A Case of Books (1946) by Bruce Graeme

This year I very much seem to be getting into the habit of reading one book from Theodore Terhune series each month, and as you can see April is no different. This reading regime is aided by the fact the Moonstone Press have reprinted 7 of the books, as often what delays my return to an author or series, is the difficulty in obtaining the next book.

Synopsis

‘When Theodore Terhune’s wealthy client Arthur Harrison is found stabbed and his library ransacked, the police suspect the murderer was looking for a book. Harrison collected rare early printed books called incunabula, but as the provenance of such titles is well documented in the book world it would make little sense to steal one. Terhune is hired by the estate to sell off Harrison’s library, but another armed break-in and a very strange book auction suggest the killer is still searching for something. Soon Terhune himself becomes a target, but what exactly does the murderer want? And why are crosses appearing in the turf of local fields?’

Overall Thoughts

The set up for the murder of Harrison is very traditional in style, with the proverbial body in the library. This is a well-known trope and can be used by some as a way of decrying the value of classic crime fiction. But I think both Agatha Christie and Bruce Graeme show that the value of a trope lies in how it is used, not just in how infrequently it has been used in the genre. After all, in genre fiction novelty doesn’t equal automatic literary success. The body in the library is a natural choice of crime for Graeme, given the bibliophile theme of the Terhune series and I enjoyed how the author generates a less conventional book-based crime from this starting point.

Book centred humour makes several appearances in the narrative such as at the beginning when a customer complains to Terhune about a book she was recommended to buy by one of his assistants. She wanted a book full of cooking and housekeeping hints, but instead she was persuaded to buy John Paddy Carstairs’ Curried Pineapple. This is a real novel and John Norris, in the reprint introduction, notes that despite its food-based title, its content was somewhat ‘naughty’. I don’t know what the plot is, but I wonder if a modern-ish equivalent would be someone being recommended a Jilly Cooper novel when they wanted a non-fiction guide to equestrian sports.

If you love bibliophile themed books that include bookshops and their difficult customers, old fashioned book auctions and stolen books, then Graeme has lots for you to enjoy. I was impressed with how tense and dramatic he could make a book sale feel! All I will say is that Terhune has a duel with someone enigmatically named Droopy Moustache…

From the first Terhune novel, Seven Clues in search of a Crime, Graeme reveals a deftness in including outré plot elements and I was reminded of this in today’s read, albeit to a lesser degree. Graeme handles them well, ensuring they complement the plot rather than derail it. In keeping with other classic Golden Age Detective novels, these elements are linked to a specific piece of cultural knowledge, which I found interesting.

A big shift I have noticed in the second half of the Terhune series is that whilst the initial crime setup is intriguing, Graeme does not give his sleuths much to go on in terms of deciding what direction to take their investigation in. Sergeant Murphy sums this up well when he complains that “there’s been nothing to get me teeth into.” It is not an exaggeration to posit that by 70% mark of the story, Terhune and Murphy are no further forward in their investigation than when they started it. Whilst they lean towards the idea of the guilty party being an outside professional, they know little more than that. It takes the appearance of Inspector Sampson, who has been seconded to Special Branch, to bring a crucial piece of information and a new angle to the case that neither Terhune nor Murphy would ever have found on their own. The new angle is a really intriguing one, given the time Graeme was writing, but I wish it had been introduced into the narrative sooner, as there is a huge chunk of the book which does not pull its weight in the middle, as much as it could have done. It gives Sampson something of a deux ex machina role in the mystery. When I got to the denouement, I had a strong feeling that there was a strong mystery plot in the book, but that it had not reached its full potential to due certain elements being deployed at the wrong time.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Moonstone Press)

Ranking of Series So Far

  1. A Case for Solomon
  2. Seven Clues in Search of a Crime
  3. Work for the Hangman
  4. A Case of Books (I think what helped to push this book into 4th, rather than 5th place was that it avoided the necessity of a killer’s confession.)
  5. Ten Trails to Tyburn
  6. House with Crooked Walls

P. S. On why a killer is unlikely to use a bicycle as a mode of transport:

‘It’s only in Chesterton’s Father Brown type of stories that murderers go about on bicycles, which is psychologically unlikely in these days […] Cold-blooded murder – or hot-blooded murder, too, if you like – and bicycles don’t mix. A murderer’s natural impulse, on his way back from a crime, is to hide himself from everybody, to take advantage of dark places and shades, to keep clear of populous districts. But a bicycle perches a man up in the air for everyone to look at – it all but throws a limelight upon him – at least his guilty conscience creates that impression as he rides along in the middle of a road…’

6 comments

  1. A very fair review. It is the middle section which does sag a bit. That being said, I do strongly recommend keen GAD fans to read all 7 of these reissues in order. The sense of rural Kent and the development of many local characters gives a good snap shot of this period. Sadly ,I did find the last in the series to be the weakest . however ,I did find them all to be much better than the BLCC100reissue..” Death of a Bookseller”; for me nowhere near the biblio mysteries of Bruce Graeme.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was my favorite for a long time until I read House with Crooked Walls (Graeme’s most macabre mystery novel) and Case for Solomon, surely the best of the Terhune mysteries. I loved this one you review here for the book auction and the excellent detail on the locals who usually get mere cameos in the other books. Not so much a fan of the ending in this one. Twelve Trails to Tyburn I think is weaker than the final book And a Bottle of Rum which has something in common (professional criminals) with A Case of Books. I think …Rum has some well done, cinematically executed action scenes that make for gripping reading. But it does end up being more of a pursuit and action thriller than a traditional detective novel. Now you’re a bit prepared for the final book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes the book auction is one of this novel’s highlights. Expertly executed and very entertaining to read. I agree Case for Solomon is the best book – plot, pacing, humour and characters are all pitch perfect.

      Like

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