Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction

Poster for Jefferey Johnson's Grolier Club exhibition titled Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction

I suppose the Hardy Boys Mysteries – with matching blue spines lined up in order on my homemade bookshelf – were the first indication that I was born to be a book collector. I enjoyed reading the books, but I equally enjoyed looking at them. I became a book accumulator. In college, I wrote away to request rare book catalogues and read every word when one came in the mail. I could afford little, but I did buy a few things that I still have today.  

Fast forward to the mid-2000s. I was settled into my career as an architect, and my son was growing up.  On vacation, I read the Goldstones’ Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World. It rekindled an old spark in me, and I was anxious to get home to review the contents of my bookshelves. When I did, I gave away dozens of books to the local library sales drives and decided to begin collecting in earnest.  

As is true of most novice collectors, my initial scope was too broad. I finally focused on two areas of collecting. One was fiction writers who had a connection to my home city of Knoxville. These included the well-known (James Agee and Cormac McCarthy), the surprising (Frances Hodgson Burnett), the forgotten (nineteenth-century humorist George Washington Harris), and the should-have-been (Tennessee Williams, whose father was a Knoxvillian but also a traveling salesman – hence Williams’s birth in Mississippi).  

The other, broader focus of my collecting was mystery novels. I thought it would be fun to collect the first novels of mystery writers, knowing that generally the print runs would be smaller, the voice fresher, and the characters more vividly drawn. As a guide in this activity, I used the winners and finalists in the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel. One day, I decided to order my first “expensive” book, from Baltimore’s Royal Books. I believe I ordered it through their website with a credit card on my lunch break. I happened to be at my desk and the telephone rang. It was Kevin Johnson of Royal Books on the line, asking me about what I was collecting and telling me that he thought I’d really like this copy. We continued to exchange pleasantries over the next few years, and Kevin was also glad to answer my questions.  

In 2010, Kevin encouraged me to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. I couldn’t make it work that year, but I did attend in 2011. It changed my life. Not only did I meet some amazing leaders in the world of rare books, I was encouraged to not use someone’s else list as a purchasing guide (Terry Belanger called that “just shopping”). I quickly realized that there were plenty of great mystery writers who had been overlooked by the Edgars or whose work predated the beginning of the awards in 1946. I began to read the classic reference works on the “history of the mystery” by John Carter, Eric Quayle, Howard Haycraft, and others, and I found that I wanted to not only collect the works of earlier authors but also those works that helped define the genre. My focus shifted to the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  

The highlight of my collecting life is membership in the Grolier Club, and my curation of this exhibition brought me much pleasure. 

—Jeffrey Johnson