Undercover Bronchitis: “Death of a Bookseller” & “The Widening Stain”

Mysteries were a solace this month during a bout of bronchitis.  I was captivated by Bernard J. Farmer’s Death of a Bookseller,  a charming novel published in the British Library Crime Classics series.

Death of a Bookseller. published in 1956, is set in the cutthroat world of the antiquarian book trade.  It all begins when Sergeant Wigan, a sensible, dutiful police officer bicycling home from work, meets a drunk, who introduces himself as Mike Fisk, staggering down the sidewalk. Mike says he has been drinking to celebrate the find of a lifetime -John Keats’ own copy of Endymion – worth millions.  Wigan courteously escorts him home, and the two get to talking about the book trade.

Mike is what is called a runner.  “I go here, there, everywhere, picking up what I can find in the first-edition line, and selling to other dealers or sometimes direct to a collector.”

Soon Wigan is collecting books himself.  But when Mike is murdered and the Keats book goes missing, a hot-tempered runner named Fred Hampton is arrested.  Wigan is sure Hampton is innocent.   Fred once tried to wrestle a book away from Wigan, but recovered his temper and apologized.  “‘As a matter of fact,’ he added frankly, ‘I always quarrel with everybody sooner or later.'”

Wigan devotes himself to trying to prove Fred’s innocence.  But it is uphill work, and his interviews with eccentric, crooked booksellers and unethical collectors make this a much more exciting read than you might think! 

If you like this, you might also enjoy a bubbly American Golden Age mystery, The Widening Stain (1942), by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, which was the pseudonym of Morris Bishop, a Romance Languages professor at Cornell University.  Johnson wrote only one mystery, and it is set in a university library.

The witty narrator, Hilda Gorham, is the chief cataloguer.  She also proves to be a smart amateur detective after she discovers the dead body of a femme fatale French professor who fell from a rolling ladder in the library.  The police say it was an accident, but Hilda wonders.  Could it have been because she was up for tenure? Or connected with the suddenly much-in-demand Manuscript B 58? And when she discovers another corpse in a locked room containing rare manuscripts and erotica, the police admit it is suspicious.

This is a very slight, light read, hardly a classic, but one to add to your academic mystery collection.

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