Crime fiction - thrillers, whodunits and detective stories - has been a mainstay
of 20th-century publishing and attracts a great many collectors.
Despite its dramatic possibilities, crime wasn't really exploited as a literary genre until the end of the 19th century. Though authors as reputable as Dickens, Poe and Wilkie Collins all wrote works in which crime and detection loomed large, the first detective to catch the popular imagination was Conan Doyle's creation, Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes's first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was published in the 28th Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. Copies of this represent one of the most coveted prizes for any book collector. Holmes was a success all over the world. New novels and stories appeared on and off in book and magazine form for 30 years, and helped to inspire very different traditions in Britain and the USA.
British crime novels of the 1920s and 1930s tended to be whodunits, often written by women. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers,
Margery Allingham and the New Zealander, Ngaio Marsh, the big four of classic crime writers, concentrated on tortuous plotting to tease and tantalize the reader. Their heroes were usually amateur sleuths, often titled, and the typical setting was a country house.
American crime fiction was obsessed with the idea of the private detective, as a lone wolf straddling both sides of the law, solving crimes in the mean city streets with a mixture of logic and gunplay. Many American authors cut their teeth on cheap, often lurid 'pulp' magazines like Black Mask, which produced Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
After World War 2, Hank Janson, Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald, among others, wrote in the hard-boiled private eye tradition, while writers such as Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh developed another type of story, concentrating on the police and their work.
Authors in the gentler British tradition also tended to bring the police detective to the fore. Writers like Ruth Rendell, P D James and Cohn Dexter have become increasingly popular as their creations have been televised. Perhaps the doyen of all 'police' writers
though, and the forerunner of the modern psychological crime thriller, was the Belgian, Georges Simenon. Translations of his books featuring Maigret are widely collected.
The psychological crime thriller, concerned with character and motivation rather than mystery, has become increasingly popular, and elements of it have crept into whodunit writing. Typical authors include Patricia Highsmith and Elmore Leonard.
A special form of crime fiction, the spy thriller, was a creation of the cold war. There are two traditions. The fantasy spy novel, whose heroes function like more glamorous versions of the private eye, is typified by the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. Other writers, such as John le Carre and Len Deighton, are more realistic, combining whodunit plot-lines with fascinating details of the rather seedy lives of espionage agents.
Hard-bitten private eyes and forensic geniuses; courtroom dramas and tense psychological battles; action thrillers and tantalizing logical puzzles; crime fiction has a lot to offer the reader. Making a collection
of modern first editions is doubly rewarding, as you add the thrill of hunting down rare volumes to the sheer pleasure ofa good read.
The would-be crime fiction collector in Britain has a wonderful variety of sources, including jumble sales, boot fairs, flea markets,
second hand booksellers and charity shops to try. If you're more interested in the prey than the thrill of the chase, you'll need to contact some dealers, the majority of whom run mail-order businesses. Most accept wants lists, and some specialize in finding difficult volumes.
The great majority of people who collect 20th-century fiction are only really interested in first edition hardbacks, preferably with their paper
dust wrappers intact. In crime fiction, though, this isn't always possible. Some authors, such as Hank Janson, were only published in paperback, while the British detectives, Sexton Blake and Dick Barton, appeared in print mostly in magazines. Ephemera shops and comics dealers are also a source for this kind of material.
Almost always, it is an author's earliest works that are the most expensive to obtain. The first print run of a young, untried writer will be, at most, a few thousand copies. Maybe half are sold to libraries (library copies, invariably marked and worn, are usually disdained by collectors), while, in time, the majority of the remainder will lose their
dust wrappers, get defaced, stained, creased or otherwise damaged, or simply be thrown away. Often, less than 100 copies survive this process in anything like fine condition, and, as a result, most serious collectors will drop their standards a little - or even a lot - to get their hands on a copy of a rare title.
Books should always be stored upright on shelves. Don't
pack them in so tightly that it's difficult to replace a book without damaging it, nor so loose that they lie at a slant. Take a book out by pushing in the ones alongside and gripping it by the middle, not top of the spine.
Damp, heat and light are all enemies of books. Some
serious collectors keep them in the deep-freeze! Keep your books well away from radiators and windows - sunlight can fade the spine of a book remarkably quickly. Books also need some circulating air to keep them in good condition, so glass-fronted bookcases are best avoided.
However, don't buy books just to put them on shelves. They are for reading as well as collecting. Choose a few authors you like and concentrate on collecting all their works. If you're looking for an investment, either buy currently unfashionable authors with a good track record, or new works by good young authors, and wait.
Not all collectable crime fiction is in book form. Small-format magazines were the favoured medium of the durable detective, Sexton Blake.