book collecting, Jacket Required  Comments Off on JACKET REQUIRED: If I Were A Rich Man
Jan 252015

Not only do I collect books in DJs sometimes I collect photos of DJs that I encounter in book catalogs and on the net. Here are a few attractive rarities I wish I could buy. I own a few of these without DJs like the ultra scarce 1st American edition of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The 5:18 Mystery and both Bertram Atkey books. Upgrading to copies in jacket would cost me a mini fortune.  I’m content just to look at the DJs I wish I could afford if I were a lot more wealthy.

The DJ shown for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir below is not for my US edition, but for the incredibly rare UK 1st edition. The price tag on that book ranges from $465 to $1200 depending on condition.  The mind boggles.

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Jan 092015

Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is at her most frustratingly oracular and infuriatingly intuitive mode in Groaning Spinney (1950). I hesitate to call this a detective novel because frankly it isn’t though there is the barest trace of Mrs. Bradley’s keen detective skills put to use. This is a crime novel with an obvious set of criminals; there are no real surprises in the denouement for those who crave that in their mystery fiction. Still there are an intriguing enough set of circumstances surrounding a couple of puzzling crimes that kept me reading.

I haven’t read any of Mitchell’s books in anything resembling chronological order. I tend to pick them based on the plot summaries and whether or not a handful of Mitchell experts consider the book one of her best. I guess if I had stuck to a rigid order reading process I might have noticed the subtle change from her parody of the detective novel format (while still remaining somewhat true to the fair play doctrine) to this current style of crime novel where the puzzles really don’t matter to her, but the characters and situations do. For obvious reasons I have avoided most of the duds ever since I inadvertently read about three of them back to back and was turned off of Gladys Mitchell for a long time. Mitchell can be, at least to me, incredibly dull and “unreadable” sometimes — a word Mitchell herself has blithely leveled at John Dickson Carr. Sacrilege! With all my reading history in mind you may understand why Groaning Spinney just passes muster for me, but only for a variety of set pieces and the revelation of one of the cruelest and most sadistic crimes Mitchell ever invented.

Basically, the story is a borderline impossible crime story that incorporates the legend of ghost that haunts the forest of the title. When a dead man is found in the very same position that the ghost likes to adopt (hanging over a stone fence face first) there is superstitious talk of a ghostly murderer wreaking revenge. Then a woman goes missing and the village begins to be plagued with an explosion of nasty and insinuating poison pen letters. Did someone strike back at the anonymous letter writer when the toxic words struck too close to home? Mrs. Bradley, her nephew Jonathan Lestrange, and his wife Deborah all join forces with a curious and baffled police constabulary as well as the rigidly rational Chief Constable to get to the bottom of the villainy. There is confusion about whether or not anyone has been murdered and if so what method was employed which makes this a quasi-impossible crime. There is also the oddity of the positioning of the body and how it got here in the first place that adds to the mystery. But the novel is focused mostly on character and a brilliantly realized country setting.

The ghost element is weakly handled, not really as creepy as in other better Mrs. Bradley books that deal with possibly supernatural events surrounding a murder. But a completely different type of near supernatural aspect was utterly fascinating. This is in the character of Ed Brown, who reminded me of how Dickon from The Secret Garden might have turned out in his adulthood. Ed has an uncanny ability to befriend wild animals, especially birds. There is not a single scene where he appears in the book where some creature doesn’t walk up to him fearlessly or a robin flies down from a tree to perch on his shoulder. His animal magic comes in handy in the final uncovering of the convoluted murder plot involving insurance fraud and impersonation. Ed Brown was the most original and my favorite character in the book. His presence alone was worth the price of admission.

Young Gladys as she is depicted on
vintage Penguin editions of her books

That is not to say that Aunt Adela (why does she waver between wanting to be called Beatrice and Adela? Yet to figure that out.) is not in fine form here. We get to see her being a crackshot with a pistol yet again and in the climactic fox hunt we see she is quite the badass equestrian putting to shame men half her age with her athletic skill on horseback. Her detecting talents here are mostly confined to the usual oracular and enigmatic statements about knowing who the culprit is early on but not telling anyone her thoughts. “To the devil with your metaphors and quotations,!” the exasperated Chief Constable shoots back at Mrs. Bradley in one of Mitchell’s wittier moments. Later in this sequence Mrs. Bradley says, “You have no fear, and I will have no scruples,” much like a cloaked and bedrugged Sibyl. Yet amid all the banter and allusion dropping the reader can’t help become frustrated with the author for not letting him in on her lead character’s thoughts. Mrs. Bradley intuits too much, guesses a lot, and — of course — everything she has mentioned or alluded to is proven correct in the end. But we’d never know if she was telling the truth or not, would we? I really find this kind of detective novel tactic tiresome and sometimes infuriating.

This is a rather unusual Mitchell novel in that I kept finding analogies to other books I’ve read in the past. Most of her story telling is unique and all her own, but this time Gladys seemed to be borrowing a lot although I will admit it’s just all coincidence. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was reading a Patricia Wentworth novel. Mrs. Bradley was acting exactly like Maud Silver without the supercilious coughing and clacking of knitting needles. Most eyebrow raising to me were the echoes of the savagery on display in that horror-cum-detective novel The Grindle Nightmare in both the method and teamwork of the culprits involved in Groaning Spinney. Fans of noir and gruesomely dispatched murders might like this book but it’s along haul to get to the violent and truly horrific pay-off.

Leading me to a warning: there are animal deaths in this book. They all occur offstage and therefore the reader is spared the gory possibilities, but the discovery of some dead dogs will not endear Mitchell to any lovers of man’s best friend. I’ve read several books in the past with torture and slaughter of household pets and mentioned it almost off-handedly in my reviews only to learn many readers of this blog avoid any book with animal deaths. So I thought I’d throw this out as a cautionary label.

Groaning Spinney has been out of print for ages but thanks to amazon.com’s Thomas & Mercer line and the UK branch of Random House’s Vintage Crime imprint this scarce title is available again both as a physical book and an electronic one. In the US you can get only a digital version, but in the UK you have your choice of either. Granted the Vintage Crime Classics are not at all attractive books with their unimaginative typographic covers on a scarlet background and they are manufactured print on demand, but there are perfect replicas of the original first UK editions inside. And they are still a heck of a lot cheaper than shelling out over $200 for a crappy reading copy. In a fit of book buying mania I bought about five Mitchell books I’ve been wanting to read for over ten years now but have never been able to find in the used book market. You can be sure that I’ll be reporting on those, both good and bad, when I’m done with them.

 Posted by at 4:49 pm

Printer’s Row Lit Fest 2014

 book collecting, Chicago life  Comments Off on Printer’s Row Lit Fest 2014
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

JACKET REQUIRED: Maternal Instinct

 book collecting, DJ art, Jacket Required  Comments Off on JACKET REQUIRED: Maternal Instinct
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

LEFT INSIDE: Identify this DJ Piece and Win a Book!

 book collecting, book giveaways, Left Inside  Comments Off on LEFT INSIDE: Identify this DJ Piece and Win a Book!
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

FOUND BOUND: Ex-Private Eye Turns Writer

 book collecting, Found Bound, publishing history  Comments Off on FOUND BOUND: Ex-Private Eye Turns Writer
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

STAGE BLOOD: Corpus Delicti Opening Soon

 book collecting, Chicago life, plays, Stage Blood  Comments Off on STAGE BLOOD: Corpus Delicti Opening Soon
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