Book Reviews

Review: Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer

The 100th instalment in the British Library’s Crime Classics series is a fantastically fun bookish romp of a mystery!

Book: Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer

Publication date: 17th March 2022

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: Murder (obviously), violence and injury; mentions of suicide; mentions and threat of hanging/death penalty.

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 in to 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. This adventurous mystery, which combines exuberant characters with a wonderfully realised depiction of the second-hand book market, is sure to delight bibliophiles and classic crime enthusiasts alike.

What I enjoyed most about this book was not the mystery itself, but everything that surrounded it. I really loved the glimpses into the secondhand and antique book trade of the 1950s – while I’m sure a lot of it was dramatised for the sake of a sensational plot, and booksellers mostly weren’t casually stabbing each other over first editions, there were lots of little details about how the regular parts of the trade worked that were very enjoyable, from the secret marks made in books to the hierarchy of booksellers themselves. It’s also a great look into police work at the time – not in terms of detection techniques, but the more general workday. Sergeant Wigan being a regular bobby, rather than the kind of nebulously-attached detective that you so often get in crime novels, means we get to see the practicalities of his shift work, how it works when he’s seconded to the CID (drawing ‘detective allowance’), and also what happens when he decides to take the case into his own hands in his spare time. The down-to-earth depiction of policing was one of my favourite elements of the whole thing.

Sergeant Wigan, too, is a likeably normal lead – I really appreciated his genuine kindheartedness and commitment to honesty. He’s not a maverick, just a decent, hard-working man with a strong sense of justice, so it’s really easy to root for him when he does have to break the rules he so clearly respects. I quickly became invested in his personal story, too, and would love to read the other books featuring him if I can track them down. His very normality is also the reason he’s able to gain the confidence of the other players in the story, who are a little more strange, but still recognisably working men and women concerned with the practicalities of their jobs. The last couple of Crime Classics I’ve read have been focused on the upper classes, so I enjoyed this dive into working life.

What didn’t work quite so well for me was the strange diversion the mystery took into the occult – I’m never one to turn down a fantasy element, but I didn’t think the story quite committed to the bit! It veers into the Gothic horror in some moments, focusing on occult books as a genuine way to raise demons, but the characters mostly sit somewhere between sceptical and believing, which I found a bit odd, especially in the case of Sergeant Wigan, who is otherwise so firmly down-to-earth. I actually collect antique occult books myself (to be clear, just for interest, not for demon-raising), so I probably should have loved this aspect, but I felt like I wanted the book to either lean all the way into the paranormal element, and become a fantasy mystery, or dismiss the idea of a supernatural murder at once in favour of proper policing – the in-between status was just strange.

That being said, the slight occult weirdness didn’t put a damper on the other aspects of the story for me, so if you’re looking for a fun classic mystery read, this would be a great one to pick up. I really hope the Crime Classics series pick another of Wigan’s adventures to bring back into print soon! Four out of five cats!

3 thoughts on “Review: Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer

  1. I frequently see books hinting at supernatural elements without going all in, as if they think in order to stay “down to earth” they should not go so hard into the supernatural – but what it actually ends up doing is making the supernatural elements not believable…if that makes sense. I agree, they should really either commit or not try it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

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