My Christmas list: Some incredibly scarce mysteries

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.

13187293416C. Daly King, Obelists At Sea (1932)

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 RouteCareless CorpseArrogant 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.

5598154156Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps (1985)

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. 

1238185_10201322272112137_2063310835_nE.C.R. Lorac, Tryst for a Tragedy (1940)

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.)

dellTOLDINPICTURES2George Harmon Coxe, Four Frightened Women (1939, this edition 1950)

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
dellTOLDINPICTURES2intgraphic 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.)

17590607693Miles Burton, Death on the Boat-Train (1940)

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.

dell0278First and 2nd Dell Book of Crossword Puzzles (Dell #205 and #278)

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
dell0205unmarked; 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!


37 thoughts on “My Christmas list: Some incredibly scarce mysteries

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    Because I’m a Sayers fan–If I had more money than I knew what to do with, I’d want every first edition of her Wimsey books and then every pocket-size edition (in mint condition, of course). I’m sure there are others…but that would be my ultimate.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m with you, for the most part — although not necessarily Sayers — but the books I like the most are association copies. For instance, just to invent something, John Dickson Carr’s copy of Gaudy Night with an inscription from DLS.

  2. If you’ve got $8000 or so (they’d probably negotiate down and don’t charge postage) you can get Tryst For a Tragedy here…
    What makes it so hard to find? Libel or burned in the Blitz are the usual reasons English books vanished then.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Yes, according to my expert friend, that volume has changed hands (and raised in price) a couple of times recently. The same bookseller has a couple of unpublished mss of Lorac, according to Abe, and wants the price of a small car for them. A nice small car. Ah well …

  3. tracybham says:

    I know exactly which book is the most highly desirable that I’ll never own: first edition with dust jacket of Fer-de-Lance. Almost any of the earlier Nero Wolfe series would do in hardback with dust jacket. I would have to win the lottery to be able to afford these and I don’t buy tickets so…. but it is fun to think about it.

  4. bardin1 says:

    Noah – can sort you out a reasonably priced copy of the penguin Obelists at Sea

  5. Jose Ignacio says:

    If I would have to choose only one from your list my preference will go for C. Daly King, Obelists At Sea (1932). Your sentence that King was a brilliant constructor of impossible crimes and classic, formal puzzle mysteries. has convinced me besides the fact that all you remember is that you liked it a lot and wanted to own a copy of it.

  6. Jeff says:

    The Tragedy of Y, 1st edition in DJ. I bought one on a book site and then the lady said “she’d sold it already.” Ever since then, I’ve looked in vain for another.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I had that happen recently with a copy of “Murder at the Marco Polo Club” by ECR Lorac … luckily no money had changed hands, but it’s extremely frustrating, isn’t it?

      • ludibundlad says:

        Murder at the Marco Polo Club, by ECR Lorac? Is this Death After Dinner?

      • Noah Stewart says:

        That’s what I’m told. Murder at the Marco Polo Club is the Collins White Circle Canada title.

      • ludibundlad says:

        Aha! I think it’s Death Before Dinner, which is set at a club of explorers. (Setting the book in the wilds of Mongolia or up the Amazon would have been more interesting than a London club, though!)

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I actually typed out the first paragraph, as I recall, or maybe the cover blurb, and put it into a group on Facebook specifically devoted to Lorac; got the answer back from someone who has an enviable collection of Lorac almost instantly. I still haven’t managed to get a copy of this one, so I have that pleasure for the future.

  7. BRADSTREET says:

    Some GDH and M Cole books, please Santa. Which ones? Well, DEAD MAN’S WATCH would be nice, although any of them would do. I read that book many years ago when I borrowed it from the library, but the llibrary service doesn’t have it any more. These days they are so incredibly out of print that any Cole books that do turn up always seem to go for silly prices.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I agree, they are scarce indeed. I haven’t managed to read many of them over the years. Curtis Evans has whetted my appetite with his recent biography of the Coles too, which is excellent work!

  8. bkfriedman says:

    It would be easy to say Christie or Queen or any of my favorites in mint condition! But I think that, like you, it’s all about the discovery! If I happened upon a used bookstore – and there aren’t many bookstores around me anymore – that contained some beautiful old mysteries in mint condition at a reasonable price – I’d snap them up. I think it would now be swell to have a shelf full of gorgeous old books. Hey, Noah, my birthday is Wednesday – wanna get me started? 🙂

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m not sure I can help you, but it would be churlish not to wish you a happy birthday anyway!! 😉 Over the years I have settled for quantity over quality, but if I had to do it all over again I’d go for quality first and foremost. The few times I have paid what I felt was a lot for a book, I have found that it kept its value — whereas the ten or twenty ordinary volumes I got for the same price have plummeted to nearly zero value.

  9. Glad to say I have most of the Brown collections (not all though) and an Italian edition of the OBELISTS which was the best i could manage.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m about to get a copy of “Obelists At Sea”, thanks to the kindness of a commenter here. It will be very interesting to compare my recollection from 35 years ago to the actuality.
      I’ve had most of the Brown volumes go through my hands — they’re pretty pricey so I tend to not hold on to them. It would be nice to have a nice crisp set though, and I envy you yours!

      • It later emerged that my Italian edition of OBELISTS, reprinted maybe a decade ago, have have used a rather old translation that was edited, which was pretty galling as deflated my sense of superiority. I got the Brown titles when I was spending a lot of time in San Fancisco in the late 80s and early 90s as my then girlfriend was studying at Berkeley – happy days …

  10. Brian Busby says:

    Ah, the appeal of the seemingly unobtainable. Contes en crinoline, the 1929 work of erotica that John Glassco claimed to be his first book might top the list, but I’ve long come to the conclusion that it’s another one of his hoaxes. Margaret Millar’s first, The Invisible Worm, is one I’d like to receive. Copies do show up online from time to time, though they’re always in awful shape. My fantasy, of course, is that I’ll come across a decent copy at a thrift store or library book sale. Living not far from Kitchener, I think my odds are better than most. Wyndham Lewis’ pamphlet Anglosaxony (Toronto: Ryerson, 1941) would be most welcome… though I’d probably turn around and sell it. We have a daughter who is about to head off to university, you understand.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Yes, that’s the problem with the “big find” — one usually doesn’t get to keep the wonderful object. Years ago I found an LA Bantam for a quarter and it paid my rent that month, but my rent was an embarrassingly low amount LOL. To send a child through university I think these days you’d need to find Ernest Hemingway’s copy of Lolita with his marginal notes, and his drawing of a cat on the endpaper or something.

      • Indeed – while on my honeymoon to New Zealand 14 years agoI chanced on a fine first in dust jacket of Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I got it signed and it paid for one half of our flights (about £750 or $1050) . It doesn’t happen often but it’s a lovely feeling when it does

      • Brian Busby says:

        At this rate, in a generation it will be the suitcase Hadley lost.

    • ludibundlad says:

      I see you, and raise Suetonius’s Lives of Famous Whores.

  11. […] December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose […]

  12. ludibundlad says:

    Death on the Boat Train isn’t so difficult to find, or so rare. A friend bought a copy online, and describes it as pure hackwork. I borrowed it from the library (it was reprinted by Collins in the ’70s) – not inspired, and, from memory, the murderer doesn’t really appear. A lot of Street’s books are mediocre – what can you expect from a writer who wrote 140 odd books?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’ve been reading a bunch of his later works available from, and I agree, they are … let’s say “uninspired”. And he has that habit of creating a plot where the murderer doesn’t really show up till the end.

      • ludibundlad says:

        Yes; even in a book like “In the Face of the Verdict”, which is one of his most readable and has an active Dr Priestley, the murderer isn’t even named until the very end!

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