Everyone loves a mystery, right?
I go through many, many carts of old books every week. The sorters here know the look and feel of “vintage” books. When they come across them, they put them on rolling metal carts for me to inspect. It’s my job and duty to survey these old mostly pre 1940 cloth books for books which may be valuable. Maybe 99% of old books are just “old books.” Forgotten authors, later printings and reprints, obsolete non-fiction… Most are books no reader or collector would be willing to part with a few dollars for.
It is kind of like panning for gold. Almost all you get is gravel.
But every once in a while…
To make these carts “go away,” I quickly scan authors’ names usually printed just below the book’s title near the top of the spine. Often I will draw a forefinger down along the spines of the horizontally stacked books. The sound is a nearly imperceptible “tac, tac, tac…” If my finger points to a name that clicks a positive impression in my mind, I’ll pull that book out. Sometimes some other instincts stop the forefinger. Again, the scanning process will stop, and that book will be selected—pulled from the herd.
Oh, and if something looks particularly beautiful or intriguing, I may pull that out to look at as well. Even though its only value may be as “eye candy.”
Whatever is not removed from carts for consumer pricing gets pushed up to our Books By the Foot division. There they are “rescued” from oblivion (pulping.) They are sent mostly to Interior Designers who stage them in many types of locations.
So about a month ago, I was doing my routine. My right forefinger passed by the name “Eiker.” That didn’t register as anything special, so I moved on. Then a moment or two later “Eiker” again. Then again, again, again…
“Wait. That is too many Eikers on one cart.” I stopped, went backward and pulled out all the Eikers and placed them on the cart with better books I’d found earlier. When I’d finished that cart, there were a couple dozen Eikers filling a shelf and a half on that cart.
“Who are you?” I thought. “Never heard of you, and suddenly I have a whole pile of you.”
I’m used to coming across long runs of once hyper popular authors like Zane Grey, Grace Livingston Hill—authors who were bestsellers and prolific in their lifetimes long, long ago. Authors like Grey and Hill were still popular with older folks when I was a very young bookseller. Others who were bestsellers in the early 20th century like E P Roe, Hall Caine, Ralph Connor, Winston Churchill (the American fiction writer) were always nearly impossible to find new homes for.
A few Eikers had dust jackets and were first editions. That is always a good thing. At least to me. When I come across an obscure first edition in a dust jacket, I feel a responsibility to save it. I’ll make sure it goes into our online catalog. I’ll “force it on” despite the computer’s protests and complaints that its odds of selling are minuscule.
“You’re a survivor. You’ve gotten this far. I’ll give you a shot. Maybe someone out there on the world wide web will want you.”
Also, books like these may a have a “hook.” A hook means there may be a reason someone, some institution, somewhere may want to pick up the title regardless of its obscurity or literary merit. The hook may be geographical. If it is set in Maine or Australia or Timbucktu, that may trigger interest for collections focused on those places. The hook could be ethnic. If it is a story involving African Americans or Hispanics or written in a regional dialect that may attract collectors of those genres.
Another reason why people used to collect some old fiction was because of the illustrations. If a book had an N C Wyeth frontispiece or some plates created by Maxfield Parrish, those images could sell the book even if no one cares about the author or the story. That market is not even close to what it used to be. Well, maybe just about any Parrish will still sell. Once highly desirable illustrators like Howard Chandler Christy or Harrison Fisher don’t make a lick of difference anymore unless they are signed or contain something else extraordinary.
So if I come across an obscure first edition novel with a dust jacket, there is a chance that the jacket art might sell it.
More often than you would expect search results for obscure fiction will yield “None online. None on World Cat*. If it truly is a “sole survivor,” I feel have a duty to try hard to ensure its continued survival.
* WorldCat is a union catalog that itemizes the collections of 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and territories that participate in the Online Computer Library Center global cooperative. It is operated by OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. — Wikipedia
I looked inside a couple of the Eikers. Why? Instinct, I guess. I don’t have time to look inside many books on whims.
“Inscribed to her mother?” I thought. “Mathilde, who are you?”
It was a little mystery but getting bigger. Sometimes little mysteries lead to important solutions. Sometimes they are just intriguing because of their smallness; their humanity. Like this blog from last June.
I moved onto the other carts of old books patiently waiting in line.
When I was done for the day, I went back to that cart and pulled all the Eikers off and placed them onto a separate cart. Now that I’d found her, I didn’t want Mathilde getting lost or diluted with other authors.
“Mathilde, I will get back to you when I have some time to spend with you.”
It had been about a month. I was looking for a subject for this week’s book story. I passed by Mathilde’s cart, and she caught my eye.
“Let’s look into this conundrum.”
I, of course, Googled her name. The first two results were Encyclopedia.com and Findagrave.com
She died in 1982 and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC. I know that place! It is the final home of some famous people.
Henry and Clover Adams, George McGovern, Gore Vidal, Supreme Court Justices Harlan and Harlan Stone, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Upton Sinclair, Tim Russert…
It also has some beautiful sculptures and landscaping. The Adams Memorial by St Gaudens and Stanford White is iconic.
Saint-Gaudens entitled it “The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.”
As well as the Kaufmann Memorial a.k.a. The Seven Ages of Memory.
The memorial features a curved granite wall exedra with seven bronze relief panels on the curve and a curved bench. Upon the bench, a “classically-draped” figure of a woman sits. She leans forward with her head bowed, looking down at a wreath made of asphodel she is in the process of making. She wears a robe tied at the waist, sandals, and her hair is pulled back and curved around her face. This woman represents “Memory,” and the bronze panels (15 in. x 26 in.) depicts scenes from Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Men,” from As You Like It. — Wikipedia
You may enjoy dipping into the cemetery’s story a bit. Its Wikipedia page has a long list of famous residents and other features. You should try to visit if you’re ever near the beautiful Rock Creek Park which meanders through the heart of DC. It is a green vein that follows the course of the creek north to south through the city to the Potomac River. The parkway, which mostly follows the creek, is a delightful drive as well (except during rush hour.)
That was the way I commuted from Rockville to George Washington University where I finished my undergrad degree (in English AND Zoology.) GW was to be my destination in the Fall of 1980 to go to grad school. That plan was interrupted permanently when I asked for a “summer job” at the Book Alcove of Gaithersburg.
Coincidentally, Mathilde also graduated from George Washington University but in 1914.
Mathilde was born in DC in 1893. It sounds like her family was fairly well to do. She grew up in the embassy area of the city.
The Encyclopedia.com entry is pretty brief and doesn’t shed much light on who she was.
Apparently, she never married. Maybe she lost someone in World War I. She taught High School for a couple years. Findagrave.com reveals a little more:
Beginning in 1924, she taught English at Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson High Schools, although she was often disappointed with the public schools’ misunderstanding of gifted children. One of her students was Larry Kramer, later a critically acclaimed playwright of such works as “The Normal Heart.” In a 1994 Washington Post article, he credited her encouragement with starting him along the path to becoming a writer. — Findagrave.com
She resigned teaching after her first novel’s success. And after that… I don’t know. She wrote books for a decade or so. Maybe her last book was They Talked of Poison—a mystery she wrote under the pseudonym March Evermay published in 1938. I can’t find much bibliographical information about her nor what she did after the late 1930s.
Maybe she retired to the social life of a well-connected lifelong District of Columbia author and denizen from then until her death in 1982.
I wondered what she looked like. Findagrave.com had a line drawing that didn’t convey much.
I kept playing with Google and found her linked to an obscure sorority publication. SigmaKappa.org had posted all 240 plus pages of their June 1932 Sigma Kappa Triangle periodical. There on page 193 was a review of her “new” novel The Senator’s Lady. And a photo of her.
Well, that is something.
Then I thought, “She looks familiar.”
I recalled one of the dust jacketed books, The Lady of Stainless Rainment, I put aside. It had a color illustration—a head shot—of a woman that bears a strong resemblance to Mathilde. I retrieved that book to look closer.
I turned it over, and there was another photo of Mathilde. She looks very stylish in the late 1920s hat, pearl necklace and jacket with a fur collar.
I hadn’t really looked closely at any of her books. I was pretty sure they were decidedly not one of my genres. But I glanced at the review printed below her photo.
Hmmm, is the work early “feminist” writing in the modern sense of the word? I dunno. Maybe someone out there wants to acquire this archive and see if it would fit into some institution’s collection. Maybe as a “feminist” woman writer. Maybe a Washington DC novelist… Maybe…something else?
Anyway, the mystery of Mathilde was solved. Sort of.
Mysteries…she wrote two. Only one was in this group. I searched under her pseudonym—March Evermay. Up came a review from Bill Deeck. I knew him long ago. He was noted and popular fan of mysteries and mystery writers. He was a friend of my pal—mystery author Barbara Mertz a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.
Here’s what Bill wrote about one of Mathilde’s mysteries:
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck
MARCH EVERMAY—They Talked of Poison. Macmillan, US, hardcover, June 1938.
On Wednesday nights during the academic season, Harry Curry, professor of sociology at Penfield University, delivers his criminology lectures at his home. Afterwards, Curry’s wife serves refreshments, of which the family dog usually partakes. After one session the dog dies suddenly, possibly the victim of poison. Later that night one of the attendees, the Rev. Dr. Perley, is found dead in his car in Curry’s garage; his death, however, is deemed natural.
Perley’s daughter has made a bad marriage to a writer of awful—in the literary sense—semipornography, in unthinking reaction after Perley had told her she could not marry a divorced doctor. Shortly after her father’s death, she commits suicide. Or so it seems until Curry’s niece, who is the narrator here but appears to have no personality, spots an anomaly.
This is a very complex and leisurely case, with interesting characters, especially the clergyman’s wife, who fears what the congregation will think and may have murdered both her husband and her daughter for that reason. For nearly fifty pages the police detective explains who didn’t do it before he reveals who did do it, but the time is well spent by the reader who wants his or her money’s worth.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.
Bill passed away in 2004. Oddly I saw his name earlier this year when I attended Malice Domestic. That is the annual convention of “cozy mystery” authors and fans. Bill has a grant or scholarship named after him. I hadn’t thought of him for many, many years, but when the award was announced at the banquet, some memories of him returned.
Here’s what the grant named after him is all about:
The William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grants Program for Unpublished Writers will award one grant to an unpublished writer in the Malice Domestic genre at each year’s convention. Founded in 1993 by Beth Foxwell, a former Malice Domestic Board Chair, it was later named for the late William F. Deeck, a long-time supporter and friend of Malice Domestic, Ltd. and an advocate for unpublished writers. The Grant program is designed to foster quality Malice Domestic literature and to assist mystery authors on the road to publication.
Malice Domestic, Ltd. awards the Grant based on a demonstrated commitment to the Malice Domestic genre. The Grant may be used to offset registration, travel, or other expenses related to attendance at a writers’ conference or workshop within a year of the date of the award. In the case of nonfiction, the grant may be used to offset research expenses. The grant includes a $2,500 award plus a comprehensive registration for the upcoming convention and two nights’ lodging at the convention hotel, but does not include travel to the convention or meals.
I attended the event last spring when Joan Hess was honored, posthumously, with a coveted Amelia Award for her completion of Barbara’s last Amelia Peabody novel: The Painted Queen. Two years prior I’d been at the convention when Joan was given the Lifetime Achievement Award.
I noticed we were missing that last book. The mystery Bill Deeck reviewed above. They Talked of Poison. I did a search for it online, and Wonder Book had a copy. Go figure…
There is no dedication to this one just a quote from Hamlet:
Hamlet: Didst perceive?
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: Upon the talk of poisoning?
— Hamlet, Act III, Sc. ii.
…Connections and odd things stimulating memories and thoughts…
Anyway, I’m glad for my brief acquaintance with Mathilde (and March.)
Where did the books come from? As is so often the case, we don’t know. They could have been brought to one of our stores. Or they could have been picked up from an estate in the DC region. Or they could have…
I assume they came from a relative who perhaps passed away or was downsizing.
I did find a penciled note inside one of the books:
The books missing are:
Brief Seduction of Eva
There are more books in attic so eventually you should have a full set.
So maybe they came from “Mary.” Maybe from whoever had a stash of Mathilde’s books in their attic.
So here is what they look like.
And here are some more of the inscriptions:
What will become of this lot, this “archive”? I’d like to have someone take the entire group and place it in an institution. Maybe someday some scholar will want to look at Mathilde’s work.