A review of A Case of Books by Bruce Graeme – 230504
Bruce Graeme’s books, I have found, can be sometimes a bit of a hit or miss affair, but this, the sixth in his Theodore Terhune series, originally published in 1946 and reissued by Moonstone Press, is one of his more accessible and intriguing. It is a bibliomystery and Graeme’s reluctant amateur sleuth, bookseller Terhune, finds himself drawn into and imperilled by an international plot to secure one of the world’s rarest and most valuable books.
Often, the trajectory of a detective story is a distinctive U-shape – it starts off well, lags in the middle as the sleuth gets to grips with the minutiae of the case, whittling down the suspects, checking and cross-checking alibis, and the picks up again as the field is narrowed and the denouement hoves into view. Graeme’s tale is unusual in that it gets better as it goes along, with a major set piece in the middle in the form of an auction and the plot taking a darker and more international perspective as we near the resolution of the case. This is not a conventional piece of crime fiction, but the ending is a bit of a damp squib.
An interesting contemporary insight is provided by Terhune’s ruminations on the perils to civilisation if the Germans were allowed to rise to a position of strength for a third time, Graeme, whose earlier books had been confident of an Allied triumph, perhaps revealing a little of the neurosis at the time over whether the Nazi threat had really been extinguished. There is also a reflection, earlier in the book, on how the fruits of someone’s life-long labours can be destroyed at a stroke prompted by the decision to split up and sell a carefully curated book collection.
The start, though, is straight out of the burgeoning catalogue of crime fiction tropes, a body found in a library, although it is a well-stocked library, containing one of the world’s best collections of incunabula and owned by Arthur Harrison, one of Terhune’s wealthiest and more demanding clients. There is evidence that the books have been rifled through, but the early return of Harrison’s domestic staff might have disturbed the culprits. Terhune is engaged to compile a catalogue of Harrison’s collection for the forthcoming auction.
While he, and his female accomplice, Julia MacMunn, are working at night in the library, it is broken into a second time and, although Terhune disturbs them, forcing one to drop a distinctive knife, and overhears a conversation in a foreign language, they get away. The knife, the suspicion that they are foreigners – after all, stabbing someone in the back is not an English way of committing murder – and there are some mysterious crosses cut into the turf of a farmer’s field, later to be repeated on the ear of a horse showing signs of the early onset of meningitis, Terhune and his policeman sidekick, the comedic Irishman, Sergeant Murphy, have precious little to go on.
Recognising that there is a book or something in Harrison’s collection that is worth committing murder for, Terhune and Murphy hatch a cunning plan to execute at the auction. To say all does not quite go as it should is a bit of an understatement in a gloriously funny and surprisingly suspenseful bidding war which Terhune engages with a man, obviously foreign, with a droopy moustache.
Terhune and Murphy appear to have reached the end of the road until Inspector Sampson arrives on the scene. Now seconded to an international operation to retrieve and repatriate art works looted by the Nazis, the attempts to steal something from Harrison’s collection takes on a more sinister, international perspective and the crosses, a Gaucho practice, begin to have special significance. Terhune’s shop is broken into, he and Julia are forced off the road and hospitalised after Terhune makes an impromptu visit to London to follow a theory of his own, and as he lies staring at the ward’s ceiling, he makes sense of it all.
As he is hors de combat, the physical resolution of the case is out of Terhune’s hands and while most of his reconstruction of what had happened turns out to be correct, the book ends on a rather flat note. Structurally, Sampson’s arrival, role, and revelations are so important to an investigation that seems to have run out of oomph that it has a deus ex machina feel about it and I was left wondering whether that aspect would have been better hinted at or gradually introduced earlier.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and humorous book, with a welcome return of many of Terhune’s gloriously eccentric and annoying customers, and certainly one of the highlights of the series so far. Graeme has shown what can be done with the most conventional of set ups with a bit of imagination. If you have not discovered him, I recommend you start with this.