunting for me as somebody who normally loves collecting books, it’s freeing and refreshing to have at least one author that I will only get books from the library.
Caroline: After the break: if you had a hundred thousand pounds, would you spend it on a book?
You might have noticed that a lot of the people who sent in stories for this episode talked about Agatha Christie. I didn’t necessarily ask for responses just from Christie collectors, but it seems like her work is a common choice of quarry for detective novel hunters. And it’s easy to see why: she published more books, she had two very long running series detectives, and she’s also just more popular, so there are more editions and translations out there than with other authors. Her catalogue is absolutely perfect for the budding collector to get their teeth into, which is exactly what Audrey and her friend Emily did — they didn’t just try and acquire a copy of every Agatha Christie novel, they read them all too, and documented their experiences.
Audrey: Several years ago my friend Emily and I spent an entire year reading all of Agatha Christie’s works and we decided to blog about the experience and document our adventure on social media. In the process of trying to acquire one copy of each of Christie’s numerous novels for our project, which we called the Year of Agatha, we ended up coming across quite a few different paperback iterations of her books. And that sparked the desire to become Christie collectors. Now, four years later, our combined Christie collection is in the hundreds. And just when we think we have found every beautiful cover, another one pops its way into our Instagram feed and we are on the hunt again. We are particularly fond of the Pocket Books paperback editions from the 1970s. Each book has a bold neon coloured cover with a small illustration on the front. As soon as you see one, you will die to have them all. I must admit, tracking down the final book from that set was one of the proudest moments of my life. Throughout our project and the subsequent sharing of our collecting endeavours on Instagram, we became connected with a host of Agatha Christie fans around the world as part of the bookstagram community. It has been such a joy to meet others who share the same passion we have for the queen of crime and the thrill of the book hunt.
Caroline: In fact, collecting Christie is such a widespread activity that one avid collector started a website and Facebook community dedicated to the practice so as to help newcomers avoid common mistakes and scams. David Morris maintains collectingchristie.com, and has also been collecting detective novels and associated ephemera for much of his life. He grew up in Devon with an ambient awareness of Christie’s fame, but it wasn’t until he moved to America for college that he really caught the collecting bug.
David: While I was at university one day, I went into a used bookstore in the local city and on the shelves of the used bookstore found a copy of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in a dust jacket. It was a cheap reprint version by Triangle Books and again that visual imagery on the cover kind of attracted me and re-engaged me in reading Christie that I had kind of forgotten for a few years. And owning that book just really had a sense of kind of history in place and just kind of piqued my curiosity. And it was from that moment of finding a used hardback with a dust jacket that really kind of triggered a little kind of extracurricular activity on weekends while at university, which was to go around bookshops looking for books. And that’s really what kind of began the journey of used book collecting.
Caroline: David began where many of us do, picking up affordable used paperbacks in secondhand shops. But he then progressed to much rarer editions.
David: My most prized book edition would be the first U.S. of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. So that’s her true first edition. First ever, a published book was actually published in New York and The Mysterious Affair at Styles, certainly being the first book and the first one ever printed. Having that one is the one I cherish the most.
Caroline: Oh, and in case you were wondering, that’s not the only first edition that he has.
David: I have enjoyed collecting a full suite of UK first editions and the full suite of US first editions. I find both of them a great fun to collect. They have different cover art. A few of the books have different titles and some of the US ones were actually published before the UK ones.
Caroline: Just to give you some idea of the price you might pay for a really valuable first edition today…
David: A UK first edition from the 1920s in a dust jacket in a good condition, dust jacket will likely sell from anywhere between £30,000 to £100,000.
Caroline: He’s even waited for decades for the right book to come along, sometimes.
David: There was a book, but I had found in my early years in university it was actually a U.S. reprint of The Secret of Chimneys. It was the second edition in a dust jacket, and I had once had a book dealer friend who in my early days when I was a little more ignorant in this world of collecting, had motivated me to trade it for a few other books. Little did I know years later that that would be a jacket I would never find again, or I shouldn’t say never, but I didn’t find it in 30 years of looking for it. And then finally, one showed up that I stumbled on and of course, you know it was that journey for several decades that took me to find that perfect dust jacket. And it even though it was a reprint, I would say finding that one, is one of the finds that’s made me most happy because it replaced a piece of the bookshelf that I had unfortunately given away and never knew would be so hard to find again.
Caroline: Whether you’re in the market for a first edition worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, or hunting for that last 50p paperback that will make your set complete, there’s a thrill to book collecting that it’s hard to find anywhere else. And during this time when we can’t get out to secondhand bookshops or car boot sales or auction houses or libraries or any of the other places where you might usually look for your next book, I hope it’s been some kind of substitute to hear these stories from listeners about what they collect and why. Sometimes when I’m sorting out my own books, I wonder what the Agatha Christie of 1920, a novice author flush with success at the publication of her very first novel, might have thought if someone had told her that a hundred years later, thousands of people all over the world would be diligently tracking down their favourite editions of her stories and lining them up with pride. I think she would have thought you were pulling her leg, and who could have blamed her?
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton, with contributions from many excellent listeners. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thecollectors where there will also be links to all the books and resources mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you can hear a bonus episode with all the collecting stories I received in full — do that now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
I’ll be back on 27 May with another episode.