31 March 2011

Books by Murderers 5

John Selby Watson ( 1804 - 1884 )

The Life of George Fox $20
Biographies of John Wilkes and William Cobbett (1870) $20
The Reasoning Power in Animals (1867) $50
Life of Sir William Wallace $25
Life of Richard Porson (1861) $25
Life of William Warburton (1863) $26


On the Nature of Things by Lucretius Carus (1851) $20
Justin, Cornelius Nepos and Eutropius ( 1853 ) $10 - $495 !!
Cicero on Oratory and Orators (1855) $25
Sallust, Florius and Vellius Paterculus $20
Quintillian’s Institutes of Oratory (1875) $85

The notorious Reverend John Selby Watson, who killed his wife, may well have been the inspiration for Dr Thorneycroft Huxtable, the pompous headmaster in the Sherlock Holmes story The Priory School, who insisted on reminding his hosts that he was the author of Huxtables Sidelights on Horace. The Watson case was a cause celebre at the time and Conan Doyle, as a medical man with an interest in forensic science, would have known about the trial. Also, is it incidental that Holmes’ companion shared a surname with the criminal? There are also two obvious similarities. John Selby Watson too was a headmaster ----of Stockwell Grammar School in south London—and he also edited classical texts to supplement his meagre living.

The facts are these. Having been dismissed in 1870 from his poorly paid Headship on the grounds of age and falling numbers, Watson was left in poverty--with no pension and with only the dribble of royalties from his many schoolbooks to sustain himself and his wife, who would frequent taunt him on his failure to provide, and for his sexual impotence. On October 8, 1871, just a few weeks after he had finished writing his History of the Papacy to the Reformation, a servant found Watson unconscious . He had taken prussic acid. In a note dated two days earlier he explained that he had killed his wife due to provocation. Her body was found in a bedroom with its head smashed in by the butt of his pistol. An ex-pupil at Stockwell, the writer F. Vincent Brookes later testified in his autobiography that Watson ‘ was a man of absolutely uncontrollable temper and quite unsuited for a headmaster ‘.

At his trial Watson pleaded insanity. The judge rejected this excuse and the jury found him guilty, but recommended mercy. The judge chose to ignore this plea and sentenced him to death. However, following reports and recommendations by leading medical men, the judge admitted that the clergyman in a temporary fit of insanity had killed his wife. Watson’s death sentence was commuted to life and he was sent first to Woking jail hospital, and then on to Parkhurst, where he died thirteen years later, aged 80, following a fall from his hammock.

The novelist Beryl Bainbridge based her speculative work, Watson’s Apology (1984), on the crime. Bainbridge’s novel renewed interest in Watson’s writings for a while, but although one chancer in the USA wants $495 for a bog standard copy of Justin, Cornelius Nepos and Eutropius, few could argue that with prices for most of his books hovering around $20, he has become a collected writer. Having said that, it would be nice to find the unpublished manuscript of Watson’s History of the Papacy to the Reformation. Was it sent to the publisher---or did it end up among the murderer’s papers?

Krystian Bala ( b1973 )

Amok (2003) $10

A perfect example of art imitating life. Famous travel writer and intellectual Krystian Bala boasted anonymously in an e mail to the Polish ‘ Crimewatch ‘ that he had committed ‘ the perfect crime ‘ when he had brutally murdered Dariusz Janiszewski in 2000. The police, however, could do nothing until a detective received an anonymous call five years later urging him to read the crime novel Amok, which had appeared three years after the murder. The detective found a copy and discovered that the details of the murder exactly matched those in the novel.

Bala was hauled in for questioning but denied any part in the murder, explaining that he had relied mainly on press reports for his material. With no real evidence to convict him he was released without charge. Before long, however, the police had the evidence they needed. It was discovered that four days after his disappearance, the victim’s mobile phone had been sold on the Internet using an account belonging to Bala. However, without sufficient evidence of his direct involvement in the killing Bala could only be convicted of ‘leading the murder ‘, although he was duly sentenced to 25 years. It would seem that Bala had reason to suspect that Janiszewski had had an affair with his estranged wife.
When the story broke there was a clamour for Amok in Poland as readers tried to find clues in the book that matched the facts of the murder. As far as I know, the novel hasn’t been translated, but it ought to be, as it has been optioned for a film. [R.M.Healey]

Many thanks Robin. You might say that when the Bala story broke the customers ran amok...A signed copy would be good for the ghoulish collector, I guess. Selby Watson sounds like a Casaubonical figure -- but Casaubon on a very short fuse.

24 March 2011

Ian Fleming. Rebel without a cause...3

In his  biography of Fleming, Andrew Lycett reveals that in 1928 Fleming self published a book of poems The Black Daffodil - a 'slim, black volume'. He showed it to his best friend from Eton Ivar Bryce but, as Lycett says '...later became so embarrassed by its juvenile contents that he rounded up and burned every copy.' Bryce, who came up with the anagram 'Fine Lingam' for Fleming's name, also house hunted 'Goldeneye' in Jamaica for him and in the TV movie Goldeneye is played by Patrick Ryecart. If alive he would be about 103 and could well have a copy. Other possible holders of the book would be Fleming girlfriends of the time. Young men tend to publish slim volumes to impress girls (or boys) or because they are in love -- one account of the book refers to the poems as 'romantic.' At this time Fleming was very keen on Rupert Hart Davis's 'beautiful, doe-eyed' sister Deirdre (later Deirdre Bland). In an unlikely connection with the yellow 90s she had, at the age of eight, attracted the notice of the poet Arthur Symons in the Cafe Royal. He wrote these lines for her: 

She had taken my hand, then turned
Her eyes on me, pure as the sky.
If ever a man's heart to her yearned,
Mine did, I know not why. 
At the age of 18 Fleming sent her several poems including these agonised lines 'If the wages of sin are Death/ I am willing to pay...I am so weary of the curse of living/ The endless, aimless torture, tumult, fears.' Such lines possible made it into The Black Daffodil. Fleming was undoubtedly (as The Times obituary said of Dodi Fayed) a 'chick magnet' and at that time was at university in Geneva and frequented the ski resorts of Megeve and Kitzbuhel Switzerland. It is not impossible that he gave copies of his book to one or more of his lovers there...must check the English sections in the old bookshops around Lake Geneva. Another huge rarity would be a bound copy of a translation Fleming had made of Klaus Mann's Anja and Esther. Fleming's mother was so proud of this piece that she had it typed up and bound in 'handsome black card' with Ian's name on the cover as translator. Lycett does not state whether there was more than one copy made but says 'Ian's first publication had been completed...'

Somewhere on the web I found this claim made about the genesis of Casino Royale:
'Its origins can be traced back to his first book, which was about as far removed from James Bond as possible — a collection of romantic poems called The Black Daffodil. He destroyed every copy, believing the contents were worthless compared with the mature output of his brother Peter, who was intellectually brilliant in a way he could never match. (If any example escaped the cull, it would be worth a fortune.) A sibling rivalry developed, particularly after Peter went to Oxford, whereas Ian, deemed B-stream material by his demanding mother, was shunted off to Sandhurst. Later, Peter wrote witty books about his travels while Ian vegetated…'

As mentioned in the last post Aleister Crowley may well have been an input in the creation of Fleming's first great villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. When in WW2 Fleming was working in Naval Intelligence he had conceived the idea of using the Great Beast's assistance in the interrogation of the nazi Rudolf Hess (something of an occultist) who had parachuted into Scotland in 1941. It was overruled and came to nothing, but his first biographer Pearson had sight of a good letter from Crowley to Fleming on the subject. Fleming had tracked him down to a place near Torquay, where he was 'living harmlessly on his own and writing patriotic poetry to encourage the war effort.' Aleister Crowley's brief letter to Ian Fleming went thus:

If it is true that Herr Hess is much influenced by astrology and Magick, my services might be of use to the Department in case he should not be willing to do what you wish. I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, Aleister Crowley.'
With the letter Crowley apparently enclosed a copy of his 1939 penny tract England Stand Fast. This is a one page broadsheet privately Issued by the O.T.O. that now sells for about $100. Signed to Fleming it would surely command well into four figures...

In the ill fated 1966 David Niven movie of Casino Royale (Woody Allen as Bond's cousin Jimmy Bond etc.,) the part of Le Chiffre was played by Orson Welles who, in his later incarnation as stout bon viveur, would have made a good Crowley, come to think of it. [END]

18 March 2011

Collecting true crime 1.

The poor relation of crime fiction ? I don’t see why it should be. Real people, real murder, real scams, real places. What could be more intriguing? God knows, there’s enough of it in the papers, the TV channels, the radio, the Net; so why shouldn’t books on true crime be up there with Rankin and Dexter ?

One top collector I met devoted most of his bungalow in Ruislip to his collection. He said he preferred facts to fiction. Nothing wrong with that. And although some true crime faddists are a little weird and obsessive, how much darker are the souls of those harmless-looking little old ladies who sup their Horlicks while reading about a man getting shot in the head.

The penny dreadfuls and broadsheets by Catnach et al from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are interesting from a printing history and sociological point of view and are, like Victorian bus tickets, thin on the ground and therefore expensive. The Newgate Calendar( aka Rogues Calendar), a digest of notable crime from 1700 to 1764, the year of its first printing, is unashamedly sensationalist. It went through several re-printings right up to the 1960s, when Pan published a paperback edition in several volumes. On ABE all five volumes of an 1810 edition can be had for a felonious $1,200, but the hardback ‘ scholarly ‘ reprint of 1999 is pure daylight robbery at $2,930.

The Terrific Register at one penny, and including a woodcut, was the favourite reading of the teenage Charles Dickens, who thrilled to its sixteen pages of blood and guts each week from 1825. A certain bookseller near the BM wants a reasonable enough $1,638 for all 104 parts bound in two volumes. Accounts of trials and executions are in demand, especially if the offender has fallen from grace. Accounts of the trials of those two Georgian notables --the Reverend Dr William Dodd and Admiral John Byng—command big prices. If those on trial were popular scourges of the political establishment, like Hone, Cobbett and their radical associates, published accounts of their trials are also sought after. The Three Trials of William Hone, however, was so frequently reprinted from 1818 that you shouldn’t really cough up more than £30 for a copy, but you may have to now that the history of political radicalism is fashionable again.

Occasionally, if you are lucky, you will find collections of crime ephemera. Two months ago scrapbooks bulging with cuttings and photos relating to the famous Charles Bravo case of 1876 sold for four figures at auction in Cambridge, which came as no surprise. Diaries, letters and ephemera are big at the moment, possibly because of the current academic fad for ‘life writing ‘. Fifty odd years ago such stuff was a lot cheaper, and a collector like John Stanhope, author of the excellent Cato Street Conspiracy (1962), could secure an envelope containing engravings of the conspirators and samples of their speeches from the scaffold in their own handwriting, for a measly 7s 6d. That couldn’t happen now that the famous hayloft in Marylebone has its blue plaque and the wine bar next door is (or was ) called ‘ Thistlewood’s ’.

Of more modern publications, the best is the famous ‘ Notable British Trial ‘ series that ran from the thirties to the fifties. Each volume was a hefty piece of reportage in red boards, on thick paper and with minimalist jackets. Each title focussed on one particular trial from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Some books are more collected than others—those that have passed into legend, such as the trial of Crippen and the Thompson-Bywater scandal —being especially sought after. Expect to pay at least £8 a volume without a jacket; twice that price with one. Most true crime connoisseurs will have a whole set of these, which could set you back nearly a grand. Surprisingly, the late Sir John Mortimer, didn’t have a set, though I did spy a few volumes, including the Trial of Oscar Wilde, on his shelves when I interviewed him in his Chiltern bolt-hole.

R.M.Healey. [To be continued…]

Many thanks Robin. What I couldn't do with a set of 'Notable British Trials.' Must check out ABE to see what people are attempting to get for them these days. As I recall financial crimes were good, also war crimes- and limited editions like the 250 copies of the trial of the 'Resurrection Men' Burke and Hare' (£100+). They used to be referred to by raffish runners as 'Notably Brutish Trials.' The great crime dealer Camille Wolff once told me that her best customers were criminals and policemen and sometimes they were there at the same time and she had to make them feel comfortable with one another. Book collecting is a great equaliser but I wonder who were the bigger spenders...

11 March 2011

James Patterson -- Jailhouse Rocker

An American book dealer friend (he calls himself a dealer but he simply uploads tons of book to Amazon) was rather dismissive about the typical readers of James Patterson's violent novels, describing them as 'mullets in muscle cars.' We got on to Patterson because he had had a book request from his son who is doing a spell in jail for drug offences. The lad needed as many Patterson paperbacks as his dad could muster. Apparently in prison they are a sort of currency. With a Fang or Angel or Virgin or anything featuring Patterson's hero Alex Cross you can buy favours, goods and services in jail. Call me an elitist bastard, but I feel this does not bode well for the quality of the writing...

Patterson appears to be by far the best selling author in America and he and a small team of writers under the Patterson franchise put out nearly a book a month. One in every 17 books bought in America is by the great man. He is also the most downloaded of all writers. He outsells Stephen King in the way that the Beatles used to outsell the Moody Blues. King, by the way, called him a "terrible writer" of "dopey thrillers." Patterson is laughing all the way to the proverbial bank and is said by some to tell a better yarn.

Certainly when it comes to collectability KIng is way ahead of him. A complete collection of King in first and limited edition could cost you more than a couple of new Cadillacs but you can buy a fine first edition of Patterson's rarest book (his first book The Thomas Berryman Number) for under $500, although the usual crowd of overchargers want $1000 or so for it. Most of his other work is readily accessible for paltry sums, although you will see fine first editions of his Jericho Commandment at over $100. Also signed copies are good-- when a writer makes a ton of money he tends to be less accessible.

In Britain Martina Cole seems to be the favourite reading of the imprisoned. In an article in the Times on new book theft (Feb 2009) Murah Ahmed notes:
'... According to PLR records, James Patterson...is the most borrowed author from libraries. And books about crime are also frequently stolen - hence the works of Martina Cole, a prolific crime writer, appear high on the list. Her books are also among those most read in prisons, and she claims to be perfectly happy to be a target for thieves: “I think it's great, personally. If people want my books badly enough to go and steal them it's a compliment, really.” '
A word to the wise--if visiting a friend or relation who has fallen foul of the law do not take them some sort of improving literature-- try a tote bag full of Patterson (or Martina Cole) - behind bars they are better than money.

08 March 2011

Ian Fleming. Rebel without a cause...2

Further extracts from a fascinating letter from Fleming's first biographer John Pearson discovered in a copy of the book. It was to a friend, probably a dealer in art. It presents an interesting take on the great man. Even as a book collector Fleming seems to have been ambiguous in his commitment. He described his collection as 'one of the foremost collections of scientific and political thought in the world...' but later lost interest in it except as an investment and hedge against inflation. When after the war an American dealer (I like to think it was the formidable El Dieff) asked him what he would take for it he mentioned a sum of £100,000, a gigantic and unrealistic sum at the time. Pearson writes:
"He took up with various intellectuals who could be charmed by his looks and by his manners, but without ever doing anything as infra-dig as to become an intellectual himself . The intellect was brother Peter's territory. And however much he muttered on about the dreary old City and its weary old bankers, he was shrewd enough to keep in with his own little group of bankers and stock-brokers and to draw his ₤3,000 a year from his firm at Lloyds until the end of the war… when he charmed his way into Kemsley Newspapers...Even with his appalling mother he never quite had the courage to tell the old witch where she got off. Her hold over him through Papa's will was far to strong for that. Socially he always pretended, in his off-hand way , to be far more O.K. than he was...

I'm saying all this...not because I want to be snide about him but because I think that this is the answer to your query about his rebelliousness .It's also the key to a considerable area of his personality and to much of the success of his books.

For he is one of the finest examples ...of the rebel snob. He was the child who won't eat his ice-cream because Nanny won't give him enough of it. And it was this that made him the perfect go-between between the old English snob world of the Bond books and the new status-conscious masses who became his favourite audience. He was really mocking something he loved, exposing something he valued. This was where his rebelliousness led him...the end was very sad and very ironic , as it usually is ...for such ambivalent creatures, although he did die where he wanted to [at a golf club] the Royal St. George's with a clubhouse full of thoroughly nice upper-class Englishmen to mourn his memory. I often wonder what would have happened to him in the French Revolution. Somehow I don't think he'd have lost his head.

I think this is more or less fair. Maybe not. "
That concludes the letter but in the course of researching this I found much about Fleming as a book collector and also as a poet who self published a book at the age of twenty. He appears to have destroyed every copy. This black tulip was called The Black Daffodil. If a copy surfaced it would be worth a fortune...Will post something on this with speculation on where a copy might be found and also deal with Fleming's encounters with the Great Beast (Crowley) said to be the basis of the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. [Pic above is of Fleming as a student at Eton College.]

06 March 2011

Collecting early bibles in English 1.

Current Selling Prices
£20 - £200,000

Four centuries after the King James version of the Bible appeared, we are taking a look at collecting early bibles. First, forgive me for stating the obvious, but you can forget your average family bible from the Victorian period—bound in black gilt- tooled leather, with brass clasps and weighing in at half a ton. Frankly, for all their ancestral inscriptions, often in barely decipherable hands and complete with blots and mathematical calculations ( what’s that all about ?), they’re invariably boring and uninspiring, with or without illustrations. And although it’s undoubtedly true that some of the eighteenth century bibles were beautifully printed by masters like Baskerville, they are essentially pedestrian, though plain and elegant as a Georgian box pew.

It seems to me that unless you’re turned on by association copies, anyone going in for bibles must be interested in the printed contents, rather than the look or the age of the volume. After all, a King James Bible printed in, say, 1638, isn’t that interesting as a text, for all its age and quirky spelling. Apart from misprints, this text remained essentially unchanged since 1611, when the first King James version was published. As a teenager I was thrilled to acquire from Dylan Thomas expert Jeff Towns for £1, a lovely large quarto copy dated 1629 in its original binding, A year before, I had secured in Hay on Wye a tiny pocket bible from the 1640s, only to regret the purchase ( it was about £2 ) because the miniscule type was murder on the eyes. Not long afterwards I sold it for £10 to an American evangelist ( he may have been a Mormon ) who knocked on our door. I later discovered that throughout most of the 17th century the bible was reprinted every year. Which means there must be hundreds of thousands of 17th century bibles around. And although the ‘ wicked ‘ bible ( 1632 King James version which omit the word ‘ not ‘ in ‘Thou shall not commit adultery ‘) is an amusing rarity, I can’t see that it is worth paying so much extra for a copy of this curiosity.

American bible dealers have the right scholarly attitude and much information may be gained from their websites, if you can tolerate the quasi-evangelistic tone and the hard sell. Although most seem to live in the deep south and probably have dubious attitudes towards homosexuality and the environment, they know their bible history and what’s worth buying. Some of them even have Ph Ds in theology.

Do you need to be well healed to buy early bibles ? Well, yes and no. Just over a year ago I was lucky to secure for a measly £20 a fine copy, dated 1611, of a Geneva Bible—the text familiar to Shakespeare—and the one on which the King James version was heavily dependent. I later found out that publication of this earlier text continued long after the King James had appeared—such was the continued demand for it. But again, it must be stressed that later issues of the Geneva Bible are nearly as thick on the ground as most seventeenth century issues of the King James---and for the same reason. Each family above a certain level would have owned a bible and bibles were not thrown away.

But again, copies of the first edition of the King James are very rare for the obvious reason that like the first edition of any book, the publishers are never sure how many copies to print, especially as the Geneva bible was still the one that every family owned. Hence the 1611 edition of the King James is very, very expensive. Be prepared to shell out over £100,000 for a copy. Later editions, as I say, can be bought for much less, though quite a few knowledgeable dealers, playing on the public’s ignorance, seem to think it’s quite OK to charge big bucks for a perfectly ordinary seventeenth century King James version.
[R. M. Healey.]

Thanks Robin. Weighty words indeed. Bibles are asked for all day long and I have to buy them mostly from a pal in the sticks who scours the local auctions and antique shops. They are not so common in the Godless city. Sorry Robin they are mostly the 1800 AD + family bibles, fat and in full leather with golden clasps. I recall once having bought an enormous black bible that I had to walk with it under my arm all the way down Felixstowe High Street -some kids shouted 'make way for Dumbledore' (the big beard I was sporting at the time might not have helped.) These fat bibles used to be bought by American tourists but in London there are now quite a few buyers of any decent condition bible that is not grossly overpriced. They tend to be very heavy and may be unwieldy on the tube or bus. Of course you could read the word in more portable form on an Iphone (or a tablet) but it is not quite the same...

04 March 2011

Ian Fleming. Rebel without a cause...

After I saw a signed first edition of Marx's Das Kapital on sale at $500,000 at the San Francisco Book Fair I was thinking of the irony that only a seriously successful capitalist could afford this epoch making, game changing work. It could be claimed that the whole vogue for collecting landmark books was started by Old Etonian Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. He had his own copy of a first edition Kapital and many other key works which in the 1950s were highly undervalued. He was the principal contributor to the important international exhibition — Printing and the Mind of Man.

When I got home I pulled out my copy of John Pearson's Life of Ian Fleming to read the stuff on Fleming as a book collector and was surprised to find a letter from Pearson tucked in the back. A very good long typed signed letter to a close friend about a theory that Fleming was 'a sort of rebel.' It is worth quoting from. For copyright purposes I won't quote it all but will stick to some interesting and germane excerpts. Pearson was a friend of Fleming and had been his assistant at the Sunday Times. The tone is friendly and urbane but very frank; it is important to record here that John Pearson adds this postscript 'He did have a great sense of humour about himself which made it all tolerable...'' Fleming's life was full of paradox, and the rebellious style was very much of its day. Had Fleming been born 50 years later he would probably have been a punk-- albeit a very posh punk. Pearson writes:
"I have been thinking about what you said about Flem[ing] being sort of a rebel. You're right up to a point. He would certainly have agreed with you...As a pseudo-Marxist I would say he was at best -or worst - a phony rebel. Whatever rebellion or rebelliousness he went in for began as a reaction against his money grubbing family , his intolerable mother, his unbeatable brother and the memory of his impeccable father.

What is interesting about him is that the rebelliousness this produced never channelled into any political form at all although his teens coincided with the 1930s...He was far too narcissistic , too self-absorbed,too lonely to indulge in politics. There was also an extraordinary vein of caution or cowardice in him. He was not the man to kick against the system in any serious sense ... He wanted money , social position , worldly success ; and his rebelliousness came from the feeling that these social goodies were being unjustly denied him - not that they were wrong in themselves...

Ergo , his rebelliousness took an odd and usually ambivalent form. It could be sexual. At one stage he was screwing himself silly but always with 'nice' girls, or else with foreign ones. He always pretended to make fun of the establishment , but took good care to wear his O.E. tie. (Until he became successful enough in his own right to change to the bow-tie of the Bond image photographs.)" [To be continued.]