Look at This Stuff, Isn’t it Neat?*

CollectionsDo you have a collecting hobby? Whether it’s T-shirts, antique hurricane lamps, books with skeletons in the cover art, or something else, collecting can be really enjoyable. It can be fun to hunt for additions to your collection, and it puts you in contact with others who share your interest. And it provides those who love you with no-fail ideas for birthday gifts.

Collecting can, of course, be expensive (depends on your particular interest). And sometimes collections are really valuable, which makes them tempting targets. There are also people who are so obsessed with their collections that they become dangerous. There are other risks, too, when you’re a collector. Little wonder collections come up so often in crime fiction. Here are just a few items; there are a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police forces to solve a disturbing series of crimes. The murders have in common that Poiroit receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the victims is retired throat specialist Carmichael Clarke. He always had a passion for Chinese pottery and porcelain; and, when he inherited a fortune, he was able to devote much more time and money to that passion. Clarke’s love of collecting isn’t the reason he is murdered. But it is an interesting aspect to his character. I know, I know, fans of Cards on the Table

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil also includes a character with a collection. In that novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills as a writing retreat. His plans change, though, when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She’s recently lost her father Leander to a heart attack which she’s convinced was deliberately caused. Queen is reluctant to get involved in the case at first. But he’s persuaded to look into the matter when Laurel tells him that her father’s death was preceded by a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ Her claim is that someone wanted him dead, and probably wants his business partner Roger Priam dead too, since Priam also has received ‘gifts.’ Priam doesn’t want Queen to get involved, but Laurel insists. As Queen looks into the matter, he learns more about Priam. The man’s not particularly educated, and not interested at all in literature or reading. But he does have a collection of ‘great books’ in expensive bindings. He owns the books more because rich men are supposed to have a library of fine books than because of any interest on his part. Still, the books do play a role in solving this mystery. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the One-Penny Black.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. He has a very unusual collecting hobby: antique war machines. In fact, he’s got a special room set aside for his acquisitions. One night, he’s killed by one of his devices. The police theory is that this was a tragic accident, but Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t think so. She tries to persuade DCI Tom Barnaby to look into the matter, and he agrees to review the case file. He sees nothing untoward in it though. The police did a thorough and careful job, and there’s no reason to believe they were wrong. But then, self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poisoning not long after a séance in which she revealed some details about Brinkley’s death. Now Barnaby and his team have two suspicious deaths to investigate.

Art collecting is very popular, especially among people with means. Art can be intrinsically quite valuable, so some people collect it as an investment. But others do so because of their passion for art or for the work of one particular artist. Crime fiction fans will know that there are many novels that feature art collections, art theft and forgery and so on. One of them is Aaron Elkins’ Loot. This story features Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Experts such as Revere provide extremely useful services when a museum or a private collector wants to establish whether a piece of art is authentic. So when pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky gets a painting he thinks is valuable, he calls Revere. When Revere gets a look at the painting, he immediately suspects it might be a priceless Velázquez that disappeared after it was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to take the painting with him while he researches it, because he’s concerned about Pawlovsky keeping an item like that in his pawn shop. But Pawlovsky refuses and Revere reluctantly leaves the painting there. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels responsible, so he wants to find out who killed his friend. His view is that if he can trace the painting from the time the Nazis took it, he can find out who the culprit is. As he investigates, we learn how some of that art got into the hands of private collectors and museums after World War II. And in the end, we learn how the painting ended up at the pawn shop.

S.J. Rozan’s China Trade introduces Chinese American PI Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin. In this story, she is hired by the Chinatown Pride (CP) Museum to find a collection of stolen Chinese porcelain. The porcelains were donated by the widow of wealthy private collector Hamilton Blair, and if they’re not found, the museum’s reputation will suffer. So Chin is urged to trace them as quickly and discreetly as she can. Chin and her PI partner Bill Smith look into the case and soon settle on a few possibilities. One is that a local gang, the Golden Dragons, took the porcelains because the museum wouldn’t pay protection money. Another gang, the Main Street Boys, might also be responsible. They ‘rented’ space from the Golden Dragons, and could have had access to the loot. Still another possibility is that one of the staff took the porcelains. As Chin and Smith get closer to the truth, the case turns from theft to multiple murders. And they’ll have to get answers quickly before one of them becomes the next target.

I admit I’ve not (yet) read Donald Westlake’s (as Richard Stark) Firebreak. But I couldn’t resist mentioning it here. This story sees Stark’s anti-hero Parker with a new job. His mission is to get his hands on a collection of priceless stolen artwork that dot-com millionaire Paxton Marino has secured at his Montana hunting lodge. Parker’s got enough to deal with before he even tries to get to the art. And things don’t get any easier once the heist is put in motion. Want to know more about Westlake’s Stark novels? Check out this interesting reference to them from Col at Col’s Criminal LibraryAnd as you’ll be there anyway, check out that great blog.

Collecting can be fulfilling, fun and sometimes lucrative. But it can also be very, very risky. Which novels with this theme have you enjoyed?


On Another Note…

Margot's Bookshelves

Talking of collecting, today’s your chance to see some of my collection…of books. Patti Abbott has kindly welcomed me to her excellent blog Pattinase to share what’s on my bookshelves. Do come pay me a visit there. And since you’ll be there anyway, have a look round the blog. Book reviews, music, great ‘photos, and of course, Friday’s Forgotten Books await you there!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Part of Your World.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Donald Westlake, Ellery Queen, Richard Stark, S.J. Rozan

41 responses to “Look at This Stuff, Isn’t it Neat?*

  1. Lovely set of shelves you’ve got there Margot 🙂 I had completely forgotten that aspect of the Queen novel, thanks. Rather nice that Bill Pronzini’s own ‘Nameless’ detective is himself a collector (of pul magazines).

    • Thanks, Sergio. Those were actually custom-made by a former employee of my husband’s, who also happens to be a gifted carpenter. Trust me, I don’t have a lot of custom-made things like that… Thanks also (very much!) for reminding me of Nameless’ collection of pulp magazines. I really like that in his character. I appreciate the nudge about that.

  2. I’ve turned over so many collections over the years, including books, that I try real hard to make myself not do that anymore. My mom, however, collected music boxes and butterfly pins, so I know I have the collection gene. Most of the fiction I could think of that involved collections was always about paintings, and most of those are thrillers turned into movies–Noah Charney writes fiction and nonfiction about art thieves.

  3. I live with a Dr Who collector – yawn. 😉

  4. I collect elephants – but I’m the kind of collector that can pack them away when the children are small, so that they don’t swallow them, and ask people to not give me anymore elephants as presents, for fear I have no room for them. Call that a sensible collector, I suppose, rather than a passionate one.
    As to crime fiction, just recently in ‘The Case of the Dotty Dowager’ I came across a really strange collection of false teeth. And isn’t Ripley a bit of an art collector once he is firmly ensconced in his bourgeouis lifestyle in the south of France?

    • He is indeed, Marina Sofia. Thanks for filling in that gap. I think an elephant collection is really interesting! I’ll bet you have some beautiful pieces. It sounds as though you’re wise about it too. Collections have a way of taking over if you let them.

  5. Great little expose on you Margot. To list the authors on your shelf would require use of a Rolodex – oops. Showing my age again.

  6. Like Marina I also collect elephants, the problem is that you get so many for presents that it is easy to become overrun! Love the look of your bookshelves too.

  7. I collect cats – not by choice, but because if you have real cats for some reason everyone gives you ornamental ones too! I’ve just finished reading Carol O’Connell’s ‘Judas Child’ in which the case is solved in part by a young policeman mentioning the ‘mushroom lady’ – an old woman whose house was filled with ceramic mushrooms of every kind. Even her kitchen clock was in the shape of a mushroom…

    • I see Tommy and Tuppance have all kinds of ways of reminding you who’s really in change, FictionFan 😉 – You know, I didn’t even think of that O’Connell novel when I was putting this post together. I’m glad you filled in that gap. As you say, the ‘mushroom lady’ is certainly an example of having quite a collection!

  8. Yup, I collect fountain pens and photographs of Middle Eastern/Asian doors.

    • Oh, that’s really neat, Alice! I’ll bet you have some beautiful examples in both of your collections.

      • Yes, and I try to write with all of them but I must admit some ink cartridges have dried out on me. I love to see the different treatment of doors, the knobs, the hinges, and colours.

        • And all of those details of treatment can make a door stand out so beautifully, I think, Alice. I wish my handwriting were more legible; if it were, I might use fountain pens. As it is, you can hardly make out a word, so I tend to word process – even grocery lists.

  9. Col

    Margot thanks very much for the mention – much appreciated. I was reminded of another book by Westlake/Stark – The Rare Coin Score but in all honesty I can’t remember too much about it. Too many years since I read it!
    I’m off to visit your bookshelves now.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention your blog, Col. And thanks for mentioning The Rare Coin Score. I really ought to put one of Westlake’s novels in the spotlight, whether it’s one under his own name or as Stark.

  10. Nice shelves Margot.

    The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver was a chilling book and just as chilling a movie.

    • Thank you, Bill. And I’m glad you mentioned The Bone Collector. Talking of macabre kinds of collecting… I admit I’ve not seen the film, but I’ve heard it’s quite good.

  11. The Bone Collector, as someone else mentioned. I haven’t read the book, but the movie was really, really good. I collect moose and bear, which friends and family know and never hesitate to add to my collection.

  12. … wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? Does collecting lyrics from movie soundtracks count?! I think that a collection can be a really interesting hobby to give a character – it can reveal a lot about them in a really visual way.

  13. In A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames, the retired sheriff collects modern art. Which seemed to me unusual for a sheriff in rural Texas.

  14. Kathy D.

    Well, like all of us readers of crime fiction and other works, I do collect books and I have books received from my family and friends as well as other readers and bloggers. They are on a huge bookshelf and mixed in are various pieces of pottery and small sculptures. I have some elephants and bears, but if I started seriously collecting, I’d have to move out! I also have interesting teapots, including one from my grandmother and it looks quite Russian. It’s held together with glue.
    But I save most of the collecting to books and old r&b cds. However, I have been giving away books and am gathering them now to donate to an organization that runs shelters for domestic abuse victims, as this blog
    As far as collectors in crime fiction, Guido Brunetti seems to collect old Roman military and philosophy books. The wonderful bookseller/thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr, collected antique books. V.I. Warshawski seems to collect opera records.
    Harry Bosch collects and loves jazz recordings, is an expert.
    I have yet to read Loot which I can’t locate but it keeps coming up.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy. Book lovers always seem to collect lots and lots of, well, books. It sounds as though you have lots of other interesting things, too, which is great. I know what you mean about seriously collecting though. I have no room for that either. And thanks for mentioning both Brunetti and Bosch. You’re right on both counts, and filled in an important gap.

  15. I’d like to nominate TracyK – she collects crime books with skulls and skeletons on the covers! I think we should encourage her to post a picture of some of her collection….

  16. Kathy D.

    I read the post at Pattinase about your book collection, and looking at the bookshelves, am impressed by how well-organized everything is. And I wish I could see the titles, especially where the books look similar on a shelf.

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