Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer – a 1956 novel of the book world reprinted as the 100th British Library Crime Classic

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer

For its reprint series to choose this book as number one hundred was a great move on the part of the British Library Crime Classics series.  It was apparently a rare book to obtain in the decades since its first publication in 1956, so this republication is much deserved. While the author Bernard Farmer was not a well-known author, and as Martin Edwards points out in his usual informative Introduction, not much is known about his life, he produced three novels featuring Wigan as a main investigating character. He also served as a police officer himself, and thus the strictures placed on the sergeant in this novel for using his time and acting on his initiative in crime solving is probably realistic. He was also an avid book collector so has some idea of the addiction of obtaining a much sought-after edition of a book. He points out how “ruthless” the passion can be, especially when the “book runners” who feature in this novel are depending on discovering and selling on at a profit as their precarious livelihood. Not that the business is confined to men – the novel features a female character, Ruth Brent, who makes it clear that she will do a lot of things in order to obtain books for her American boss. This book works so well because it has a plot which demands action before a time limit, and a lot is at risk for the main characters. It is a book which I really enjoyed and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.

The book opens with diligent and kindly Sergeant Jack Wigan encounters a somewhat tipsy Michel Fisk who is celebrating “the find of my life”, the author’s own signed copy of Keats’ Endymion. This is the sort of discovery “book runners” dreamt of: acquiring a copy of a well-known work with an author’s inscription marking it as a special copy. He knows that it would be the pinnacle of any collection and if he were to sell it, could produce a life changing amount. Wigan helps Fisk home and is rewarded with a sight of his collection of books. He is inspired to begin looking for rare books himself, not to make a profit but to begin a worthwhile collection. So, when subsequently Fisk is found stabbed and the Keats missing from his home, he is offered a spell in the detective branch to help with his newly acquired knowledge of book buying. As he does so, he comes to realise that it is a world of its own, with men and one or two women desperately seeking the sort of elusive book that will bring in at least a profit and possibly a change in fortunes. Among those he encounters is the argumentative Fred Hampton, who seems particularly desperate to earn money from the occupation of seeking out bargains. Other runners include Charlie North, while there are also those who have a more professional set up, even shops, but who are still obsessed with certain books. As Wigan fears that there may be a miscarriage of justice regarding the murder, time is of the essence in discovering the truth.

Farmer introduces many themes in this novel, including the restrictions on serving police officers, the urge for some to obtain convictions speedily, and the iniquity of capital punishment. It even looks at the dangers of devil worship, and the problems of detection. There is some humour and a lot of honesty in this novel, and while it is very much of its times, it is clearly based on definite experience and knowledge. It is a convincingly written novel which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it as a real gem for booklovers and crime enthusiasts interested in a world of dedicated collection.