The collector of criminology -- the genuine collector, who delights the dealers by purchasing with a lavish hand and never reading anything -- this gentleman fills his shelves with old books and pamphlets and all the stock stuff on the order of the Newgate Calendar. This famous collection, with its variations and successors, is the dealer's darling. It has all the requisites which make him love a book: moderate rarity, high price, and contents which are frequently so dull and stereotyped as to be nearly unreadable.
--"From Sudden Death," in Queer Books, Edmund L. Pearson (Kennikat Press, 1928)
As you might imagine, I have quite the crime library and have amassed an impressive collection of non-fiction crime books over the years. I often have to make a run to the home improvement store for yet another set of bookshelves to house the burgeoning mass of stuff I simply cannot bring myself to part with. Thank goodness this old farmhouse has enough rooms to shelter my library, my delightful hubby, and my cute little baby boy, because I'd hate to have to choose between them.
When Amazon started selling out-of-print titles a few years ago, I busted my budget every month, delighted to find some of the obscure historical titles that have been on my "Must Get" list for ages. Another wonderful source for the immoderate collector is a library book sale, and these are easily found via The Book Sale Finder, an online guide to used book sales at libraries and other places throughout North America (you can even sign up for an email alert to tell you of all the sales within X miles of your home). Two of the best used book dealers for the crime enthusiast are Powell's Books and Patterson Smith, both of whom have pleased me with a positive response to an obscure request.
But like anything else in the universe -- was it Harlan Ellison who said that 90% of everything in the universe is shit? -- there are some real turkeys in this genre, and some have found their way onto my shelves. I'll describe three of them for you here, but only if you promise to do the same, if you've had the misfortune to come across something really awful in this broad genre I call home (literally, haha).
The worst true crime account I've ever read sure sounded like a good read. The Holmes-Pitezel Case (or, to give the full title its due here, The Holmes-Pitezel Case, A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children) by Detective Frank P. Geyer (Publishers' Union, 1896) is an account of the cross-continental manhunt for a serial killer who had kidnapped three little kids. The killer was H.H. Holmes, recently brought back from obscurity by The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, generally known as the first serial killer (identified as such!) in the United States.
"It is not possible to find in the annals of criminal jurisprudence," Geyer begins, "a more deliberate and cold blooded villain than the central figure in this story...." Nor is it possible to find a more plodding, unemotional, and tedious account than the one that this detective unfortunately set down on paper. Sad to say, Geyer did not catch the killer before he took the lives of the children, but Geyer does describe his nausea at discovering their bodies -- not because of the crushing sadness of their horrifying murders or his own failure to save them (and there is nothing remotely touching these points to be found between the covers of this awful book), but because of their state of putrification, carefully described.
Even if Detective Geyer manages to bore your eyes closed with that tepid account, he holds no candle to a book I found at a garage sale and whose author I detest -- to the point that I refuse to stain my screen or yours by naming him. Suffice it to say that he's a turd that the Devil must've shit out after a particularly bad day in Hell, and may the SOB rot there forever. This convicted rapist-murderer decided to write a book which, again, I cannot bring myself to name, and in which he lovingly describes how he tortured and violated and killed children and young women, going on and on in detailed descriptions of their every minute reaction to this horror visited upon them. The Playboy Press actually printed this pile of shit in 1974, when raping and killing young women seemed to be the vogue, and there was an entire subgenre of "serial killer confessionals" finding their ways into American homes and minds. Thank God that the Son of Sam laws have more or less put an end to the publication of this sort of filth.
Boredom and horror aside, the queerest book in my collection is undoubtedly Euthanasia, The Aesthetics of Suicide (New York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1894) by "Baron Harden Hickey" (a/k/a James Aloysius Harden-Hickey). I'd seen many references to this book in others, couldn't find a copy anywhere, and paid an embarrassing amount of money to have Proquest xerox me a copy in its "Books on Demand" program.
Now this is one queer book. I learned the hard way that it is more talked about than actually read, and many of the things said to be said in this book, i.e. in The People's Almanac on Harden-Hickey, are not actually true. What Harden-Hickey did in this tome is promote suicide as a be all, end all. The first paragraph alone will give you the full flavor:
Among the numerous deceptions which bestrew the road of whomsoever searches his path amidst crumbling creeds, tottering philosophies and rickety scientific systems, there is a consolation in the thought which lights the way of the earnest seeker like a flaming beacon, casting afar its beneficient blaze, and this thought tells him that Truth must finally triumph, and that all the superstitions heaped up during the centuries by avaricious and knavish priests, all the false and trite theories emitted by vain philosophers, all the hoaxes elaborated by cranky scientists, must eventually disappear, swept away by Truth, as radiant sun drives away the dismal fog before its golden rays.
Harden-Hickey did not actually suggest "88 poisons and 51 instruments that could be used for self-destruction," which, if I may defend myself, was the historical point that interested me. Rather, he goes on to fill the pages with quotes on the subject of suicide by "the greatest thinkers the world has produced: Zeno, Epictetus, Diogenes, Seneca, Cicero, Marcus Arelius, Montaigne, Rousseau, Donne, Hume, Gibbon, Montesquieu, etc.," but the quotes that follow are bare of attribution so the book is useless even as a reference for that purpose. After publishing this very strange book, Harden-Hickey ended his own life with morphine. Which might be a good thing, considering what other tomes he could've produced had he allowed himself to live beyond the age of 44.
Despite the duds, I unabashedly continue my collecting, and I promise to continue the book reports. Now, if you're reading my blog, and you've read this far, maybe you have some true crime turkeys of your own. Do share.