Death of a Bookseller (1956) by Bernard J. Farmer

Today I am reviewing the 100th book to be reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series.

Synopsis

‘An honest policeman, Sergeant Wigan, escorts a drunk man home one night to keep him out of trouble and, seeing his fine book collection, slowly falls into the gentle art of book collecting. Just as the friendship is blossoming, the policeman’s book-collecting friend is murdered. To solve the mystery of why the victim was killed, and which of his rare books was taken, Wigan dives into the world of ‘runners’ and book collectors, where avid agents will gladly cut you for a first edition and then offer you a lift home afterwards.’

Overall Thoughts

Bernard J. Farmer is a new-to-me author, so it was interesting to read in the introduction that he had experience as a policeman and of the world of book buying, selling, and collecting. Both themes are put to good use in this story.

The author opens the mystery with a picture of policeman life, although I wonder how many police officers would identify with it now:

‘There are many hobbies in the police. it has been said that if you want anything done from mending a tap or painting a house to growing orchids, some policeman will know all about it. The job itself being unproductive of anything except law and order (without which no other job could function), many policemen like to use their hands in their spare time. Sergeant Wigan, like many others, began with gardening. Then finding he was not particularly gifted with green fingers, he went on to home decoration and making useful articles in wood. Then when he was promoted to sergeant and moved to Sun Police District he continued these hobbies, but finding he still had some time to spare he tried some mat-making.’

Perhaps Farmer is a being a little tongue in cheek or maybe it was just easier to be a police officer in the 1950s!

The book begins effectively, building up a cosy picture of the growing friendship between Sergeant Wigan and the murder victim; a friendship which ends abruptly before we reach the second chapter. Farmer conveys in a short page space their friendship, in a manner I felt was convincing and endearing. It encourages you to warm towards Sergeant Wigan.

In terms of style, Martin Edwards in his introduction, opines that Farmer combines the ‘“clock race” thriller’ of Cornell Woolrich ilk, with the prose of George Bellairs. This seemed like a surprising combination to me, as they are certainly not two names I would put together! I haven’t read enough by Woolrich to comment on that part of the comparison, but I suppose there is something Bellairs-esque about the writing style – although in my opinion Bellairs is a better plotter than Farmer.

One mystery parallel of my own which sprang to mind, when reading this book, was Philip Macdonald’s The Noose (1930) as both centre on a detective figure trying to prove the innocence of a man who has been convicted of murder and has been sentenced to hang. This type of plot usually provides a different emotional focus to a whodunnit, and it is interesting seeing a policeman be the character who tries to get the sentence overturned. As the story unfolds we see the awkwardness which develops for Sergeant Wigan at work, as his superiors become dissatisfied with his keenness to prove the official verdict wrong.

Sergeant Wigan’s efforts to prove the innocence of Fred Hampton start off well and I enjoyed meeting the characters who are book runners. Farmer, often writes in short punchy chapters, which help to encourage readers to keep going. Amateur sleuthing assistance crops up in a few ways in the mystery. I did initially wonder if Farmer was throwing in the kitchen sink with an amateur criminologist book runner who finds bibliographic information for other book runners in the British Library, but I think the author reins this part of the plot in sufficiently.

Attempts are made to trap suspected persons into confessing guilt, but with very little success. Despite being a policeman, Sergeant Wigan ironically is not necessarily that good a detective. I think this is evidenced when he tells the convicted man’s lawyer to appeal to the Home Office for a reprieve on the grounds that the murder victim had been trying to summon dark spirits and that one of the spirits must have done the deed instead. I was rather relieved when the lawyer declined to take up this suggestion. He does however organise for a famous psychic to attend the crime scene. This decision yields little to nothing and I would say at this juncture the plot takes a massive dip. I was doubly relieved when the sergeant’s wife gives him a more practical and useful lead to follow up.  Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the investigation and the direction it took. It is often filled with shoddy tactics which don’t work, and the case rather flounders after the first third of the narrative.

The final third of the book, however, does contain more exciting events. It is just a pity that they fail to pick up the pace of the book and instead still leave the investigation dragging along. The thing which most annoyed me though was the means used to gain the true killer’s confession.  It was just ridiculous and not in an amusing way, as is the case in Nap Lombard’s Murder’s a Swine (1943).  

Rating: 3.5/5

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classic)

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