Do 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 Library. And 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…
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.