If you’re anything like me, well, firstly my condolences, but also you have a list of books not printed any time in the last few decades that you spend hours scouring secondhand bookshops, book fairs, online auction sites, and other people’s houses in the hope of finding. A lot of them – in my case, say, The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants – are rather obscure and so their lack of availability is understandable, but in other cases it just seems…baffling.
Let us take, inevitably, the case of John Dickson Carr. Here in the UK, the superb crime fiction publisher Orion has kept The Hollow Man in print for a long time, and through its classic detective fiction-dedicated digital arm The Murder Room – sadly no longer with us – they published another 14 of his books from 1934’s The Blind Barber to Deadly Hall from 1971. That’s 15 books. Out of the 80 Carr published. In addition to this, the Rue Morgue Press – sadly no longer with us – published another five of his books, and The Langtail Press – sadly no longer with us – five more. The Mysterious Press also recently put out a copy of The Devil in Velvet (and should probably be watching their backs, it seems). So 54 (fifty-four!) Carr novels have not been reprinted recently enough to be easily available.
And my entirely reasonable question is, why not? I can’t believe any of these publishers would have balked at putting out more Carr – look at the great work The Murder Room did virtually reprinting Helen McCloy and Erle Stanley Gardner – yet the overwhelming majority of his books haven’t seen the light of day for many years. So, presumably, someone somewhere is sitting on the rights to the novels of the finest writer of detective fiction ever and simply doesn’t want to see them in print, selling, and making them back some money.
Hopefully you see this as more than simply me stamping my foot and wanting the thing that I want – publishers have expressed an interest, some books have been put out…but only some. Yes, the audience for this kind of thing isn’t the biggest, but with the rise of digital publishing we’ve seen dedicated publishers like Ipso Books and Dean Street Press bring back obscure and unheralded authors from the classic era, and – meaning no offence – I can’t believe more people were baying for Harriet Rutland reprints than are for Carr (but, hey, maybe I’m wrong…). There’s a list of classic authors whose publication would, I’m convinced, cause joy untold – Pierre Boileau, Christianna Brand, the last three Sergeant Beef novels of Leo Bruce, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson…well, I won’t go on – given the patchy nature of their current availability.
The only people who seem to benefit from this is the hilariously self-deluded secondhand book market (anyone with £852.22 to spare can snap up a copy of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel here – with the added carrot of free postage) but I can’t believe there’s some kind of Illuminati-esque conspiracy to keep the classic detective fiction writers out of print purely for their benefit. Everyone else is losing out, then, and the few publishing houses willing to stick their heads above the parapet seem to be falling like dominoes (I apologise for the mixed metaphor) – almost like the family curse beloved of so many classic crime novels. Oooo, did crime publishing just get meta?
My point? I dunno. The complexities of book rights are probably a many-headed Cerberus-cum-Hydra and I’m displaying my naivety, but can anyone offer a perspective on this that I’m missing? I love classic detective fiction and I want others to love it, but if they can’t find the books in the first place they’re never going to get the chance. The British Library Crime Classics series has done a massively brilliant job of bringing back obscure authors and proving the existence of an audience for this kind of thing, so who do we need to pester? What can we do? Get a Kickstarter going, crowd-source a wave of classic crime fiction?