Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A rule for used book shopping

{Photo by rocketlass of marginal commentary in the University of Chicago Library's copy of Richard Stark's Plunder Squad.}

The paperback editions of the Nero Wolfe novels that Bantam published in their Nero Wolfe Library in the 1990s all carry introductions by contemporary crime writers. For the most part, those introductions, while well-meaning, do little but remind us of the vast number of relatively cozy crime writers working at that time--almost none to my taste, but not out of place introducing Wolfe. Nearly all the introductions explain how the writer first came to the Wolfe stories, then, as I've done here many a time, point out some of the reasons they endure. Wholly inoffensive, but far from essential, in other words.

Robert Crais's introduction to Before Midnight, however, deserves to be preserved. That's not because of any particular insight he offers into Rex Stout, and not even because he mentions Donald Westlake and Richard Stark. No, it's because his story of first encountering Wolfe is great fun. As a young man living in Baton Rouge, Crais haunted a used bookstore,
a grungy, dirty, seedy kind of place, but I discovered Chandler there, as well as Ted Mark and Donald Westlake and Don Westlake writing as Richard Stark. A paperback cost nineteen cents. If it had no cover, it cost a dime. I had gone through the Chandlers and was working on the Hammetts and I walked into the little store that day very much wanting a copy of Red Harvest. The stacks were divided by category (western, mystery, science fiction, etc.) but were rarely alphabetized, so if you wanted a particular author, you had to look through all the mysteries, ofttimes a tedious process. There was only a single copy of Red Harvest, and some yo-yo had written BITE ME across the cover in green ink, so that ended that. I won't buy a book with BITE ME on the cover. Not even for half price.
A good rule, and one that led him to pick up the next book that looked of interest, which happened to be by Rex Stout. Sorry, Hammett. If only you'd attracted a better class of reader . . . (and if people are writing BITE ME on Hammett, good god, what must they be writing on Jim Thompson? Or--shudder--Mickey Spillane?)

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