Collecting Crime Fiction

Did you buy a copy of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue when the hardback edition was first published in 1997? If so, and you have kept it in excellent condition, the chances are that your modest purchase will now be worth in the region of £350, perhaps more. Despite the fact that a pristine paperback copy is readily available from almost every bookshop, the scarcity of the first edition in dust wrapper has made it a collector’s item. And collecting crime fiction is now rather more than an appealing hobby that seems to be growing in popularity. It is a serious commercial business.

The people for whom reading the books is not the end of the story divide into three broad groups. First come the genre enthusiasts: many do not care about the condition of that elusive book by their favourite authors, as long as they find a copy, whereas some focus zealously on first editions and in particular on the quality of the dust-wrapper. Then come long-term investors in the field. According to specialist dealer James M. Pickard, ‘Over the last 15 years or so many wealthy individuals have been attracted by the strong increase in value from maintaining a portfolio of quality crime and detective fiction. Many of these collectors seem to be from the professions and they collect because they enjoy owning books as assets which are often a good talking point and have a good chance of increasing in value. They often tend to collect the first or early books in first edition of authors that have lasted the test of time and have proved to have "staying power". Finally, there are speculators. Pickard notes that: ‘A modern trend has emerged of speculating in hyper-modern detective fiction. These speculators look to buy newly-published detective fiction in multiple copies from promising new authors particularly where the initial print run is small and they see an opportunity to hike the price and "make a killing".’

Given the recent bear market in shares and increasing doubts about the financial viability of institutions long thought to be rock-solid, it is scarcely surprising that investors should look for other opportunities to make money. But can rare crime novels offer a sensible form of diversification for worried savers and be utilised to create an alternative pension fund? It seems risky, but a casual study of an internet site such as reveals the high prices that genre classics (and some books that frankly do not merit description as ‘classics’) can command.

At the time of writing, an inscribed edition of Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys was available for a little in excess of $16,000, while a copy of Poirot Investigates, even lacking the original dust-wrapper, was on sale for just over $6,000. Both books are early efforts and hardly rank with Christie’s masterpieces, but for collectors the first editions have the merit of scarcity; they were published in modest numbers by John Lane, whose terms were so ungenerous that Christie moved to Collins as soon as her contract permitted it. She would never have dreamed how much people would be willing to pay for a single copy of those tyro efforts in the early 21st century. Dorothy L. Sayers’ books also command high prices, as – to a lesser extent - do the works of several authors whose reputations have not stood the test of time as well; examples are Freeman Wills Crofts and E.C.R. Lorac.

For writers, it is sobering to reflect that so many books are indeed judged by their covers. Few readers may care about occasional printers’ errors in the text, but slight flaws in the quality of a dust jacket of a rare book can knock a good deal of money off the sale price. The total absence of a dust jacket can reduce the value of a rarity by 90% and ‘ex-library’ or book club editions are of relatively interest to the serious collector.

The world wide web has so radically transformed the second-hand book business that it is startling to glance at the second and most recent edition of Detective Fiction: The Collector’s Guide by John Cooper and B.A. Pike, published in 1994, and to realise that only a decade ago Abebooks and similar sites did not even register on the enthusiasts’ radar. The Cooper-Pike book is, like the same authors’ wonderfully-illustrated volume Artists in Crime, intended for ‘the committed collector, who gets high on detective fiction first editions, craving them as others long for drugs or casinos or soap operas or alcohol.’ Enjoyable and idiosyncratic, the Guide remains to this day a valuable starting point for those who wish to start collecting detective fiction, not least because the authors avoid the mistake of focusing on book values which would now be hopelessly out of date. The heart of the book lies in an account of the works of 157 authors, past and present, and there are also valuable appendices as well as guidance on how best to form and maintain a collection. The emphasis is on British writers of the ‘Golden Age’, but although they are sometimes too dismissive of modern crime fiction, Cooper and Pike were sufficiently astute to recognise the potential of Rankin and Peter Robinson long before those gifted exponents of the police series attained their current eminence.

Despite the care with which Cooper and Pike undertook their research, inevitably they missed a few items. Take, for instance, John Rhode. Rhode, who also wrote prolifically as Miles Burton, is one of the most heavily collected members of the ‘humdrum’ school of puzzle-makers. He was no literary stylist, but the scarcer Rhode titles change hands for handsome sums. However, Cooper and Pike were unaware that Rhode also wrote four books under the name Cecil Waye. When this fact was revealed by Tony Medawar in the magazine CADS a few months ago, the Waye titles available at modest prices on the internet were suddenly snapped up and it seems likely that, when copies appear for sale in the future, they will carry a much heftier price tag.

There are various types of crime fiction collections. Pickard suggests the following rough list:

(a) ‘single author’ collections – e.g. the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ian Fleming, Ruth Rendell etc;

(b) authors whose works have been particularly recommended in a well-known listing, such as the (now seriously dated) ‘cornerstones’ identified by Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen;

(c) collections that are limited by time e.g. the ‘Golden Age’ between the wars;

(d) collections of those authors whose works have been made into major television series e.g. Caroline Graham, Val McDermid), Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters etc.;

(e) collections by publisher (particularly the major publishers such as Collins Crime Club and Hodder and Stoughton);

(f) collections of first editions set around a common setting such as a country house or village;

(g) locked room mysteries or impossible crimes (and for these fans, Robert C.S. Adey’s remarkably comprehensive book Locked Room Murders is indispensable);

(h) historical mysteries; and

(i) modern day police procedurals.

The current state of the detective fiction market for first editions is, according to Pickard, very strong on both sides of the Atlantic and there are serious collectors in many other countries, notably Japan, Hong Kong and Italy. Early and rare books by the major detective authors have, Pickard says, ‘increased in price exponentially (15% p.a. is not unheard of)’, although several authors have probably peaked, perhaps as a result of the coming to an end of television series based on their work. Conversely, several ‘hyper-modern’ authors’ early books (the debuts of Lauren Henderson and Barbara Cleverly are examples) have become sought after.

The operation of the law of supply and demand has been influenced by the increasing preference of publishers to opt for small print-runs of first edition hardbacks. Small print runs are in part due to economic factors, including the diminution of library budgets for the buying of new books, and partly due to increasing concentration of marketing efforts on paperback editions. Black and Blue had a modest initial print run, even though Rankin was a well-established writer by the time it was published. Once the novel won the CWA Gold Dagger, Rankin’s name was made and his more recent titles are much easier to find in first edition; on the other hand, his earlier books, including first editions of the thrillers he wrote originally under the name of Jack Harvey, command premium prices. Amongst other recent titles to be highly sought after because of their sheer scarcity are Headline’s UK first of Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo and R.D. Wingfield’s early books about Jack Frost, published before David Jason made the character a household name.

But the news for those starting up a collection is by no means all good. The chances of finding rarities in charity shops are reducing and even Oxfam’s specialist bookshops charge prices for some less common books that are likely to bring tears to the eyes of the penurious crime fan. Meanwhile second hand bookshops, crippled by competition from internet dealers who combine low overheads with high prices, seem to be fighting a losing battle for survival. One specialist crime dealer, R.F. Stewart (author of a quirky study of the evolution of the genre, And Always A Detective) has given up his business, largely because of the shortage of classic crime books on the market. He identifies several reasons for this shortage, naturally including the limit to the number of books published in the ‘Golden Age’ that have survived to the present day: ‘are they all in collectors' hands or on the internet at prohibitive prices?’ He also notes that ‘people have become aware of the value of such books and are no longer dumping them on charity shops but selling them on to "big" dealers who in turn ask "big" prices. Some dealers sit and watch e-bay by the minute!’ Even contemporary crime novels are relatively hard to come by in sufficient quantities: ‘For example, I used to go to Scotland once/twice a year and would come back with up to a dozen boxes of stuff. My last two serious trips 2001/2002 produced a plastic bagful - and some these (book club editions) I bought in desperation!’

Once the collecting bug bites, it is difficult to shake off. Buying books as an investment is best regarded as a gamble, best suited to those who can afford to lose money. Undoubtedly, though, there is much pleasure to be had from tracking down that elusive title. The global reach of the internet has made scarce titles at last available (albeit at a price) to enthusiasts who might never have stumbled across them in a lifetime of scanning stock in second hand bookshops. But for true crime fiction fans, the quality of the story will always matter more than the state of the jacket wrapped around it.

This article first appeared in ‘Sherlock’