Chose promise, chose due. Here is a list of some the most obscure items in my « crime fiction » pantheon, the ones that probably even their authors forgot after writing them. Though the title implies otherwise – you know I can’t resist a pun, especially a lame one – not all books listed here are that hard to find, some of them even are relatively common and by relatively famous writers. So why then do I brand them « obscure »? Well, because that’s what they are if you take the word to mean something that very few people know about. Such books are pretty rare these days as the joint booms of blogging and online bookselling have made sure that even the most undistinguished book now has a chance of being reviewed and thus noticed and rediscovered. Most of the books listed below have yet to make their online debuts, at least if Google is to be trusted. Maybe there’s a simple reason for that – they suck and my enthusiasm is misguided. You’ll understand that I prefer not to entertain that possibility for now. I leave it up to you to decide – if you ever get hold of affordable copies, that is. 😉
Willo Davis Roberts, Becca’s Child (1974)
A young governess, a lone house with a brooding owner and a dark secret, and a little girl in jeopardy. Sounds like your standard ’70s gothic romance, doesn’t it? Yes, except that the young governess is neither pretty or shy and is strong-willed/witted enough to take on the titular child’s protection, save her from certain death on several occasions and identify then eliminate the villain without any male assistance – the brooding squire (warning: he isn’t handsome either) being very much a supporting character until the end of the book. Roberts gained notoriety and three Edgars later in life as a writer of juvenile mysteries but it’s a pity this unabashedly feminist take on a genre that is often anything but went under the radar. So successfully has it been erased from collective memory that neither Amazon or eBay know about it, and this page is the only source that Google could find. The French-language edition (« Elle s’appelait Fleur ») is barely less elusive, though Amazon.fr has some copies for sale through its marketplace.
Ivon Baker, Death in Sanctuary (1970)
This thoroughly enjoyable clerical mystery benefits from personal experience: Baker was an Anglican priest himself , and this was his debut. Baker wrote both a series featuring architect David Meynell and standalones. Death in Sanctuary belongs in the latter category and like Baker’s other non-series mysteries relies on a simple yet clever formula: casting as the detective an amateur whose professional expertise comes handy as they track down murderers. The book follows thus an ordinary – well almost – Anglican priest as he investigates the most curious death of one of his parishioners. The solution is quite clever but what makes the book memorable is the protagonist himself and the glimpses into his life as a priest and a (happily married) man, the whole thing devoid of any propagandizing. If you’re into Sidney Chambers you should like Death in Sanctuary… provided that you can find a copy as it has never been reprinted and no copy is for sale anywhere, unless of course that you read French.
Peter George – Cool Murder (1958)
A Californian P.I. novel in the Chandler/MacDonald tradition written by an Welsh… It shouldn’t work but it does, and extremely well. George for his first and only foray into the genre managed to produce one of the best P.I. mysteries of the decade, well written, well plotted and with a memorable gumshoe in the person of Steven Bryant. Of course it helps that this Peter George was the same guy who gave us Doctor Strangelove (although he was reportedly dissatisfied with Kubrick’s comedic treatment) He had a very brief career which ended with suicide, which might explain why Bryant never had another case. If this appeals to you – and you don’t need to be a hardboiled fan, just look at me – then you may want to know that one copy is for sale at Bezos’s place. The thing is, it isn’t cheap. At all. French-speaking readers – those lucky bastards! – on the other hand can have it – much – cheaper.
George H. Johnston – Death Takes Small Bites (1948)
Set in pre-revolutionary China, an unclassifiable book – you know I love those – that blends elements of traditional mystery, thriller, adventure and documentary but ultimately belongs to only one genre: its own. A former reporter, Johnston knew his setting remarkably well and he made China not just a convenient gimmick but a full-fledged character, inextricably mingled into a story that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Some readers will deplore the somewhat clunky love story, but that’s in my opinion only a minor quibble as the book has so much to offer besides. The French edition (« A petit feu ») won the coveted Prix Mystère de la Critique, so I’m satisfied this time that I’m not the only fool in town. The book for once is easily findable and affordable in both languages, which means you long-suffering readers of this parade of lost books will get to judge at least one for yourselves. 🙂
To be continued…