Collecting Mystery Books – New and Used Mystery Books

by Barry T. Zeman

Detective and mystery fiction has become the most popular area in book collecting in the last 25 years. Yet prior to 1970, relatively few collectors focused on the crime and mystery genre, many venturing tentatively into the pool through their primary interest in “modern literature.” Several different factors have contributed to this remarkable growth, not the least of which is a remarkably talented new generation of writers who have created something of a second “Golden Age” for crime and mystery fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. Here’s how it started…

The Scholarly Framework for Mystery Collecting

The first serious discussion of collecting in the mystery genre was written by John Carter in Collecting Detective Fiction, a 63-page pamphlet published in England by Constable in 1934. (It had originally formed a chapter of his full- length book, New Paths in Book Collecting, also published in 1934.) Little else appeared about the subject until 1941 in the United States when Howard Haycraft wrote Murder for Pleasure, the first comprehensive history and criticism of detective/mystery fiction. It is a landmark book still worth reading today. In it appeared the first iteration of Haycraft’s “Cornerstones of Crime,” a listing of the best or most influential books in the field.

Frederic Dannay was not only a highly popular writer and an influential editor (he and his cousin Manfred B. Lee, the other half of the Ellery Queen writing duo, edited the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for decades and published dozens of anthologies from 1941 through the ’70s), he was also a great bibliophile. Dannay updated and expanded Haycraft’s list a number of times until it reached its final form in 1952 and became known as the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list (or H-Q). This list begins with Voltaire’s Zadig in 1748 and continues through the early 1950s.

Under their Queen pseudonym, Dannay and Lee published a number of books and essays relating to the history of detective/mystery fiction that began to generate interest in collecting. Among those books were The Detective Short Story, which appeared in 1942 followed by In the Queen’s Parlor, and Other Leaves from the Editors’ Notebook in 1957. Their most influential work was Queen’s Quorum, A History of the Detective/Crime Story which was published in a variety of forms until its final appearance in 1969. Dannay was the principal author of this landmark scholarly work which provided in-depth historical and bibliographical information regarding the most important short-story volumes by single authors in the genre. The work of many writers was discussed following a time line from 1845 with Poe’s Tales up through 1967 when Queen gave up adding to the “lustrum.” Although wide ranging, the book centers around the best books in each era or decade, and these volumes are now know as “Queen’s Quorum.” This important work gave focus and direction to a generation of new collectors and “Queen’s Quorum,” like the “H-Q List” is used as a “shopping list” by many collectors today.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a number of detective fiction fanzines sprang up, most notably Allen Hubin’s The Armchair Detective. Over the past 30 years TAD has educated an entire generation of readers about significant mystery writers and their work and, in the process, greatly encouraged mystery collecting. Otto Penzler, who for some years owned TAD, also contributes an influential column “Collecting Mystery Fiction” which has helped define the field. At the moment, TAD is experiencing a publishing hiatus but back issues of this magazine are available in well-stocked library systems and from many mystery booksellers.

In 1979 Allen Hubin made yet another major contribution to the mystery genre. His remarkable, Crime Fiction: A Comprehensive Bibliography1749-1975 which became an essential tool for collectors. (The most recent edition, published in 1994, covers the period of 1749 through 1990.) Shortly thereafter a number of other reference and critical works, aimed at both fans and scholars, helped increase the prestige and the ultimate collectibility of the mystery genre. (See the list of essential reference works in the sidebar. “Resources for Mystery Collector’s.”

The Specialty Booksellers

It was also around the late 1960s and early 1970s that modern literature collectors discovered Hammett and Chandler. When prices for these two giants began to skyrocket during the mid-’70s, modern-literature collectors began looking for other “cross-over” writers. Here began the growth and popularity of collecting writers such as Ross MacDonald, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Ellery Queen. When these authors’ early first editions in dust jacket became pricey and hard to come by, collectors in the field began to acquire newer authors whose first editions could be had at more reasonable prices. This spiralling growth continues today.

Until relatively recently, though, there were very few specialist dealers in the mystery field. The best known was Lew David Feldman of the House of Dieff whose long career ended in the mid-1970s. Feldman was the premier source of fine and rare detective/mystery fiction for the few hundred serious collectors existent in the ’50s and ’60s. In the early ë70s a few mail-order dealers also began to specialize in collectible detective/mystery fiction, most notably Peter Stern (now of Pepper and Stern), Enola Stewart of Gravesend Books, and Bill Dunn (now of Dunn and Powell). They were joined by a few shops who dealt mainly in modern literature such as Serendipity and Joseph The Provider in California, and J&S Graphics and a few others in Chicago, and the rest of the country.

The real surge in growth for the genre, in both reading and, as a result, collecting, was fueled by the advent of the mystery bookstore geared to the general public. Dilys Winn founded Murder Ink, the first retail mystery bookstore, in New York City in 1972. Murder Ink was shortly followed by others until today there are well over a hundred mystery bookstores in the U.S. with more opening every year. There is little doubt that these specialty bookstores have been instrumental in transforming casual readers into well-educated mystery fans and, in many cases, into mystery collectors.

The Future of Collecting

The question of what to collect always surfaces for a new collector. A few years ago at the huge mystery convention known as “Bouchercon,” I had the privilege of moderating a panel of distinguished dealers and experts where this subject engendered great discussion. The universal advice was to find an area in which you have some real interest. You could focus on a specific author or two, an era (e.g., Victorian, Edwardian, the ’50s, etc.), a locale, your profession, a hobby (e.g., trains, autos, wine, coins, stamps, etc), a subgenre, first novels, the high spots in the genre represented by the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone List or Queen’s Quorum, or anything else one can conjure up (including mysteries about magic!).

Some areas of collecting are going to be very difficult; trying to start a collection of fine first editions of certain authors such as Christie, Chandler, Stout, Queen, Woolrich, Hammet, Ian Fleming, or Doyle, will lead to sure disappointment unless you have unlimited funds and free time. The same is true if you want a fine first edition of every book listed on Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list or Queen’s Quorum.

However, there are still relatively undercollected and very affordable areas which present many opportunities. These include books made into movies, paperback originals, pulps, Edgar-winning books in various categories, (you would be surprised at the relatively low price for many of the early Edgar- winners), and currently under-appreciated writers. Some of the latter include Stanley Ellin, Robert Fish, Michael Gilbert and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. There are other well-known and frequently-collected authors whose first editions are undervalued. These include Robert Van Gulik, Mickey Spillane (although his early published firsts have recently become pricey), Donald Westlake (many of his early books are quite a bargain), Marcia Muller, Chester Himes, James M. Cain and Dorothy B. Hughes.

In short, the possiblities in collecting mystery fiction are endless, as is the fascination.

An Annotated Book Collector Reading List

Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine. One year (eleven issues): $40. Mail checks to Firsts, P.O. Box 65166, Tucson, AZ 85728-5166.

Biblio: The Magazine for Collectors of Books, Manuscripts, and Ephemera. One year (twelve issues): $39.90. Mail checks to Biblio, P.O. Box 10603, Eugene OR, 97440 or call 800-840-3810.

[su_amazon_link title=”Detective Fiction: The Collector’s Guide” code=”0859679918″], second ed., by John Cooper and B.A. Pike. Brookfield, Vermont: Scolar Press/Ashgate Publishing Co., 1994. In addition to detailed information on the works of selected major mystery authors (for the most part British), this book also offers a good general introduction to collecting.

Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide, by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. New York: Putnam, 1995. A good general introduction to book collecting.

[su_amazon_link title=”ABC for Book Collectors” code=”1884718051″], seventh ed., by John Carter, revised by Nicolas Barker. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1995. Concise, informative and wittyóthis standard reference work offers clear definitions of the technical terms used in book collecting. Invaluable for the beginner and expert alike.

[su_amazon_link title=”Crime Fiction II: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1749-1990″ code=”0824068912″], by Allen J. Hubin. New York: Garland, 1994. Two volumes. The most complete and accurate of all mystery novel bibliographies. Includes indexes to author, titles, settings, series, series character chronology, films, screenwriters and directors.

[su_amazon_link title=”St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers” code=”1558621784″], 4th Edition, Jay P. Pederson, editor. Chicago: St. James, 1996. Includes critical essays on writers by a variety of distinguished critics, bibliographies of each author’s work, biographical information, short story information, etc. The standard reference to major writers in the field.

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Barry Zeman is the author of numerous nonfiction articles and essays on the history and criticism of detective fiction. A longtime member of Mystery Writers of America, he has been that organization’s Historian and Archivist for well over a decade and currently also serves as Treasurer. He owns an extensive collection of mystery fiction.


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