Stories from the Shelf, Volume One

Browsing secondhand bookshop shelves has been one of life’s delights, from the time I was barely in my teens and visiting the Croydon Bookshop in the Old Town (now long demolished to accommodate the flyover) all the way through the next 55+ years, entering, with open-mouthed wonder, those vast cathedrals of books stacked so high that extension ladders were needed to reach the top shelf and delighting in the carefully selected stock of much smaller shops. Sadly, the cost of High Street leases and the advent of internet sites devoted to secondhand books have more or less done for the secondhand bookshop and few now exist in the major British towns. So let’s take a step back and run our eye across a couple of shelves here at Ackroyd Towers and see what’s what.

TOP SHELF (Left to Right)

Two volumes in the Pat Barker Regeneration WWI trilogy. Never got round to finding the first volume possibly because I lost interest. Candidates for removal.

Two very early acquisitions (70’s): Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Black Mischief in first edition. Sadly, not in their original dustjackets (a king’s ransom!)

Complete three volume set of the fourth edition (1711) of Montaigne’s Essays in their original (although rebacked) cloth bindings. Written in the late 16th century these essays fling their philosophical net far and wide and although his style can be dense at times there remain enough witticisms, bon mots and wisecracks to entertain the lightest of browsers. “Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out.” Also, I have just read – according to Montaigne – that it was a custom among certain Roman generals to remove the thumbs of captured enemy to prevent them from holding weapons that could be used against their captors.

A nicely bound Victorian volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry – small but perfectly formed.

Cornelius W.Grafton: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Author’s last book published in 1950. Lying on top of the book is a letter from the author dated 1980 thanking me for writing to him “long after I thought everyone had forgotten my books”. He was to die the following year and his widow sent me that book which he had inscribed to her when it was first published. A cherished item. (C.W.Grafton’s daughter is Sue Grafton, author of the “Alphabet” crime series now nearing completion)

Four volume set of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, purchased at a time when I was studying the device of unreliable narration. Shamefully, they sit there unopened and unread.

The next three volumes are the short stories by Roy Vickers. Seven Chose Murder, Murder Will Out and perhaps his most famous collection The Department of Dead Ends. A prolific writer, Vickers’ claim to fame now rests solely in these stories which turns the crime novel on its head by telling the reader in the first sentence who the murderer is. The hook that keeps the reader turning the page is trying to work out just how he/she is to be apprehended.  “The Rubber Trumpet” story, heavily anthologized, is a masterpiece.

The slim volume tucked in between the Vickers and the ABC guide is Matthew (Monk) Lewis Tales of Terror dated 1801.


Lewis had written the gothic-horror novel “The Monk” in 1796 which was the subject of much talk and legal attempts to get it banned at the time. Although there is no author cited on the title page it is thought it is the same author (Lewis) who published “Tales of Wonder” in the same year and through the same publisher. This volume has some delightful and gruesome hand-coloured fold-out illustrations. Bookplates on the front endpaper indicate that the book was owned and purchased firstly by Charles Tennant (founder of a company that was eventually to become ICI) and then afterwards by John Delaware Lewis (a Liberal mid-Victorian MP).

The ABC Railway Guide for 1963. The last guide used by my father before his relatively early retirement from the GPO. He was an inspector of supplies for the GPO  and was given the task of visiting factories up and down the country to check on the quality of postmen’s uniforms etc etc. Many of the stations cited in the guide no longer exist being chopped three years later by the Beeching axe.

Two Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes first editions: The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) and The Valley of Fear (1915)

BOTTOM SHELF (Left to Right)

Colin Watson: Plaster Sinners. Watson wrote a series of comic crime novels set in the rural town of Flaxborough and although I had a complete set at one time this is the only one left, Highly enjoyable but now the author is a little forgotten. Filmed for TV with Anton Rodgers as Det.Insp Purbright in “Murder Most English” (1977)

Josephine Tey: The Singing Sands. Purchased from the estate of Ronald Searle because it has a lovely inscription from Ronald to his wife Mo who I knew and who had brought many books from me over the years. Also a Donna Leon crime novel which is inscribed to the Searles by the author.

The volume on its side is a large format book on WW1 which could not be housed elsewhere. Then follows A Coin for the Hangman (by you know who), Ludovic Kennedy’s The Trial of Stephen Ward, Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging and Liam O’Flaherty’s Skerrett. Not quite sure why I have this latter on the shelf except that it was cheap to buy and looked a bargain. It is possibly another that may be looking for a new home.

The Complete Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle in a Folio edition followed by the separate volumes as well as Searle’s St Trinian’s series of cartoon books. Molesworth first crossed my path in the early 60’s and like many on this blog I can still recite some of the well-worn phrases that emanated from Molesworth’s lips – as any fule kno. It was serendipitous in the extreme that Ronald Searle’s wife, Mo, was to become a very good customer of mine some 20 years later ordering books by very long and protracted phone calls from her home in the Provencal village of Tourtour. We eventually met up with them both here in England and in their home where I acquired a taste for Ronald’s favourite Laurent Perrier champagne – a new bottle of which he opened every day. Mo was to die in the summer of 2011 from a cancer that she had carried with her for many years and, against all the odds, had kept at bay far longer than experts had expected. Ronald gave up on life and followed her just six months later.

Peter Wallner: By Order of the Gestapo. An insider’s view of life in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Published in 1941 it apparently gives the lie to any arguments that the Allies didn’t know what was going on in these camps.

A Trolleybus and Tram Route LT map of 1946 is squeezed in next to David Crook’s Spitfire Pilot. This is followed by Molly Lefebure’s Murder With a Difference – The Cases of Haigh and Christie. Lefebure was secretary to Home Office pathologist Keith Simpson and in this book she is of the belief that it was Evans and not Christie who murdered Evans’ wife Beryl and their baby, Jeraldine. This book was published in 1958. Three years later along came Ludovic Kennedy’s Ten Rillington Place which took the evidence apart and showed that Evans, a man of low IQ, was the victim of a flawed conviction and had been totally innocent of any murders. This copy is inscribed by the author to one of the lawyers involved in the case.

It is said that Rillington Place was renamed Ruston Close because of the horrors that occurred there. I managed to get to see the house just before it was pulled down in the 70’s and the street was completely obliterated

And finally we see the James (Jan) Morris Pax Britannica trilogy – a history of the British Empire and of which I am half-way through volume 1.

And dear reader, if you have got this far, my thanks. Part the Second will follow in due course if SB thinks there is an interest.

Roger’s book:


© text & images Roger Ackroyd 2022 (republished from 2017)