Most wanted: Rare and collectible crime fiction
Which are the most rare, collectable and valuable crime books? We spoke to the experts at Peter Harrington who told us about some of the genre’s most sought after items.
A quick dive into most highstreets bookshops these days and both the casual browser and the more purposeful seeker-out of the macabre can hardly fail to miss the crime section: a wall paperbacks with stylishly ominous, high-contrast covers, and titles which allude to troubled heroines who always seem to be getting body art or taking public transport.
Crime fiction is clearly booming, attested to by a taxonomy of new sub-genres which seem to spawn so fast it’s hard to keep track. But whilst they might be awaiting the latest Scandi thriller, crime fans know the value of the canon. For those of us who have deduced with Holmes and exercised the little grey cells with Poirot, contemporary crime will always be indebted to its forebears.
There would be no police procedural without Simenon, no cosy crime without Christie, no feminist mystery without Sayers and no rural noir without Faulkner. It is therefore unsurprising that first editions and rare copies of the classics are pursued as hotly as any criminal you might find in their pages.
We spoke to Martin Edwards, crime aficionado and author of eighteen novels, who told us about some of the genre’s most elusive items:
'Collectors of contemporary crime fiction can easily pick up author-signed books in excellent condition: almost all crime conventions today feature mass signings. Much more scarce and valuable are classic crime novels in good condition with well-preserved jackets - even more so if they are signed, and especially if they have an enigmatic inscription -the more mysterious the more fascinating and perhaps more valuable! Golden Age rarities include Six Against the Yard, written by Dorothy L. Sayers and fellow members of the Detection Club (ideally signed by all the contributors) and the fabulously scarce first edition of Trent's Own Case by E.C. Bentley if in its jacket and signed by the author and fellow attendees at "the Trent dinner" launch party in 1936, again including Sayers. And investing in pre-war signed books by Agatha Christie may prove more profitable than putting money in a pension fund.'
Aspiring collectors can also refer to resources such as Queen’s Quorum, a list of the most influential crime fiction put together in 1948 by writers Daniel Nathan and Manfred Bennington Lee (who collaborated under the pseudonym Ellery Queen; Queen’s novels are, themselves, highly collectible).
Similarly, the Haycroft Queen Cornerstones checklist, first published in Howard Haycroft’s definitive guide to Detective fiction, Murder for Pleasure
, published in 1941, was later expanded by Queen and became a standard for both dealers and collectors.
Both lists are still undoubtedly indispensable resources and each bear over a hundred titles. In the interests of brevity and sensationalism, however, we’ve put together a hit list of eight prime suspects from our own current stock, which represent some unusual and highly sought-after items of collectible crime-fiction.
Agatha Christie's Poirot Investigates. 1924
Early works by Christie are notoriously hard to come across in the dust jacket, especially in such good condition. Indeed, only two or three other first editions of Poirot Investigates
with dust jacket have surfaced in the market.
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. 1930
Often considered the yardstick by which all other hard-boiled detective fiction can be measured, first editions of Hammett’s iconic novel are unsurprisingly highly desirable to the collector. Rare enough to find in its original grey cloth binding, this copy unfortunately hasn’t retained it dust jacket; those which have have been known to fetch over $100,000.
Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. 1939
Another example of a dust jacket making all the difference, the striking graphic jacket of this copy of Chandler’s best-known novel is in surprisingly fresh condition. This item would only be worth a fraction of its value without it.
Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. 1892 & 1894
Whilst original bindings are highly prized by some collectors, for others, whose interest lies in the attractiveness of the book, a special edition binding such as this by the Chelsea Bindery might prove a greater draw.
Margery Allingham's Traitor's Purse. 1941
One of the indisputable queens of crime, and sometimes credited with more depth of character than Christie and more compassion than Sayers, Allingham’s detective fiction is still greatly enjoyed. The striking design and good condition of its dust jacket render this copy a desirable collectors’ item.
Margery Allingham; Anthony Berkeley; Freeman Wills Crofts; Fr. Ronald Knox; Dorothy L. Sayers; Russell Thorndike's Six Against the Yard. 1936
A first edition of this unusual variation upon the classic detective anthology, in which six writers (all members of the Detection Club, a group of British mystery writers who met regularly in London in the 1930s) had their stories analysed by George W. Cornish, a recently–retired detective of Scotland Yard.
Ellery Queen's [pseud. of Frederic Dannay & Manfred Bennington Lee] The Roman Hat Mystery. 1929
Deemed to be the scarcest of all first novels by American Golden Age writers, this copy is in the best condition of all known to be extant.
[Anthony Berkeley; as] Francis Iles' Before the Fact. 1932
In its original distinctive Gollancz dust jacket, this thriller by Anthony Berkeley was experimental in that it didn’t follow the traditional ‘whodunit’ structure. The jacket speculates who the pen name Francis Iles could belong to, mentioning E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Hugh Walpole and H. G. Wells.
Many thanks to Rachel, Digital Content Manager and and general book-fancier at Peter Harrington, for this article.
Peter Harrington specialise in selling and buying the finest quality original first editions, signed, rare and antiquarian books, fine bindings and library sets. Find out more at www.peterharrington.co.uk
is the author of eighteen crime novels and The Golden Age of Murder
, and winner of the Edgar, Agatha, Macavity and H.R.F. Keating awards. He recently acted as Series Consultant to the British Library for their Crime Classics series and is also an avid collector of crime fiction. Find out more about Martin at www.martinedwardsbooks.com
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