My thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Taking us into the rather ruthless world of book collectors, runners, sellers and prized first editions, Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer, first published in 1956 is being republished as a British Library Crime Classic, after decades of being out of print. The author Bernard J. Farmer (1902-1964), as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, was a most fascinating person, who held a succession of interesting jobs from designing machinery to mining and even selling insurance. But what’s relevant for this book is two other jobs/interests—his work as a policeman for seven years and his interest in book collecting on which he also published a volume in 1950. His writing career, from the glimpses of it one gets in Edwards’ introduction was almost as versatile including short stories, novels, detective fiction and books for young adults.

In Death of a Bookseller, we meet Sergeant Jack Wigan, a good hearted and conscientious policeman, who supervises men on the section. One day on the way back home, he runs into a drunk man and escorts him back home. The man is Mike Fisk who makes his living buying and selling rare books, and he’s been celebrating the finding of a first edition Keats (which Keats had had printed for himself), hence his condition. Fisk and Wigan soon become friends calling on each other from time to time, and Mike manages to pass on his love for (and some knowledge) of rare books on to Wigan. Then one day, Fisk is found dead, stabbed with a knife and Wigan is the one to find him. The CID is to investigate of course, and DI Saggs is given charge of the case but books and collectors being a world they are ignorant about, Wigan is deputed to assist them in the investigation. All the evidence points to a runner (one who looks for and acquires rare books and then sells them to shops or collectors) called Fred Hampton, a man who has a rather bad (and short) temper and has managed to pick a fight with almost everyone he’s met. A case is made out and Fred is arrested and tried.

But Wigan has his doubts and belives Hampton to be innocent. But who else could have done it? Wigan decides to look into the matter on his own—the CID interestingly doesn’t prevent him from doing so though they aren’t in favour of it while his own department isn’t as cooperative. Still with whatever time he gets, he begins to look into the world of runners, sellers and collectors, helped by a runner called Charlie North. Their efforts though keep running into dead ends while time continues to run out for Fred. Does Wigan find the murderer in time?

What I absolutely loved about this book was the setting in the world of book collectors and rare books which this book recreates so wonderfully. This isn’t a tame or innocuous world by any measure, in fact quite the opposite (which also seems the case in real life as Edwards points out an eerily parallel real-life case many decades after the book was published, or as I found reading The Book Hunters of Katpadi, another volume about collecting and rare books [with theft though, not murder], but as ruthless and full of double-dealing, crime and deception). We get a look into how the rare book trade plays out with the runners doing much of the hard work, scouring through stacks and finding gems, often (at the time it was written) walking many miles every day to do so; and of course, how prices increase with each person that becomes involved. Each level (except perhaps some ‘rich’ collectors) are as skillful at identifying gems, but many times the person who buys isn’t one who necessarily appreciates it beyond its dollar/pound value. There were plenty of books as well of course, among them prominently those of G. A. Henty, a few of whose titles I have enjoyed and so enjoyed the references to (Farmer has written a book about him, too).

The mystery itself on the other hand is quite different from the usual in that while Wigan and Charlie North seem to put in a lot of effort into the matter going to places and speaking to people, they don’t make much headway at all, really, through almost the whole of the book. While this element disappoints, the sense of urgency is done well, with time running out for Hampton, and not a single ray of hope emerging. The answer to the the mystery wasn’t one I saw coming but also interestingly, the way it comes about was also different to my expectation. There is also a supernatural-ish element woven in as Fisk not only dealt in works on the occult, he dabbled in it as well.

Another aspect that stood out was the thread of realism that comes in when Fred Hampton is dealing with the consequences of his trial which ends in a conviction. At the time of course, the sentence was inevitably death, and we get a sense of the absolute terror (far too mild to describe it really) that he experiences having to face this fate. This was unsettling and terrifying and had me wondering how people (even if ‘criminal’) continue to be put through this in so-called (civilized) modern day society.   

Overall a book I really enjoyed for its setting amidst the world of books, even though the detective elements weren’t as successful.

This is my second read for #ReadIndies hosted by Karen at at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life


16 thoughts on “Book Review: Death of a Bookseller (1956) by Bernard J. Farmer #ReadIndies

      1. Im requesting very little at the moment as I seem to be doing nothing but running Pete backwards and forwards to the hospital and by the time we get home at night I am too tired to do anything but cook dinner, shower and go to bed. Plus I am working remotely so there’s not much spare time in my day. I was well ahead with my reads for review a few weeks back, but now I am way behind again . . . so I am not going to add to my stress by piling on more books. But I have added it to my follow up and read one day list. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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