Jun 092014
We made our annual trip to Printer's Row for what used to be an exciting book festival. I expected a wow of a festival for the 30th anniversary. There used to be lots of vendors selling collectible and vintage books of all types. Now the book market and the Lit Fest itself has changed. Less antiquarian dealers, a lot more contemporary books. New books everywhere. New writers, too. It's more about coming to hear writers talk about their work and an opportunity for indie press to promote their books.

This year I noticed more self-published writers hawking their wares. With fewer real booksellers showing up that allows more space for self-published writers. I guess that's why it's now called the Lit Fest instead of the Printer's Row Book Fair.

Sadly, it felt more like a flea market this year. Loads of junky books, boxes filled with book club editions that were waterstained and sunned, lots of books with remainder marks. And IMO there were way too many people selling self-published books. I was pretty depressed as I made my way through the booths.

So with fewer dealers selling vintage books I came home with a meager pile of six books. Here's what I picked up. Finding the Q. Patrick reprint pretty much lifted my mood for the rest of the day. I don't care if it's damaged DJ with many rips and tears. Where else could I find a hard to find hardcover by a fantastic mystery writer whose books are all sadly out of print for only five bucks? Made the trip worth it.

 Posted by at 12:26 am
May 112014
A collection of maternally themed dust jackets (plus one pulp magazine) for Mother's Day.

1st UK edition

1st US edition

1st UK edition

1st US edition

 Posted by at 5:53 pm
Apr 062014
Hey gang, this a combination Left Inside post and a contest!

It's not a mystery to me, but it may be to you. I know the book in which I found this fragment of a front panel DJ being used as a bookmark.  But can you identify that book?

Your only hint: I reviewed the book in the past two weeks. The intact front panel of the original first edition DJ was used to illustrate my post. Your mission should you choose to accept it: Locate that post and match the piece shown here to the correct DJ.

Ignore the purple background.  That was a heavy book I needed to place on top of the DJ fragment in order to get it to stay put on the scanner. Pay attention only to the two letters and the yellow and white of the original design.

DO NOT LEAVE THE ANSWER IN THE COMMENTS. Instead, please email your answer. There is an email link on my profile page here.

First three people with the correct answer will receive a free book of your choosing from a list I will email you. The list will be made up of nearly every book -- both new and vintage -- that I have reviewed since the beginning of the year, plus a slew of review copies from this year and 2013 that I have amassed. Here's a chance to get a scarce vintage book or a relatively new one for free!

Good luck, Mr. Phelps.

*   *   *

Well, that was over rather fast.  I got several replies within two hours of the post and all (of course!) were 100% correct. The DJ fragment comes from Death Goes to A Reunion by Kathleen Moore Knight. The three winners are:  Brian Busby, Noah Stewart and Kelly Robinson. Shortly, I'll be sending you the list from which you can choose your book. Thanks to all who participated. Good to hear from some of you "lurkers!"
 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Mar 092014
For me it's always interesting to see how very well known books were first marketed before they reached their legendary status. Take this book (advertised in the Feb 15, 1930 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature) now a permanent part of American pop culture, for example:

(Click to enlarge and read the fine print)
I think only the most diehard fan knows that Hammett was once an operative with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Sam Spade was also billed a "shyster detective" and a "Don Juan", apparently traits that Knopf thought would sell the book. I won't comment further on the last portion of Spade's description.
 Posted by at 3:50 pm
Feb 162014

This is my 500th post on Pretty Sinister Books and it's not about a book. It's about Corpus Delicti, an original play receiving it's premiere by Madkap Productions here in Chicago. And why did I choose to tell you about this as my milestone 500th post?

Because I'm in the cast of five. Yes, that's me in the publicity photo.

Here's the blurb from the theater company's website:
Poetic justice is sometimes the most just.

Albert is an ex-con trying to rebuild his life. He lives a bitter and lonely existence brightened only by working alongside his perky teenage niece in Contrapasso's book restoration shop. When he finds out that his new boss is a murderer, he must find a way to prove it before going back to jail himself for the crime.

CORPUS DELICTI - a world premiere suspense thriller by David Alex
What appealed to me and the reason I auditioned for this play is because it is set in an antiquarian bookshop. I play the very disturbed owner of the shop who likes to supplement his income by restoring and selling valuable stolen books. When someone catches him at his larcenous hobby he strikes back violently.

The play has some interesting parallels with Dante's Inferno. All of the characters are named after characters in The Divine Comedy or the author himself. The play also includes some allusions to crime fiction as well. One of the books being restored during the course of the play is a copy of The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green. It's not so much of a whodunit as it is an inverted mystery. The audience watches the bad guy do all his nasty work and waits eagerly for villain's comeuppance.

I hope anyone who lives in Chicago or in the outlying suburbs will make a special effort to see this exciting new play. The rest of the cast, especially the young actress who plays Beatrice (seen above), are a remarkably talented group and the play has been directed to instill suspense. There are also some nice touches of comedy and poignancy amid all the skulduggery, cruelty and violence.

The play runs from February 27 through March 23 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue just south of Belden in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago's northside. Tickets and all other info are available online at the MadKap Productions website.
 Posted by at 7:24 am
Feb 022014
Periodically I find myself stuck in the pages of magazines (there's a punny sentence for you!). Usually I'm perusing old reviews of forgotten and obscure murder mysteries and adventure novels. Every now and then along the sidebar margins I find an advertisement or two that catches my eye. This is how I learned of the existence of Aunt Beardie, a fantastic example of the historical mystery done well with a whopper of an ending.

Now that my collection of ephemera has been completely exhausted, and the usual Sunday feature "Left Inside" is a very rare occurrence (the last one was in the summer of 2013), I am substituting it with a new feature called "Found Bound". Every other Sunday I'll be posting ads, cartoons and other interesting tidbits I find in magazines of the past.

Today we look at an advertising gimmick created by the clever gang at Simon & Schuster, one of the oldest existing publishing houses in the United States. S&S was very innovative when marketing their mysteries. They invented Pocket Books in the late 1920s, the very first mass market paperback imprint in the United States. Additionally, they were one of the first publishers to create a hardcover imprint solely for detective fiction ("Inner Sanctum Mysteries") and were rather clever in getting their message out to their audience. Below are two ads found in two early 1940s issues of The Saturday Review done along the lines of a newsletter they called "The Gory Gazette."

I've read the Woolrich novel The Black Curtain (1941) advertised in the second set of illustrations and highly recommend it. I've not yet found a copy of Gypsy Rose Lee's second mystery novel Mother Finds a Body (1942), but I'm still looking. BTW -- Lee did in fact write her own books. They were not ghost written by Craig Rice no matter what numerous websites and reference books are trying to convince you otherwise.

Click to enlarge all scans in order to read the ads.

 Posted by at 5:58 pm
Jan 292014
Lilly Library (photo by "Vmenkov")
While researching Victor L. Whitechurch, whose books I am currently reading, I came across a fascinating post at the website for Indiana University's Lilly Library which has one of the most remarkable collections of detective and crime fiction in the United States. Back in 1973 the library celebrated the 130th anniversary of the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with an exhibit entitled "The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction, 1841-1941."

Among the books are some other ephemera including the drawing reproduced below.  I've long known of G. K. Chesterton's ability as a sketch artist and cartoonist but never knew that he was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Sherlock Holmes stories. Below is his rendering of the near fatal struggle on the cliffs of the Reichenbach Falls.

The note in the exhibit catalog accompanying this drawing says:
G. K. Chesterton was once commissioned to illustrate the Doyle stories (imagine Father Brown on Sherlock Holmes)! The volume was never published, but Lilly has his sketches, among them the Reichenbach scene, done in blue crayon.
The entire contents of the exhibit along with program notes are posted at the Lilly Library website here.  It's an excellent resource for any devotee of the history of detective fiction. I've already made note of three writers who until I read the catalog I had never heard of. Unfortunately, the exhibit's catalog notes for one of those writers ruined a book for me by revealing the ending.
 Posted by at 3:09 pm
Jan 122014
Work: Armadale by Wilkie Collins
(Harper & Brothers, 1866)
1st US edition

Artists: George H Thomas (drawings)
and William Thomas (engraving)

As a teaser for an upcoming review here are the illustrations taken from the original United States edition of Armadale. This mammoth novel was originally published serially in The Cornhill Magazine from November 1864 to June 1866. The illustrations used in both the first UK and US editions were taken from the magazine serial. While the UK first edition includes all the original illustrations by the Thomas brothers the US edition is missing about five drawings.

George Housman Thomas (1824-1867) studied wood engraving with George Bonner, set up an engraving business in Paris, and illustrated books for both American and British publishers. Some of his work is included in the Royal Collection in England. Perhaps his most notable work appeared in the first US edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. While living in New York for a brief period he was also contracted to engrave American banknotes.

William Luson Thomas (1830-1800) did the engraving and signed all the illustrations for Armadale. George, however, is credited as the primary illustrator on the title page of the first UK edition (Smith & Elder, 1866). William founded the illustrated newspaper The Graphic late in his life. Explaining the original concept of the paper he writes: "The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only five pence."

For detailed biographical information on William Luson Thomas go here. For the life of his brother George visit this website.

Click on the images below for full size appreciation.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Dec 102013
I get a lot of book catalogs in my email and I peruse them mostly for my select interests: Victorian sensation fiction and obscure detective, supernatural and adventure fiction. Every now and then pulp magazines strike my fancy. While looking over the pulps offered by Michael John Thompson, a bookseller in British Columbia, I came across one of the most absurd catalog listings ever. It's reproduced below (with some typos fixed) along with the illustration that accompanies the listing.

I'd file this under "Why Bother?" Seems it was included in the catalog only for the amusement of the bookseller and his customers. He's right about that artwork. It's a real nightmare.


HODGSON, William Hope [marginal interest].
$30.00 CAD

First edition. Quarto, original pictorial wrappers, stapled at spine. A fanzine, issued in an edition of 104 numbered copies, this being copy #56. 17 pp. Contains Editorials and Convention reports, no fiction. Most notably, it bears perhaps the singularly worst drawing ever to illustrate a Hodgson story, the cover artwork, which is by Bill Grant. The editor prints a long report on the convention, an SF con; and reproduces the signatures of the likes of Bok, Leiber, Williamson et al., but it is of little interest. In fact, there really is nothing of interest in this fanzine at all except for the atrocious cover artwork. It's not like anybody needs to buy this thing - it's hideous. A very good copy in original wrappers, if that matters.

You can click to enlarge this, but be prepared for a real horror show.

 Posted by at 3:29 pm
Nov 062013
Who was Nicholas Olde? No one seems to know. In addition to this collection of clever and often quite funny mystery short stories, Olde apparently was also the author of two slim volumes of poetry published in pamphlet form in the early 1930s. It is generally thought that Olde was a pseudonym and attempts to uncover any biographical data on him have yielded nothing. Whoever he was he certainly read a lot of G. K. Chesterton. The plots and dialogue are rife with the kind of paradox that Chesterton imbued his mystery stories—not only with Father Brown but also in the Gilbert Pond stories and the tales found in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Another Chestertonian aspect of some of the stories is an element of the supernatural and the impossible crime, or more often an impossible problem. Chesterton employed these often in the Father Brown stories. Readers will surely find analogies between many stories. “The Windmill” by Olde and “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton share similar solutions to their crimes, for instance. “The Monstrous Laugh” tells of a town haunted by phantom laughter and a local superstition that is similar to the seemingly supernatural aspects of “The Ghost of Gideon Wise,” “The Dagger with Wings” and several other Father Brown tales.

Robert Adey in his excellent bibliography of impossible crime stories and novels, Locked Room Murders, makes a side comment about Olde’s book having been undeservedly passed up for Queen’s Quorum status. Had it been listed in that Hall of Fame listing of seminal short story collections in the detective fiction genre, Olde would perhaps not have been condemned to obscurity and the book might not have descended into the limbo of forgotten and neglected works. In the countless anthologies devoted to crime and detective fiction published since the 1930s, only three publications have ever included a Rowland Hern story: “The Windmill” in Twelve Murder Tales, one of Jack Adrian’s anthologies for Oxford University Press (1988); “The Accidental Disembowelment of John Kensington" and “The Invisible Weapon” both in Japanese translation, the first in Hayakawa's Mystery Magazine (#468, 1995) and the other in a 1990s locked room story anthology, the title of which is Japanese (I cannot reproduce it here). It’s a shame this has happened because The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern contains some of the most ingenious and funny detective stories of the 1920s.

Like most detective fiction fans I had never heard of Nicholas Olde or Rowland Hern. No surprise given the fact that Olde and the quirky Rowland Hern have both been overlooked (or shunned) by nearly all of the crime fiction historians and critics. Through sheer serendipity -- that miracle that usually leads me to a treasure of a book -- I was lucky enough to obtain a copy through the internet in the spring of 2005. Lucky, because as I later discovered, it is among one of the rarer books in mysterydom and sought after by collectors of impossible crime stories. Later research revealed that the copy I stumbled upon was the only copy being offered via the internet and has been the only one for several years. An attempt to locate other copies, even in academic libraries or public libraries, showed less than ten copies held in the US and UK. There may be other copies in private collections, but I’ve been unable to verify the existence of even one. All of this made me think that someone ought to reissue this book. And the sooner the better.

As I delved into its pages I discovered the book to be filled with the bizarre, the surreal and the outrageous. Throughout the fifteen stories in the volume the reader is treated to several wicked clergymen, a devious physicist, a vengeful botanist, and many murderous lords, earls and other titled gentry. The plots involve a secret code in a lost language, a murder committed with an invisible weapon, a tell-tale beard, a near disembowelment, a village where no one laughs, and a killer whose motive is linked to a literal battle of wits.

The more I read the more I thought Olde cannot really intend these to be taken seriously. They must be detective fiction parodies. As such they are perhaps some of the earliest examples. I can think of only Philo Gubb, the correspondence school sleuth created by the American humorist Ellis Parker Butler, as the earliest of intentional detective fiction parodies in short story form. The first clue that Olde’s mood is far from somber in ...Rowland Hern are the characters’ decidedly British and often alliterative monikers. Here’s a brief line-up of these unusual suspects: Pounceby Brisket, K.C., Sir Chudleigh Chalfont, Mrs. Tregaskin Simpson, Hercules Herklot, Sir Pendragon Higginbotham and Porteous Pemberton- Drysdale. And the names give only a hint of the oddities that the reader will encounter.

In “Potter”, one of my favorites in the collection, Hern and his nameless sidekick head off to a boutique that specializes in the sale of exotic animals. Why? Because Hern is in need of an armadillo and the emporium has several sizes to choose from. Their advertisement is certainly enticing to anyone in search of exotic animals: “Potter & Hara, Wild Beast Merchants. Tigers from £85, certified Man-eaters 5s extra. Snakes and crocodiles a specialty. Free burglary insurance policy presented to each customer.” How can one go wrong with those promises? Exactly why Hern needs that desert beast is never explained. And must we really know? The mere fact that he needs an armadillo is surreal enough. How many fictional detectives have ever required an armadillo to solve a case? Or for anything!

Olde’s sense of humor reaches its pinnacle in “The Mysterious Wig-Box.” For a story written in 1920s it displays a truly contemporary black humor presenting us with legal professionals who make light of killing and death during a sensational murder trial. Their lively repartee receives hearty laughter and applause from the irreverent courtroom attendees. The trial ends in a surprising acquittal of the serial killer thought to be obviously guilty. Later the defense attorney (one of the punning wits of the courtroom) is found decapitated in his home and his head decorated with his barrister’s wig is found in a wig-box in a railway station. Hern sees in this bizarre crime a particularly nasty sense of humor. The victim lost his head, after all, along with his ears and nose. What appears to be a wanton and insane act is in fact a purposeful and vengeful crime. When Hern reveals the killer’s identity his cohort is astonished. He says, “Apparently [they] were on the best of terms. […] They were even joking with one another during the trial.” Hern replies, in his characteristic Chestertonian paradoxical manner, “Yes, and that was the trouble.” It was their sense of humor which led to the crime. The first time I know of in crime fiction that the telling of jokes served as a motive for murder.

For decades The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern was one of the legendary and unattainable books of the genre. Thankfully, that is a thing of the past.  Mystery fans now have an affordable edition to enjoy available from Ramble House. Nicholas Olde’s original sleuth need no longer be imprisoned in that limbo of forgotten and neglected fictional creations. I suggest you acquaint yourself with him soon.

(This is an abridged, slightly altered version of my introduction to the Ramble House edition of The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern first reissued in 2005.)
 Posted by at 4:36 am