It’s been a little while since I featured a British Library Crime Classic on the blog, but I wanted to share my thoughts today on a recent release from the publisher which is a rather special one. The book is “Death of a Bookseller” by Bernard J. Farmer and it’s the 100th release in the series – what a milestone! And it’s an apt choice for a celebratory release, being set as it is in the arcane world of second hand book selling, particularly as the BL have brought back into print so many titles which had disappeared into obscurity and couldn’t even be found to purchase in a used state! So I approached this book with interest, particularly drawn in by the lovely image on the cover.

Originally published in 1956, “Death… has been out of print for decades and has apparently been much sought after by collectors. Author Farmer had a lively life, including a stint in Canada as well as time spent in the police force (which probably informs his strong sense of the kind of way a policeman should behave). He was a book collector himself and wrote a number of mysteries featuring his protagonist, Jack Wigan, who in this book is a Sergeant. As the story begins, Wigan encounters a drunken man on his way home. This is Michael Fisk, a book dealer who is celebrating the discovery of a signed copy of Keats’ “Endymion”. Wigan escorts Fisk home and the two become friends, with Wigan subsequently taking up book collecting in a minor way as a hobby. However, when Fisk is found stabbed in his library, the CID call upon Wigan to help the investigation, as his friendship with the victim and knowledge of books will be of use. A suspect is identified; there is circumstantial evidence against him; and a jury find him guilty, with a hanging scheduled.

However, Wigan is not convinced that the man is guilty. The evidence seems too slight, the man’s motive not quite right and Wigan’s judge of character leaves him to doubt that the condemned prisoner could do such a thing. However, he’s up against a hard-nosed DI who’s convinced the verdict is right and Wigan has no authority whatsoever to investigate. But he’s a persistent man, and employing the help of a ‘runner’, Charlie, he tries to dig deeper. The pair are running out of time, and the case seems no clearer – will they be able to find out the truth and make sure the right man goes to the gallows?

“Death…” is an entertaining and, towards the end, quite gripping story! Wigan is an engaging sleuth, although hide-bound by procedure; however, the action steps up a bit when Wigan gains an ally in Charlie, and even more so when one of the second-hand booksellers also gets involved. Ah, the booksellers! They’re a fascinating lot, and I would love to know if they’re at all based on any real-life individuals or firms! There are the honest dealers, the large auction houses and also the individuals chasing down rare copies to sell on to the rich.

One particularly lively character is Ruth Brent, employed to search out rare editions for an American client (who also makes an appearance); neither of these two is that honest or above breaking the law. Then there’s the wonderfully eccentric Searle Connington who lives with his strange sister and has the imagination to see how the killer may be tracked down. And throughout the narrative are books; rare editions, banned and arcane witchcraft books, the Keats, and a lot of G. A. Henty, the children’s author who was apparently a great favourite of Farmer’s. Having a glimpse into the world of book-dealing over half a century ago is quite fascinating, and I wonder if it’s still like that?

“Death of a Bookseller” was a marvellous choice for the 100th British Library Crime Classic. The plotting is great, the setting wonderfully evoked, the rare books mentioned quite tantalising, and the race against time did have me on the edge of my seat! I enjoyed watching the straightforward Wigan doing his detecting, and the contrast between him and the more sophisticated types in the book collecting world was well done. However, the introduction of Connington as detecting ally was inspired and added much to the narrative – so entertaining!

So I must congratulate British Library Publishing and series consultant Martin Edwards on the success of the Crime Classics; they’ve certainly brought much joy and distraction for me when I needed it, particularly over the difficult last couple of years. “Death of a Bookseller” is a worthy addition to the series and if you love GA crime and books, this is definitely one for you! 😀