by Melodie Johnson Howe
Many years ago I began collecting first editions. My rule for collecting was simple: I had to have read and admired the authorâ€™s works. One of the first books I bought was Edmund Crispinâ€™s A Glimpse of the Moon. Crispin, an English author, had delighted me with his erudite quirky sleuth Gervase Fen and his intricately constructed plots. But when I found a first edition I was disappointed. The cover was plain yellow with simple block lettering. Hardly representative of a sleuth who carried a pigâ€™s head in a sack for half the novel. I quickly learned that this was how the English company, Gollancz, published their mystery books. No gaudy illustrations for them. Now I have a row of stately, slightly faded, yellow- jacketed books on my shelf. They are just as dazzling to me as the novels with colorful pulp-like dust jackets. (By the way I recommend Crispinâ€™s short stories. The two collections I have are: Beware of The Trains and Fen Country.)
Iâ€™ve always been conflicted about collecting books. Purists say you shouldnâ€™t read or even handle them. But books are not objet dâ€˜arts. They are meant to be held and read. God gave us fingers so we could turn pages, feel the thickness of the paper between our thumb and forefinger. He gave us bellies and chests to prop up books for those of us who like to recline while reading. So I admit to taking down these books, slipping off their protective covering and dust jackets, and rereading them. I know Iâ€™m weakening the spin by doing this. I know by touching the books Iâ€™m harming them, at least in the eyes of the purist. I have paperback versions I could reread. But itâ€™s not the same. There is wonderful fusty smell to these books. Not in the moldy since, but simply because theyâ€™ve around a very long time. Itâ€™s like the smell inside your grandfatherâ€™s hat. And then there are the typefaces, reminiscent of an era that is not mine. When I open these books I feel I am entering another world. The past. The time in which they were written.
Among my favorite books are the special motion picture editions of the Warner Bros. movies. Think of these books as pulp noir. I have only a few: Mildred Pierce, Nobody Lives Forever, The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The stories are the originals, not the movie versions. Mildred Pierce ends with Mildred finally able to say about Veda, her daughter, â€œthe hell with herâ€¦â€ And Bert saying, â€˜lets get stinko.â€ Not quite the ending of the movie.
The beauty of these books is the black and white stills. They splatter across the inside of the covers like pictures pasted in a scrapbook of elegant crime. And then there are one or two photos that you encounter with a surprised gasp while reading. The pictures are all studio shots, daringly romantic and darkly suspenseful. In Nobody Lives Forever the men wear suits and hats no matter whether theyâ€™re kissing or killing. Geraldine Fitzgerald has the biggest hat of all. In one back and white still, John Garfield looks like heâ€™s trying not to get hit in the head by its sweeping brim.
In Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford wears a lush silver mink coat with shoulder pads big enough to make a halfback happy. Her hat is also mink. This is the outfit she wears when she decides to leap off the pier. Forget about the thought of all that wet fur, she looks incredible. In another still Zachary Scott is holding a cigarette and a martini in the same hand. Try that guys! He has the luring expression of a man in love with himself. A fatal look that all women are drawn to.
In The Big Sleep there is a still from the scene where Bogart and Bacall are in Geigerâ€™s house waiting for Lundgren to show up. Notice how I mix the actorâ€™s names with the characterâ€™s names. Thatâ€™s what these books do to you. In harsh black and white shadows Bogie, gun in hand, is looking out the window. Bacall is close to him. You can feel the fear and sexual tension. And something more. Sophistication? Classiness?
These books also give you the cast names. So if you canâ€™t remember who played Mrs. Biederhof in Mildred Pierce you can look it up. It was Lee Patrick In The Big Sleep, Dorothy Malone, whose career was just beginning, is listed only as â€œProprietress.â€ Even without a name for her character, she set the screen on fire with her seduction of Bogie in the bookstore. The woman who played Agnes, the user of men who never got a fair break, was Sonia Darrin. Whatever happened to her? She was wonderful.
I love these books. I take them down and study the photos. The lighting. The poses. The actors look like adults even though some were very young. Bacall was maybe in her early twenties. They knew how to wear stylish clothes, handle a gun, and make it all look natural.
I donâ€™t collect anymore. Prices are now way beyond my reach. But like a miser, I covet my small collection. Sometimes I open the first edition of The Scarlet Letters and study the inscription: “with the best wishes of â€œEllery Queenâ€. Not one of the great dedications, but interesting nonetheless. Along with the quotation marks around the name, a line is drawn under it. And the Q has two tails not one. Iâ€™ve often wondered if that was because there were two authors.