The Daily Heller: Murder Most Sweet and Foul

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The Grolier Club in New York City is set to explore a history of detective stories and murder mysteries in the exhibition Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction. On view from Nov. 30 to Feb. 10, Whodunit features more than 90 detective novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries by Francois Vidocq, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anna Katherine Green, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Included among the rarities: a four-volume set of the Newgate Calendar (1824), a sensationalist publication on criminal activity; the first American edition of The Memoirs of Francois Vidocq (1834), the world’s “first” detective; the first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories (1892); and Agatha Christie’s first novel, featuring the debut appearance of the little Belgian Hercule Poirot (1920).

I interrogated collector Jeffrey Johnson, who organized this exhibition from his vast stash of Whodunits.

Gaston Leroux. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. New York: Brentano’s, 1908. Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson. The first novel by the French journalist Gaston Leroux, best known for his novel The Phantom of the Opera.

How did you get involved collecting Whodunits?
My love of mystery novels started when I was about 8 years old with The Hardy Boys. I enjoyed reading them but I really liked them lined up in order on my bookshelf. When I was older (and had more money), I started collecting the Edgar Award winners for best first mystery. I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar and was told that using somebody else’s list was just “shopping.” So I decided to begin collecting the beginnings of detective fiction. I concentrated on the 19th century.

“Waters” [William Russell]. Recollections of a Detective Police Officer. London: J. & C. Brown, 1856. Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson. One of the first and the most important of the detective “memoirs” in “yellow-back” form.

I wasn’t raised on murder mysteries but since COVID I love reading Agatha Christie, especially the short stories and, of course, Hercule Poirot. I was introduced to the writing through the BBC TV shows. So now, I’m exploring C.K. Chesterton. Who is your favorite author in this genre?
Poe’s early Dupin stories are excellent, and as a boy I went from The Hardy Boys to Sherlock Holmes. Donna Tartt and Paul Auster are favorites today.

Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, [in parts]. London: Chapman and Hall, April–September, 1870. Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson. The final, unfinished novel of Charles Dickens.

From a cover and jacket design perspective, are there any authors who controlled what their “brands” would look like?
Len Deighton and Ian Fleming had the most consistent looks, but they are more spy novels than detective. Two of my favorite covers are The Hound of the Baskervilles and Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide.

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles. London: George Newnes, 1902. Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson. This is the first edition in book form after the serial publication, with a cover design by Alfred Garth Jones.

Was there a genre graphic style that you noticed?
I have my collection arranged by date of publication, so one can see the changes from leather to pictorial cloth to dust jackets. I really love pictorial cloth.

Are there any taboos that you can pinpoint, other than not giving away the killer? Were certain clues deliberately included in cover art?
Love stories are not big factors in detective fiction, nor are cliffhangers. Also, last-minute solutions are not acceptable. The murderer can’t come from left field. I can’t think of any examples of cover art giving away the killer except on Ira Levin’s novel A Kiss Before Dying. The dust jacket does predict three victims.

Agatha Christie. Sparkling Cyanide. London: Collins for The Crime Club, 1945. Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson. Sparkling Cyanide is an expansion of a Hercule Poirot short story featuring Colonel Johnny Race, who partnered with Poirot in two of Christie’s best-known novels, Cards on the Table (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937).

Do you continue to collect Whodunits?
After I retired from a 45-year career as a designer and architect, I made a deal with my wife that my expensive purchases were over. But, I did purchase a couple of “stoppers” for my exhibit, with my wife’s approval.

What is the most prized possession in your collection?
My most prized possession is not one of the most expensive. It is a sheet of letterhead from Vidocq’s French detective agency, the world’s first. My Agatha Christie and A. Conan Doyle signed notes are close behind.

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