A Treasure Trove of a Book Shop (a recommendation)

If you live in London or passing through in the next few months, then there is a place you definitely need to put on your ‘to visit’ list.

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As most of you know I am a frequenter of second hand book shops. And to my joy I found that Halcyon books in Greenwich, south London is moving premises. Why is that a case for joy? Well, this means that they are selling off all of their incredibly large selection of books from their basement stock for one pound each!

As it’s a massive sell all festival inside there isn’t much order to anything (which adds to the fun of being there). However the woman in the shop at the time told me that on the left as you enter they have tried to stock most of the selection of vintage crime that they have just brought in. She also told me that the their new premises have got a good selection of their best vintage crime, and now have a cafe. What more could you want?

On my last rummage through the old premises I found The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr (penguin edition) and nice copies of The Poison Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley, Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy (oh for it to have been a copy of Splitfoot!), The Door Between by Ellery Queen, Buried For Pleasure by Edmund Crispin and an old school book on magic tricks, all of which I hadn’t read. I even saw a french edition of The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux.

But you need to be quick, as they only have the building for a few more months.

Just a quick post from me today (and yes it’s totally London centric)  but hope it’s of some use to you. Or if not that the whimsical images of overflowing books brightens the day.

Nine – And Death Makes Ten: Carter Dickson (1940)

This Golden Age classic wins the award for my favourite title for a crime novel ever, closely followed by Murder Is Easy by Christie (so chilling). And Carter Dickson, pseudonym of the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr, has excelled himself in my eyes again.

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Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, this monstrous ship opens the story, pulling out from New York city carrying a huge amount of ammunitions in it’s hold, ‘a floating powder-magazine’. Forcibly on blackout in protection against German attacks, the windows in every room are to be shut and covered at all times and the deck itself becomes a eerie pitch black obstacle course. None of the 9 passengers on board are allowed to know the ship’s destination for the sake of national security, only that they are heading to ‘a British port’. Theses passengers slowly reveal themselves as the days pass, forced together, they make quick assumptions of one another, friendships begin and angers arise. But when one of the nine has their throat viciously cut open in their cabin, the atmosphere moves to fever pitch. A set of bloody fingerprints are left in the victim’s room, but when the prints of all passengers and crew are taken, they match no one on board the ship. Was the victim killed by a ghostly hand, or is there a much more devious plot at work? This seething atmosphere, with the madness of the war bubbling beneath, grows and grows. Not knowing who the killer is each of the nine become worried about ‘meeting each other alone in the corridors’.

The setting Carr works is brilliant. Literal and figurative darkness cast over the ship by the enforced blackout creates an almost other worldly tension. The constant, buzzing of artificial lamps as the only source of light blends and confuses night and day, creating a dream or nightmare like setting. This is magnified by Carr’s descriptions of the constant rocking and groaning of the ship as it creaks and snaps under the movement of the sea. The narrow corridors, the stuffy overheated cabins and the over-decorated gaudy dining rooms all become part of the metaphor for things closing in. Both with the intents of the murderer as well as the continuous unspoken reminders of possible enemy attack as they enter the ‘submarine zone’. This setting is so well observed by Carr because, as he reveals in his pre-book disclaimer, he actually lived something of this trip out. Although it wasn’t the harrowing murderous ride as in the book, he took a similar journey to ‘a British port’. There is a great line that claims ‘everything except the atmosphere’ is fictitious.

The story is seen through the eyes of Englishman Max Mathews, injured in battle (presumably, we never fully know) and having spent the last 11 months confined to a hospital bed, now walking with a cane and limp. This is a great character to travel with, as his adapting back to ‘normal’ life with the constant nagging pain of injury, and worries about his future, puts him in this irate, mental, between space. This is reflected in the tense life of the ship floating in the middle of the empty sea, between lands, submitted to the dream-like state of the blackout.

The rest of the cast is also memorable, the humorous and flippant played out against the serious or aloof, although at one point I definitely became confused between a few of the male leads and had to go back a few pages. Carr is on comedy form in his writing of the magnanimous Henry Merrivale, his Carter Dickson series detective. The scenes in the ship’s barber shop are particularly laugh out loud, as well as important in more ways than one. The character of Valerie Chatford is particularly well placed, and how her role is constantly subverted is both powerful and touching.

The plotting is tight and rises in pace as each chapter reveals and conceals, layering mystery to continually build the atmosphere. Big pieces of information keep you changing suspicions and little clues become maddening details. There is also a lovely use of foreboding time in the first third. Just after H.M has come on the scene, himself and Max hear a gunshot ring out in the pitch darkness of the upper deck which ends the chapter. Carr then takes us back in time to see the run up to the shot from another set of characters, filling those subsequent scenes with another level of charged atmosphere.

The impossibility of the fingerprints is subdued, but with a spot-on and simple explanation, although in many ways I wish the murder could have been in a locked or watched room, as I felt that would have upped the stakes that extra notch. That may have enlivened the slower parts of deduction in the middle third, but we can’t have it all (unless your reading Till Death Do Us Part). The killer is also very well hidden. I confess to not always being that bothered who the killer is when I am reading a Carr, particularly if I am resting in the joys of the impossible elements, but in this instance it was a genuinely shocking and surprising reveal. The whole denouement builds in fast pace, and the ending explanations are very rich. It’s an ending that doesn’t just explain or justify the events of the book, but enriches everything you have read, making the whys and hows all the more clever and all the more harrowing. This will be one I will definitely be re-reading just to see how Carr laced and weaved the pattern of the plot, the clues and the obsessions of the killer.

 

She Died a Lady: Carter Dickson (1943)

 

The date, 1943. The author, Carter Dickson. The story, a classically macabre and unique mystery from the master of the impossible crime.

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The singular Rita Wainwright has found herself tangled in an love affair with young american actor Barry Sullivan. Not being able to take the secrecy of hiding it from her husband, and knowing that they could never be together, the pair decide to make a suicide pact, and throw themselves from the top of the 70 foot cliff at the end of her garden, fitting called Lover’s Leap. The scene is thoroughly examined and only two sets of footprints are left in the damp earth that leads to the edge. But when their bodied wash up it turns out they did not die from falling 70 feet onto a bed of rocks, but were both shot in the chest at close range. The gun that they were shot with is found, and it is impossible that either of them fired it themselves.

Golden Age writer John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. She Died A Lady was his 17th novel under the Carter Dickson banner, featuring his Dickson series detective, the hilarious Sir Henry Merrivale.

Carr was on top form with his scene descriptions and use of prose here. Lines like: ‘The sky was lead-coloured; the water dark blue; the headlands, at bare patches in their green, like the colours of a child’s modelling-clay run together’, set atmospheres that linger long after the page they appear on. Equally, the characters were quickly and powerfully established, described as to be implanted in your head. All unique without feeling parodied or unnatural, with a sharp dose of humour thrown in.

The real strength of this book though, is the plotting. It’s an absolute roller coaster when it comes to directions and threads being weaved together. For example, about half the way in, just when you think you know what is happening a secret is revealed which is so absurd and shocking it knocks you sideways. After Carr let’s the shock settle in, he shows you how it seamlessly links to everything you have seen so far. To finish, he drops the killer and the solution in a high paced denouement, which leaves you needing a to take a day off.

The solution to the impossibility as with all Carr’s best works, is devilishly simple. Though, for me, there were a few too many theoretical mechanics involved, and it was related to specific things from the time period that you may not be totally familiar with. However there was one simple idea, clued so well in a throw away line (which was so obvious on reflection), that left me smacking my forehead for weeks.  I can see why this book is as well respected as it is.

I had heard about Carr’s poor handling of women characters on occasion, but was yet to experience it. Having recently read the amazing ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and reflecting on other classics like ‘The Judas Window’, where his women are some of the strongest, plot moving and developed characters, it was difficult to find this less well handled. There are only so many times I can hear the narrator describe the body, face or lip shape of every woman. Although on reflection I am starting to wonder if it was the narrator’s view of these females that we are being thrust into, as his descriptions are consistent with his character as a kind of bumbling, slightly out of touch older male? I was almost coping with that, but then this line dropped as if from nowhere: ‘Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from being the first time in my life when I have observed the absolute incapacity of any woman for telling the truth when truth becomes unsuitable. There is no intent to do wrong in this. To the female sex, it simply does not matter. Truth is relative; truth is fluid; truth is something to be measured according to emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler’s.’

Unless I have deeply misunderstood this line (I have read it over and over) this was simply too much for me, and left a sour taste, even accounting for the time of writing. It seemed to be totally incongruous, and written without enough irony, even if it was a character attribute or parody of the narrator himself. I’m not sure, and would like to hear some thoughts from readers on this. It is (although weirdly shocking) a small moment, and as the brilliant feminist, media critic Anita Sarkeesian always says, it is possible to still enjoy a cultural work while being critical of certain elements of it.

A final thought about this, there was also some interesting gender reflections when Rita Wainwright is maliciously called a ‘theatrical’ woman by certain characters and therefore not taken seriously, her name being dragged through the mud. This idea becomes subverted as the narrative goes on, and people are shown up for judging a book by its cover. Speaking of which the title is really brilliant, and when revealed in the book it’s a real shocker, relating to these ‘theatrical’ reflections and subversions.

My conclusion, grab and read this book. For the plotting, for the feeling of the mystery rippling throughout, the clues that niggle at the back of your head and the tensions coming left right and centre. But as for the difficulties, the reader is warned.

I am submitting this review as part of the Crimes of The Century series by Rich over at Past Offences, this month in celebration of classic detective fiction published in 1943 . 

What are you reading? WWW Wednesday

What have I been reading this past few weeks, and what’s coming up next on the book pile? To show you lovely readers, I’m getting involved with the WWW Wednesday meme over at the brilliant Taking on a World of Words blog.

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Here we go!

What am I currently reading?

I am super excited to be half way through Nine and Death makes Ten by Carter Dickson. A classic golden age impossible crime mystery, that takes the award for my favourite title for a crime book.  Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, the ship is forcibly on blackout in protection against attacks. This so far has created a literal and figurative darkness over the artificially lit cabins, making way for a ingenious impossibility related to a set of bloody fingerprints that match no one aboard the ship. 

I am also at the start of contemporary crime novel Tana French’s The Trespasser. Having read many glowing reviews I wanted to give this book a go and it’s brilliant so far. The black female lead, the caustic Antoinette Conway, is super refreshing and very well written.

What did I recently finish?

Just closed the last page of a The Japanese Golden Dozen. A very curious and enigmatic collection from the 1970’s by golden age crime writer and anthologist Ellery Queen. I found this treasure on my last London second hand bookshop walk. The book catalogues and translates some of the best detective fiction writers from all over Japan. There are some misses (and shockers!) but a lot of hits in this collection, my review of this will be up in my next post.

What do you think you will read next?

Well… this week I found possibly my best hall of golden age impossible crime novels from a single secondhand bookshop visit. Dropped in on the off chance and got myself 8 titles! These books are all penned by golden age writer John Dickson Carr, who produced over 80 novels in his time, almost all of which have impossible crimes or elements (also under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, see above). I am a big fan of Carr and a few of these are considered classics so I’m pushed for choice! On the contemporary crime front I have also ordered to my local library Sarah Hillary’s first novel Someone Else’s Skin. And keen to get on Sara Paretsky’s feminist crime series with her first book Indemnity Only.

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Spoilt for choice!

What’s on your to read pile, and what top books have you read lately? Anything you want to recommend me?

My Top 5 Second Hand Bookshops in London

Put on some comfortable shoes, grab a decent sized bag and a pocket full of change because here is a walking tour of my Top 5 second hand book shops in central London.

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Each store on this walk is on and around the wonder of Charing Cross Road. An area that combines enigmatic buildings you will never enter because you don’t have enough money, back alleys you will never enter because they are too terrifying and shops you will never enter because you didn’t go in the first time and now you’ll never find them again. Charing Cross road and it’s subsequent attachments contain some of the most densely packed areas of books shops in London, some new, some second hand, some antique, some mad. I have chosen my favourite in the second hand and vintage variety, and of course, as this blog specialises in, the best places to pick up a great second hand mystery book at a great price.

The book walk begins at Leicester Square Station and heads north, ending up at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, with each bookshop close to the last on a winding literary road. It is a great walk to go on anytime, but my book hunt tends to be on the first Tuesday of each month, just after 2 o’clock. The reason for which will become apparent further down this post.

Let’s begin:

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1: Any Amount of Books

56 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0QA

Starting at Leicester Square tube station head north on Charing Cross and it won’t be more than a few strides before you hit a huge row of book shops with titles pouring out the doors. The first along this row, (and the reason I start this tour here) is Any Amount of Books.

This is simply my favourite second hand book shop in London. The store is split over two levels with a sprawling paradise of first editions, vintage and second hand books stacked all over. The shelves are brilliantly organised and most importantly, there is a large crime bookcase located at the very back of the basement floor. Make sure to grab a set of step ladders as treasures can be hiding in the heavens.

The shop is open 10:30-21:30 everyday and the staff are always excited and helpful which makes it a perfect visit anytime of day.

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2: Quinto and Francis Edwards

72 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0BE

Take a right out of Any Amount of Books, and a few doors down you will arrive at the second shop in our tour, Quinto and Francis Edwards. The Francis Edwards part of the name refers to the first floor of the shop, containing the esoteric, the rare, the first edition and the estates of the famous-now-deceased. The Quinto part of the name is what we want, and is also the reason that I start my books hunt just before 2 O’clock. Quinto is the second hand basement part of the store, and boasts a huge selection of fantasy, history, poetry, literary theory and at the right time, vintage crime. On the first Tuesday of every month, the shop closes to completely restock the Quinto basement with new acquisitions, reopening at 2 O’clock. If you arrive at the right time you can find some absolute gems.

There is sometimes a bit of a cue, so arrive early if you want to be in first! Or if you are not up for silent, awkward bustling for the best material, head down once the initial wave has died down. Quinto is also great for a visit anytime, and all sorts of things can come out of the woodwork when you spend time.

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3: Oxfam Bookstore Bloomsbury

12 Bloomsbury St, WC1B 3QA

A short walk past Tottenham Court Road Station with a sweeping right and left will bring you to the Oxfam Bookstore. If you follow this route, on the way you will also come across the wonderful mystery that is Little Compton Street. A secret street buried underground beneath Charing Cross road. If you look through the grates in the middle of the road, you can see the underground street sign. The Marmont Road Bespoke Detective Agency, a London based Detective agency that deal with the unsolved and the unexplained took the mysterious street on as a case at a client’s request: here.

But back to the tour. The Oxfam Bookstore on Bloomsbury is one of the bigger book shops of the Oxfam, second hand world, and is a real highlight of this journey. The shop is really well put together, with a great feel, and stocks a great selection of everything, with particularly good sections on gender and sexuality, social sciences and a brilliant art department. The crime bookshelf stocks a lot of modern crime fiction, with some vintage nestled in, but the real vintage crime is usually hidden on the antiquarian literature shelf close by. They also have a lovely Monday-Sunday bookshelf, with ideas for books for everyday of the week, and they often group titles together from the same writer around the shop and sell them as bundles with special offer price.

Now at this point on our journey, it is advisable to take a little break because the next section is going to be big! You could pop onto the wonderful London Review book shop (a non secondhand book shop!) and grab a coffee in their adjoining cafe. Now you have recharged a little, and rested your shoulders from your massive bag of books it’s time for the big one.

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4: Skoob Books

66 Marchmont St, WC1N 1AE

A walk across Bloomsbury Square park and past Russell Square tube station will bring you to Skoob Books. Snuck round the back of the 1960’s designed Brunswick centre Skoob books is the biggest second hand book shop in London. Across their 2000 sq ft of shelves they stock around 55,000 books, with 5000 being replaced each month (I’m not joking).

Their crime section is a beast, and they have the biggest selection of green Penguin Crime Classics I have ever seen (check the top image for proof). There are stools around to sit on as you browse, and the prices are good. They also do student discounts, and sometimes run 20-30% off weeks, so look out for that.

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5: Judd Books

82 Marchmont St, London WC1N 1AG

After the monster that is Skoob you need a little flourish to finish your book shop journey and just a few hundred meters up the same road you’ll find Judd Books ready and waiting.

Judd is another two floored paradise, with only a small crime section, but a few gems knocking around, including a few old Penguin crime books. They also have a lovely poetry section and I usually use this time in the journey to pick up a Faber and Faber book of a specific poet, and take in a little linguistic healing.

At this point, you are most definitely replete unless you are mad, and up for more, and therefore Camden will be your next stop to visit Black Gull Books. But normal people will be in need of food and hydration, and a few minutes round the corner from Judd is the amazing Wellcome Collection.

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The Wellcome Collection if you don’t know is a large scale, esoteric museum space, which has had amazing exhibitions on such diverse topics dirt, criminal forensics, sex, language and mental asylums. It also has an amazing book shop with new titles on popular science, psychology, philosophy, art and publications which accompany the show. Take a break in their cafe and grab something to eat, before taking in one of their exhibitions. And if you want to start reading some of your second hand finds straight away, you can head upstairs to their reading room for a bit of quiet and well designed peace. Website here.

Well that’s all folks. Maybe I’ll see you along the way at some point. You can find me crouched low or stretched high in the crime section, with a backpack of books, seeking out an unfound locked room mystery on my list.