A Typophile’s Notes Books

Mysteries without murders

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In the real world, people don’t kill over a rare book

This craze for rare books breeds crime,” quips a character in Carolyn Wells’ ‘The Shakespeare Title Page Mystery’. And so it does — but what kind of crime? Murder? Mutilation? Serial killing? If we are to believe most bibliomysteries, it would be all of those — however, in the real world of antiquarian dealing and collecting there is no murder or mayhem; the darkest, most heinous crime is usually theft, or deception and deceit in one form or another.

But killing someone over a rare book? Nope — doesn’t happen. Even in that lone instance a few years ago of an English antiquities dealer (in, among other things, Harry Potter first editions) who was brutally stabbed in an altercation, it seemed unlikely that the motive had anything to do with rare books.

Quite silly

Bibliomysteries persist in depicting the world of rare books as murderous and dark, while the opposite is true: it is made of up genial, decent, gentle, ethical men and women — whether collectors, librarians, or booksellers — who are probably not beyond possessing a foible or two, which could be anything from being ill-tempered to being vain or greedy. Or just coming off as too garrulous, show-offy or boring. But they are not going to, for example, enter your house on some false pretence to chop your arm off because they suspect you to be a forger. This portrayal of the antiquarian book world as being capable of such psychotic behaviour I have always found unconvincing and silly even in the best bibliomysteries.

My own preference is for bibliomysteries that show the reader a world of professional dealers and accomplished collectors who are, in the main, fair-minded though not beyond the wiles and temptations of bibliomania. Another annoying feature of contemporary bibliomysteries is how little bibliophily there is in most of them. They promise a plot about rare books and collectors but they all turn out to be conventional mysteries with the predictable body count, list of suspects, time-wasting investigation, red herrings, etc. There is no ‘biblio’ in these bibliomysteries.

Secret ring

My preference is for mysteries that involve the world of rare books and collectors where the plot turns on mischief and deception rather than something that turns on the bloody, far-fetched or just fantastic (like stumbling on some alternative universe of books, à la The Shadow of the Wind and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). Everything in these bloodless bibliomysteries is low key, realistic, familiar, recognisable, with just a hint or dash of trickery in it.

The Nijmegen Proof, which I wrote a column on recently, is the great classic in this category. There is one other realistic bibliomystery, just as underrated as The Nijmegen Proof, that deserves notice. Knock or Ring by Michael Nelson, written in 1957, is a sharp, witty and knowledgeable biblio-novel on the shady but prevalent practice of big-name, powerful booksellers forming a secret ring to control the prices of rare books at an auction.

The way it works is simple: the Ring, usually made up of the top rare-book dealers in the field, agree to not bid against each other in an auction. Instead, each of them bids on different lots, and usually the other bidders in the room — made of either collectors or librarians or booksellers with less clout — know better than to go up against the ring, allowing the bidder from the ring to make low bids and have it knocked down to him for a fraction of the price it would have realised if the bidding had been honest and vigorous.

Later, the ring will meet and hold a private auction amongst themselves (which they call a “knockout”) and divide the loot between them. In Knock or Ring, a hapless, failed antiquarian dealer finds himself unexpectedly tangling with the Ring when he happens to bid for a very rare book that the Ring is desperate to snag.

All the fun and suspense in the book is from watching this reluctant hero take on the mighty London Ring. Will he beat them at their own game, or fail again? I’ll let you find out for yourself. If you are fed up, like I am with gumshoe bibliomysteries and crave for something more bibliophilic, then Knock or Ring is just what you want.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 11:11:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/mysteries-without-murders/article23693301.ece

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