I blame it on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I believe I went through those books at an early age with a single-mindedness known only to those of us with OCD because of the little number in the upper right-hand corner of the cover; I knew my mission in life was to read them all, and I could prove I’d read them all by keeping track. I’m sure if I were to become as famous as Stephen King, some future Ph.D. student would be writing a Ph.D. thesis about my cheap notebook (which, alas, no longer actually exists, but I can see it vividly) with a numbered list of the titles, a few words about the relative merit of each one, and a triumphant tick-mark indicating that I had added that title to my life list. And then my notebook expanded to cover Nancy Drew. And Trixie Belden. And Tom Swift. And then Perry Mason, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and and and.
Fifty years later, after a lifetime of devotion to tracking down scarce books that I haven’t yet read, my life list is long and relatively complete. But over the years there are a few books that have eluded me because they’re scarce and valuable.
Some years ago, Dover brought out an edition of King’s stories, The Curious Mr. Tarrant, and an inexpensive edition of Obelists Fly High. I read those quickly, and thought, “Great, where are the rest?” Nowhere to be found. I’ve borrowed a copy of Obelists At Sea for an evening’s read 35 years ago, but don’t remember much except I liked it a lot and want to own a copy — and also of the even rarer Obelists En Route, Careless Corpse, Arrogant Alibi and Bermuda Burial. If someone would like to bring those back into print, I’ll buy them. King was a brilliant constructor of impossible crimes and classic, formal puzzle mysteries.
Fredric Brown made his day-to-day living setting type, and that was my avocation in my youth, so I’ve always had a special fondness for this crazy, wonderful writer who wrote warm-hearted hard-boiled mysteries and strange science fiction. In 1985, Dennis McMillan brought out a multi-volume limited edition (350 copies) of his collected stories from the pulps; I’ve had a few of the volumes pass through my hands over the years, but I just want to own a complete set and run my hands over the spines every so often, if you know what I mean.
There certainly are a lot of Lorac/Carol Carnac titles I’ve never read, perhaps as many as two dozen, but Tryst for a Tragedy is impossibly hard to get. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are probably fewer than ten copies of this book anywhere in the world at this point. She was a great writer of tight, smart mysteries, and she hasn’t received as much attention as she deserved from the critics and the public in general. I only hope I get the privilege of reading all of her books over the rest of my life; this one will probably be my final achievement. (I’ve lifted the illustration from my Facebook friend Geoffrey McSkimming, who’s an author in his own right and the most knowledgeable person about Lorac’s work I know.)
I have a couple of copies of this book, including Dell #5, the first real mapback, but I want the edition from Dell’s extremely limited “Told in Pictures” edition — they planned four titles and produced only two. As you’ll note, this edition was produced in what we might call “comic-book format” — one of the very earliest examples of what we know today as
graphic novels. The book itself is undistinguished but Dell turned this edition into a unique cultural artifact and I’ve always wanted to own one. The cover for this edition, by the way, is by the great illustrator Robert Stanley. (And as is often the case, I am again indebted to BookScans for their wonderful visual resource.)
This scarce volume — I found a VG first in jacket on the internet today for about $2,000 — will stand for all the many volumes by John Rhode/Miles Burton that I haven’t read, and his picture on the front is merely the icing on the cake. He was a very prolific author but his books seem to have passed into obscurity within months after their publication and into complete desuetude with his death. I’m trying to make up for lost time with this author; very few of his many books achieved paperback publication and, by the time I realized what I was missing, I mostly couldn’t afford the hardcover firsts that I saw go by. I do have hopes that someone will bring him back into print soon, since his work is about to pass into the public domain in Canada in 2016.
No, I’m not crazy. These particular volumes are like the Holy Grail of collectible paperbacks because they are the two Dell mapbacks that everyone needs to complete their set. I’ve never seen a copy of these volumes and only found out what they looked like recently (thanks again, BookScans). For obvious reasons it’s hard to find a copy of ANY crossword puzzle book that’s mint and
unmarked; I think these are so scarce precisely because there’s not many things more useless than a completed crossword puzzle book, and so lots of these were (shudder) thrown away. I don’t care about doing the puzzles; I want this because then I could finally say that I’d owned every Dell mapback.
How much are these? Very hard to say, since so few are available (there isn’t one for sale today on AbeBooks and I haven’t seen one for quite a while). Comparatively speaking, though — a copy of Told In Pictures #2 as seen above might set you back $200. Any copy of either these volumes might bring you, depending on condition, anywhere from $500 on up. That’s my best educated guess; I saw one of these for sale in a Californian book catalogue years ago for $400.
Do I really want these for Christmas? Oh, probably not, unless you’ve recently won a large lottery and you’re looking around for ways of making me happy. I do prefer the thrill of the chase, and there is still a little part of the back of my mind that insists it’s going to find a box of mint vintage paperbacks in some small-town thrift shop for a quarter apiece. I’ve had some good finds over the years, but these are probably beyond me … but what you can take from this is that even after you’ve read your way through every author whom you can presently name, there will still be rarities and delights for you to savour. So I hope Santa leaves you all kinds of great old mysteries, and a couple for me as well … and we’ll keep looking in the new year, won’t we?
If you’d care to leave a comment about which books YOU think are the most highly desirable that you’ll never own, I’m always curious about what attracts devoted readers. And who knows, we may hook you up!