Stuff 3: Books 3 June 21, 2016
Books. As in sorting. I’ve just spent two weeks of my so-called spare time moving books around the house. Result: a satisfyingly tidy office. Two offices, counting my husband’s.
We’ve also ended up with four boxes of recent books in good condition that I plan to try to sell, and five filled with older volumes, some of them pretty ragged, these ones destined for neighbours. The first of these are already going out on the front lawn. Free Books. Help Yourself!
Yet getting to this stage was tough, as I took book after book off the shelf and looked in its face while trying to decide what to do. A writer can’t help agonizing. People put their hearts into most of these books, or at least carved out the time to write them, probably hoping against hope to earn a little money.
But what should I do with a book like Murder in the Mews by Helen Reilly, an 85-year-old crime novel? I forgotten I’d bought the thing. Hadn’t read it. From the looks of it, never really bought it to read, but picked it up for the design. The copy I have is a striking hard cover first edition published in 1931 by The Crime Club, a division of Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. I have no memory of where I got it.
Opening the book, I could see that I probably also bought it as a joke. The victim is a man named Knox, like my husband, and on page one, Reilly’s detective calls up a journalist, also like my husband, to help him chase the murderer around New York.
Reading it one night, and found that Reilly’s detective is Inspector Christopher McKee, usually called the Scotchman, a reference to his nationality rather that his drink. Inspector McKee is a hardboiled New York detective assigned to Manhattan around 1930. Aside from his nickname, he isn’t given much individuality, at least until a later scene when we’re told McKee has only recently learned to drive, and see him bashing his car into obstacles, including a horse and cart. New York has more personality than McKee does: its speakeasies and slums and the titular mews, described so particularly that the book has become social history.
“He and Joan had been having tea at Jabowski’s, one of those little Russian places to which everyone goes at once and then suddenly to which no one goes at all, so that they vanish without leaving a trace.”
“It was dusk when she came out of the subway and turned to the right. She knew the locality fairly well and found the street slanting bleakly away in the twilight with the little park opposite, very green and still in the gray haze of evening. The baby-carriage parade had retired for the night. Windows in graystone blocks were lighting up. Here and there a radio boomed.”
“It was a handsome house of gray stone, in the American basement fashion. A door protected by an ornate iron grill, with some windows at each side, opened directly off the pavement, with the main apartments on the floor above. The house was flanked on one side by a towering hotel and on the other by houses like itself, fine, old-fashioned private residences slowly retreating before the fashionable shops and apartment hotels that were invading the entire district. There was nothing as vulgar as a show window, but a small black enameled sign that bore the name ‘Madame Gessler’ on it in green letters.”
Nosing around online, I found that Helen Reilly had churned out 34 detective novels from 1930 until her death in 1962—37 if you count three books written under the name Kieran Abbey—more than one a year. Golden Age detective aficionados seem to think Murder in the Mews isn’t as good as her later titles, being only the second appearance of Inspector McKee, and a beginner effort.
According to abebooks, my edition of Murder in the Mews sells for between US $19 and $35, although there are two copies of a rare paperback edition listed for US $225.05 and $361.69, which sent me downstairs for a search.
My husband has a pulp fiction collection numbering about 1,000 titles. Add that to the other 2,000-plus books in the house and you can see why I’ve been culling. A look through his collection didn’t turn up the rare paperback, but I found a copy of Reilly’s Murder in Shinbone Alley, another Inspector McKee mystery, this one from the Popular Library (“Mysteries of Proven Merit”) published in 1944 and listed as A Wartime Book.
“This complete and unabridged edition is produced in compliance with government regulations conserving paper and other critical materials”—which seem to include periods, since there isn’t one at the end of the sentence.
Unhappily, this second Inspector McKee novel is only listed for only five bucks on abebooks, so all told we’re holding about $25 to $40 of Helen Reilly’s oeuvre.
Yet if you multiply 1,000 pulp fiction titles by $5 each, and consider that some are indeed rarities, my husband has amassed a pretty valuable collection. Whether it’s a collection of books is another question. Like most pulps, Murder in Shinbone Alley was cheaply produced and is now too delicate to read, the spine threatening to crack even when carefully half-opened.
Are they books if you can’t read them? Maybe they’re artifacts, interesting because of the cover design, and for the insight into what people read in the 30s, 40s and 50s: what mysteries, what reprinted literature, which books of advice, what sort of sports books and serious non-fiction.
The pulps aren’t going anywhere. And Murder in the Mews? I’ll keep it for now, wondering if Reilly’s descriptions of New York at the start of the Depression might prove useful in some future writing project. Not that I have a clue what.
Meanwhile, I’ve been putting out discards and the neighbours have been slowly picking them up. Maybe 40 or 50 books have disappeared so far, which is heartening, especially after talking with used book dealers.
Which wasn’t heartening at all.