“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 1

the red widow murders, carter DicksonI suspect that many of my readers are already well along the path to becoming book scouts. If you own a lot of books, as I do, you are almost certainly “in a relationship” with at least one bookseller and probably others. They probably don’t know you by name; you’re “that guy who reads John Dickson Carr” or “the lady who collects those old puzzle mysteries”. And so when you make your way to their bookstore, they may have set aside a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or The Red Widow Murders for you, if you’ve mentioned that that’s something you’ve been looking for. That’s book scouting — they’re scouting for you.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience, Carter DicksonHere’s a conversation you may have had at some point that takes you further down the path. The bookseller says, “Oh, by the way, I have a customer who wants a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience,” and you say, “By golly, I happen to have a spare one that I rescued from a thrift shop.” Next time you come in, you bring in your battered copy; your bookseller thanks you and might make it very much worth your trouble — or perhaps not, depending upon the book and its associated economics.  (I’ll get into this below.) Perhaps you paid $2.50, she gives you $5, and sells it to her customer for $10.  Congratulations! You’ve just had your first taste of book scouting heroin LOL.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr
Your favourite bookseller will almost always have some kind of record of what her customers are looking for (the “want list”). Did you mention you wanted a copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey? She wrote it in the book, along with your contact information, and keeps it in her mind. When she sees one, she’ll pick it up for you. But there’s a group of people — and you can be one of them! — to whom she gives copies of the want list (minus the contact information). Five of her customers are looking for eight different John Dickson Carr titles; you and a couple of other book scouts are aware of those titles and know that if you can find an inexpensive copy, you can make a little money on the deal.

Sue Grafton, "A" is for AlibiWhy only a little money? That’s because of the economics of the situation. It’s far too complicated to get into deeply, but the rule of thumb is that if you buy a book for X, you have to sell it for 2X in order to make a living and keep the lights on in your store. So if I’m a book scout, I have to buy books very, very cheaply. If someone needs a reading copy of A is for Alibi, they’re capable of getting it via the internet for, say, $5 plus-or-minus postage. If a bookstore manager can phone her client and say, “I have a copy I’ll sell you for $4,” the client has saved a little money and has had a convenient transaction, so they’re likely to be back to that bookstore. But for the manager to sell it for $4, she has to have paid $2 or less for it — and that means that I have to have paid $1 to sell it to her for $2.

Rim of the Pit, Hake TalbotSometimes the manager will do you a favour. If you’re a good customer or just a nice person, and you really want a copy of Rim of the Pit, the manager may buy a copy from a book scout or another bookstore for $8 and sell it to you for — $8. That’s because truly what it’s all about is getting good books to good people, and occasionally you have to just break even. This is especially, these days, if the manager knows you can go to the Internet and pay $12 and have one within 48 hours, or whatever.

If you think about it, you’re never going to retire on the proceeds of being a book scout. In fact, many people who do it lose money on it but dabble in it anyway, just because they like to feel as if they’re part of the book business. It’s fun, it improves your eye, and it gives you a reason to go to a lot of different bookstores and feed your own addiction.

So to make a long story short — too late, as usual! — that’s why I was at the door of the local thrift shop this morning as it opened, for a “50 percent off” sale. It’s because I’ve been a book scout and I’ve bought from book scouts and I’ve encouraged people to become book scouts. The words “50 percent off” are to me like the starting gun is to an elderly race horse in the paddock; I toss my head and trot like a yearling to the gate as I’ve done a thousand times before.

One Coffee With, Margaret MaronThe best way to start is by having a chat with your favourite independent bookseller who sells used / vintage / antiquarian books, and ask that person what they think are books that are easy to find that they could sell, but haven’t got the time to go and get. That could be — perhaps something like Hardy Boys books, or all the Miss Seeton mysteries, or that one paperback of Margaret Maron that nobody could ever find.  (In fact One Coffee With used to earn me a quick five bucks whenever I found one — the market was inexhaustible. The book depicted is the first edition of her first book and sells for $20 today.) You make a list and you start hitting garage sales and charity shops and used bookstores — it’s occasionally possible to buy from one bookstore and sell to another, although the profit margins are slim.

But the more knowledge you bring, the better you’ll do. What I thought might interest people is an occasional series about what an experienced book scout buys — not for immediate sale, but because decades in the book business have taught me my mantra:

“Someone’s going to want that some day.”

And so this is what I bought this morning, and why.

Pendleton, Executioner #1War Against the Mafia, The Executioner #1, by Don Pendleton. First edition Pinnacle, 1969; mine is the 18th printing from 1978 and features a new introduction by the author. This originally sold for $1.50 — I think I paid about that in Canadian dollars this morning and would expect to get $3 for it or even more. A nice crisp copy.

I also picked up the following entries in that series, but from the Gold Eagle imprint (a sub-sub-subsidiary of Harlequin):

  • #58 Ambush on Blood River
  • #62 Day of Mourning
  • #65 Cambodia Clash

Don Pendleton, The Executioner #56, Ambush on Blood RiverThese were in beautiful condition so I decided to pick them up for the same $1.50, thinking I’ll get $2 or more for them. I won’t get to double my money for these higher numbers, probably, but I buy these whenever I see them in excellent condition, and I may get a benefit someday through having a box of them available, or through having just the one specific number that someone wants.

Who wants these? Well, middle-aged guys who are undemanding in their literary tastes but who like to read a lot. One crucial factor in my decision to pick these up was that they have a number on them. There’s something about numbered series of books … when you see someone come into your bookstore with a little handwritten notebook or bundle or lists, you may be about to meet someone who will pay extra for #58 if they don’t have it and you have it right at hand, and they will be happy to do so and recommend you to their fellow collectors.

Lee Goldberg, The Waking Nightmare, Diagnosis MurderThe Waking Nightmare, by Lee Goldberg: #4 in the Diagnosis: Murder series based on the 1990s TV show. This is a first edition (no hardcover) from Signet from 2005 with a photo of a smiling Dick Van Dyke on the cover. The copy I bought is absolutely mint, essentially unread and unopened, and I paid about $2 for it and fully expect to get $4 someday.

Why did I buy it? A combination of reasons. One important reason is the perfect condition; I don’t think I’ve ever lost money on such a crisp book. Another is that it’s a “TV tie-in” novel that was strong enough to be published four years after the end of the series; people wanted this book in 2005 and that makes them a little more likely to want it later. There are all kinds of collectors and aficionados of tie-in novels, added to which there are people who collect things that have to do with Dick Van Dyke.

Another good reason is — Lee Goldberg is an intelligent writer and a very creative guy; he’s just about king of the tie-ins, but he also does excellent work as a show runner and executive producer. I suspect there are people who collect his work in and of itself, regardless of whether it’s a tie-in or not.

John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins, Belarski coverIf you have experience and knowledge, you can be a book scout who buys books without having a specific customer for them. I wouldn’t call myself a collector any more; I’ve traded so many books over the years that for the right price you can always have everything and anything in my holdings, especially the gems. These days I buy books where my experience tells me that, for whatever reason, someone’s going to be collecting it in the future (but it won’t be me LOL).  If you truly believe that you are holding a well-written book and that people will continue to read it into the future, then buy it (condition and finance permitting), because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

John Dickson Carr, Papa La-basThe author’s best book is generally best, but there are two books that will always hold their value — the best (or best-known) book by a good author and the worst (or most obscure) book by a great author. The best, because someone will always want a copy of The Three Coffins; and the worst, because someone will always want to know if Papa La-Bas is as bad as everyone says it is, and it’s been out of print since 1997 AFAIK. I paid $1.50 for a reading copy of Papa La-Bas this morning (Carroll & Graf paperback, second edition from 1997, decent condition) and I’m sure at least one of my readers is thinking, “Gee, I’ve heard about that crappy book for a long time, I wonder if I can find a copy?” Well, ABEbooks.com has 64 for sale, but the cheapest one is an ex-library copy for $3.65 with free shipping within the US. Perhaps in five years someone will pay $5 for mine.

John Sandford, Winter PreyI was delighted to find one book I picked up this morning; I paid $6 for a first edition hardcover of John Sandford’s fifth Lucas Davenport novel, Winter Prey from 1993, in excellent condition, for $5. It’s a particularly-well written entry in this long series and it actually is a decent puzzle mystery as well as being a rather hard-boiled cop novel. This was the novel for me that signalled that Sandford was capable of moving into the first rank of modern thriller writers and he did not disappoint me.

As my friends know, I buy Sandford first editions whenever I see them. I have a little bookcase where I keep a single copy of each of his books; I don’t have a full set of firsts yet, but I should soon. To give you some idea of how good an investment I think this is, this is at least the third copy of Winter Prey I own; some volumes in the series I may have as many as ten copies. I don’t say everyone should rush out and buy up Sandford firsts — I think you should identify a modern author whose work you love and support, and buy every single decent copy of that person’s work that you can find. Because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

C. J. Cherryh, The Pride of ChanurWhat else did I buy?  A couple of mint/unopened Hard Case Crime novels, including a great Lawrence Block title, A Walk Among the Tombstones — the recent movie tie-in edition with Liam Neeson on the cover. A nice crisp copy of a Zebra reprint of Charlotte Armstrong’s Dream of Fair Woman. A couple of first paperback editions of C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels from DAW — DAW books have lots of collectors, Cherryh is an excellent writer, and I suspect the Chanur books are going to be the basis of a great video adaptation some day. And I regretfully passed up an early Pocket paperback edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lazy Lover because it had loose pages, and it’s not worth buying books with that level of problems.

John Dunning, Booked to DieThe first mystery in John Dunning’s “Cliff Janeway” series, 1992’s Booked To Die, is an excellent mystery — it was a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards and won a couple of others — and the only one, to my knowledge, to accurately understand and portray the world of the book scout. So if you’re looking to understand how this little niche industry works, go read the sad tale of “Bobby the book scout” and you’ll understand quite a bit more about this little byway of the book industry than I could tell you in a short time. I hope to continue this kind of post into the future, for the benefit of my bibliomaniacal readership. Sure, collecting is fun. But making money doing something you love that involves getting good books into the hands of readers — that’s worth doing!!





My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

Here’s another of my favourite puzzle mystery writers.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Yes, the author of Perry Mason is one of my favourite mystery writers. I have to say my affection goes back a long, long time. I was a precocious kid who read his way through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at an early age and moved directly into the mystery section of the local library — which, since at the time I was living on a small Armed Forces base, was composed of a bunch of Perry Mason novels and some writers I’d never heard of.  Perry Mason was fairly tame to adult sensibilities, and when I asked my mother to explain why Perry Mason was so interested in Della Street’s ankles as she got in and out of the car, she knew my pre-teen self couldn’t come to much harm.  So I enjoyed them as mysteries and left the grown-up stuff for others.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner is not generally considered a writer of puzzle mysteries, by and large.  His blueprint was simple.  Start with a strange situation that would catch the reader’s attention — something mildly sexual and unusual, for which the average person would want a good lawyer on their side.  Add Perry Mason on the side of someone reasonably innocent.  Bring the situation to a rapid boil and add a murder.  Arrest Perry’s client and spend the rest of the book having Perry run amok while trying to exonerate his client.  Pretty much the last half of all the novels takes place in a courtroom.  Finish it off with a dramatic resolution wherein the guilty party confesses on the stand (for the most part) and stir with a dash of humour at the end.  And, by and large, Gardner didn’t feel the need to add any pesky characterization to complicate the mix.  Most of the characters in Perry Mason novels are labelled with a job and saddled with an alibi, and that’s their only distinction from the next suspect.

As an aside, Gardner did have one way of making his characters memorable; he gave the men unusual middle names. Possibly this was to protect himself from lawsuits because James Greevus Smith, banker, could be distinguished from almost any other James Smith, banker.  This didn’t happen so often with female characters, but married women often had an unusual maiden name.

Anyway, in terms of the traditional puzzle mystery, this lack of characterization is not a bad thing, by and large.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it was usually deliberate, in order to prevent the murderer being more noticeable by dint of being better characterized. It may well be, as I’ve often seen suggested, that Gardner was simply a writer who was unable to do much in the way of effective characterization, in which case his focus on puzzle mysteries was a mere fortunate coincidence or deliberate choice.  He was an experienced lawyer — it was unlikely for him to select the Western upon which to focus, let’s face it.

In his earliest novels, Perry Mason is more of a hard-boiled hard-punching lawyer who goes toe to toe against the villains and isn’t afraid to slug the occasional client-menacing gangster (for instance, The Case Of The Sulky Girl, TCOT Velvet Claws, TCOT Howling Dog, etc.).  But around the middle of World War II, he seems to have swerved in the direction of the puzzle mystery. I’ll suggest that the three most difficult puzzles in his oeuvre are TCOT Empty Tin (1941), TCOT Buried Clock (1943) and TCOT Crooked Candle (1944), but everything from about 1939 to 1947 is more strongly puzzle-oriented than the remainder of the novels. These novels actually have clues, physical clues, and are not merely sets of alibis against which to measure a set of circumstances.

And Gardner in this period avoids something that sustained his work in later years, which is to say the number of gorgeous women in sexualized situations is kept to a minimum.  By the 1960s, Gardner’s plots were pretty much what I call “femjep” — a beautiful woman is in physical danger from a criminal, or is the object of a bizarre plot that she doesn’t understand, and Perry steps in and saves the day, while the novel stops to describe the heroine physically and fairly lustfully every once in a while.

If you’re curious as to whether Gardner could write a good puzzle mystery — your mileage may vary.  Certainly he had a knack for coming up with story hooks that drag you into the novel (Why is a pretty young woman being paid to put on weight?  Why would someone steal a man’s glass eye?  Why would someone bury an alarm clock set to sidereal time?).  When he’s at his most puzzling, these hooks are absolutely relevant to the plot and not just discarded as soon as they’ve done the job of getting you to commit to the novel.  (For instance, that stolen glass eye is found clutched in the hand of the corpse.)  And occasionally, Gardner steps out and adds as much characterization as he can manage.  For instance, TCOT Empty Tin has a nosy spinster who is played for laughs — unusual in Gardner’s work — but who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943) has some interesting “salty prospector” characters. And TCOT Vagabond Virgin (1948) has an actual attempt at a rounded characterization in the person of the titular hitchhiking tramp — as well as an interesting puzzle at its core.

If you’re looking for a puzzle mystery, you could do worse than the novels I’ve mentioned here by name. The paperback editions are not so omnipresent as they were when I was a teenager, but a visit to a good used bookstore will usually net you a couple of dozen titles from which to choose — try anything with a copyright date in the 1940s and you won’t be far wrong.

PS: Gardner also wrote a series of novels as by A. A. Fair about the adventures of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, private investigators.  I can’t say that these impressed me as being anywhere near strict-form puzzle mysteries, but they are very enjoyable — more so than the last 15 years’ worth of Perry Mason novels, by and large.  These should be read chronologically.