Preserving Endangered Detective Novels

Every time I visit the city library the staff welcomes me as the patron who keeps old books in circulation. They lament the fact that the new management has decided to de-acquisition thousands of aging titles. Most of these volumes, especially works more than a half century old, are the only copies left in local libraries (outside of college collections). One way to preserve some of these endangered books is to regularly check them out.

The most recent detective novel on my list was Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925) by Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), a reputable mystery author of the “Golden Age.” It was a nice police procedural, though it lacked the atmospherics that I enjoy in the writings of R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) or J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935), as mentioned in a recent post.

Like many literary prodigies, writing came all too easily to Fletcher. He churned out a lot of hackwork and his novels often suffer from too much padding. That said, he possesses the storyteller’s art, as seen in collections like The Heaven-Sent Witness (1930), which I’m reading at the moment. These short stories are existential vignettes that draw the reader into a world of convincing and curious detail. In the “The Ivory God,” Fletcher creates a secluded occult setting for a brilliant but eccentric young orientalist:

Thurston lived in two rooms at the top of a house which stood in a quiet street near the British Museum—a street of an aspect so gray and pathetic that you wondered at first sight of it whether laughter or children’s voices were ever heard there.

In the bibliophile mystery “The Book in Black Letter” Fletcher describes the sort of collector who frequents many of his tales:

I went on writing until Wilson opened the door of my study and ushered the stranger in. I turned to confront a tall, spare man of apparently forty-five or fifty years of age, decently attired in a well worn but scrupulously brushed suit of black…. Something about him suggested the type of man who potters about old bookshops and bookstalls and haunts the places where curiosities are found—he had the parchment face and rounded shoulders of the searcher after old things. He made me a polite bow, and his eyes, shielded by a pair of smoke-coloured spectacles, swept the crowded shelves and cabinets around him.

I don’t say Fletcher is for everyone, but I hope that readers have their own endangered books that they keep in circulation. For more about Fletcher, see the Yorkshire Post article commemorating his career: “How fame eluded a man of many words.”

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