“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!!

 

 

 

 

Dead Men Don’t Ski, by Patricia Moyes (1959)

moyes_dead-men-dont-ski_henryholtDead Men Don’t Ski is the first in a series of mystery novels about Inspector Henry Tibbett whose wife Emmy plays an important role in the detection and the plot. This book, and others by the same author, seem to me to bridge the gap between the strict-form puzzle mystery and the modern cozy mystery. Dead Men Don’t Ski is actually a timetable mystery a la Freeman Wills Crofts, but bundled with a great deal of excellent characterization and a charming writing style.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

s-l225What is this novel about?

Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett takes his wife Emmy on vacation in the Italian Alps, where both hope to improve their skiing. They meet an engaging cast of characters, many of whom are vacationing English skiers, and some of whom are locals in the picturesque little town. Very soon we learn of the mysterious death of a local ski instructor in the previous year, and the possibility of there being some sort of international smuggling operation based around a mysterious gentleman who comes to the local hotel every year. The reader will not be surprised to learn that one of the hotel guests is soon discovered dead at the bottom of the mountain on the ski lift, although he was apparently alive when he embarked from the top.

Inspector Tibbett seems ready to abandon his vacation in order to investigate any and all of the circumstances surrounding the death on the ski lift, including a second related murder, and in the process resolves the smuggling issues, a couple of serious problems with various marriages, and last year’s corpse on the ski hill.

51OGIEGz4GL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Why is this novel worth your time?

This is a very well written debut novel from a writer who went on to a very strong career writing light, charming murder mysteries. It may well be that Moyes’s work was overlooked in her lifetime precisely because she chose the mode of light entertainment, but her career came at an interesting time in the history of detective fiction.

I remembered reading this novel many years ago (and all the other books in the series, because I’m that guy LOL) and upon reacquainting myself was surprised to learn that, at its core, this really is a classic timetable mystery. A timetable mystery, cherished by aficionados of Freeman Wills Crofts and others of the Humdrum school, is one where you have to follow along and figure out exactly where everyone was at every moment of a crucial period — someone is lying and this has generated an impossible crime.

Chapter 17, for instance, contains an extensive written timetable generated by the local police that goes for hours: here’s a snippet.

  • 1.45: Mario takes the lift up. Rosa talks to Pietro.
  • 1.59: Staines, Buckfast and Gerda leave the Olympia.
  • 2:00: Pietro takes the lift up, followed by the other three.
  • 2.25: They reach the top. Pietro speaks to Mario, overheard by Staines, who tells the others.

And so on. The idea is that you should be able to identify where the police have gone wrong before Inspector Tibbett, although it’s unlikely.

91CfzFnMPELIn the hands of a Freeman Wills Crofts, of course, this sort of plot line is a paean to the dogged determination of large numbers of faceless police officers under the direction of Inspector French, who interview everyone in the vicinity to make sure that (a) it actually WAS 1:59 when those three people left the Olympia Hotel, and (b) they were the people whom they were believed to be, and not someone impersonating them. Et cetera. In the wrong hands it can be tedious, and Crofts was not known for leavening this grinding down of alibis with much human interest.

Here, though, Moyes gives us full value in terms of characterization. All the characters are interesting on the surface and interesting in depth; they have a certain degree of realism and, frankly, the reader is enticed to speculate what it would be like to spend a holiday among these people having a good time on the slopes. This writer creates vivacious characters doing interesting things against a background of normal behaviour; everyone is polite and intelligent and nice, by and large. and the whole experience is a very pleasant one. The assessment of the timetable’s details is not a Croftsian grind, but rather the reader gets to know these interesting people a little bitter and figures out exactly why they may have lied about buying ski wax or a paperback novel at 2:48. It’s not always guilt; often, merely veniality.

Indeed Moyes surmounts a number of the problems that plague first authors and does so with skill and intelligence. There is just enough plot to keep the reader interested throughout; the smuggling and the village history and the murders all have skeins of plot that must be untwisted from the others. (A common first-novel issue is too much plotting — too many twists, which keeps the reader interested but is ruinous to believability. Not here.) The characterization is excellent. There are a couple of false notes; I was unable to believe in the Baron, for instance, especially his final actions within the novel, and the Baroness is not particularly realistic either (if she had really wanted to have an affair, she could have done a much better job of covering her tracks). But it’s clear that Moyes has been skiing in the Italian Alps and knows the types of people who make their living in that milieu, and also she has a keen eye for observing the types of people who take those skiing vacations.

51NUaXeWf4L._AC_US218_Although the time period is not as far away and difficult to understand as might be the details of everyday life in, say, 1921, there are still elements of the social fabric that will pique your attention. I wasn’t aware that currency restrictions were still in place in 1959 for British citizens traveling abroad; as I understand it, Britain was worried about its balance of payments and insisted that its citizens would not be allowed to take large sums of money out of the country and spend them. This adds interest to the plot when we realize that although you might have lots of money available in England, if you want to buy an expensive Italian sweater with the cash in your pocket, it affects the rest of your holiday. So there’s lots of opportunity for petty criminality in circumventing the currency regulations.  Similarly there is a smuggling sub-plot and for once it is reasonably realistic in its scale and economics.

I think this novel, and Moyes’s entire oeuvre, is also interesting in terms of when it was written, and how it fits into the overall flow of detective fiction. In 1959, the classic puzzle mystery was pretty much not being written at all. The readers of the time had access to material that was much more exciting — it was the time of Ross Macdonald and long-dead secrets from the past that come bubbling to the surface, not lighthearted mysteries where everything turns out happily. Women writers like Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Charity Blackstock and Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar were writing novels of domestic suspense and the “light mystery” was rather a thing of the past.

I don’t suggest that Moyes got a lot of critical attention for bucking the trend; perhaps she was considered to be turning out merely commercial fiction, but she seems to have been alone and mostly on her own, working away in a niche that no one else seems to have wanted to occupy. She wrote with intelligence and skill, and that evanescent quality that is so hard to attain, charm — and seems not to have been interested in domestic suspense. Is it fair to say she was an early precursor of the modern cozy? Maybe, and maybe not. Certainly the focus on characterization might lead us to think so, but the rather antique form of the timetable mystery is too strict and rigorous for most cozies.

I do recommend this novel, and all her earlier works. In Moyes’s later years she moved to the British Virgin Islands and set many of her books there, and they seem to me to be much less interesting. When you consider that Moyes was Peter Ustinov’s personal assistant for eight years, and also worked at British Vogue, that’s the vein of material that seems to provide the most interesting novels — she’s good at writing about fashion and leisure and the arts. I remember being particularly impressed by Murder a la Mode (1963) and Johnny Under Ground (1965); your mileage may vary.

9408635A note on editions

Patricia Moyes has been frequently in print in the years between 1959 and now; you’ll easily find an inexpensive paperback copy of many of her early works. Rue Morgue, for instance, brought out a trade paperback edition of this title in 2011. I note that a Fine copy in a Fine jacket of the first edition that’s personally inscribed to friends of the author is on sale today for US$450, and that seems about right for her first book. My favourite edition is an early Ballantine paperback seen here, with the skull wearing sunglasses in a red knitted ski helmet. Delightfully lurid and yet not too gruesome.