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Elements of the huge ‘Mystery Fiction’ collection assembled by US dealer Otto Penzler were dispersed in both live and online sessions as part of a Heritage (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) auction held in New York.

This first tranche of the archive offered on March 6 (both private collection and stock) numbered 230 lots but much more is to come. Spread over the next couple of years, huge numbers of books of all ages are scheduled for sale in four or five more such ‘Mystery’ auctions. The next, focusing more on the works of British writers, will be held in September*.

Co-author of an Encyclopaedia of Mystery and Detection first issued in the 1970s, Penzler founded the Mysterious Press in 1975 – selling it in 1989 and buying it back in 2009 – and opened the famous Mysterious Bookshop in downtown Manhattan in 1979.

One prize lot in this first sale was an exceptional copy of Dashiell Hammett’s first published detective story, Red Harvest. Initially printed in four issues of Black Mask magazine in the winter of 1927-28, it was issued in considerably revised book form in 1929 by Knopff.

It made $60,000 (£45,800), a price only once equalled – in dollar terms at least. That was the sum paid at Sotheby’s New York in 2011 for a cocked copy that lacked a jacket, but was inscribed for the dedicatee and Hammett’s editor, Joseph Shaw.

Other Hammett firsts included a 1943 paperback original of $106,000 Blood Money sold at $10,000 (£7635). This edition combined in one book two stories of the 1920s which had also first appeared in Black Mask. The other book title was The Big Knockover.

More significantly in commercial terms this copy was inscribed as a gift by Hammett to the great love of his life, Lillian Hellman: “…nothing is too good for the little woman”.

Signed and briefly inscribed for Donald A Yates, a Michigan State University academic, a 1939 first of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep made $46,000 (£35,115).

The sum has only once been bettered – but by a considerable margin. Of the three copies included in a 2011 Sotheby’s New York sale was a US first inscribed to both Chandler’s beloved (and much older) wife Cissy and to Vincent Vounder-Davis, the son of Hammett’s (much younger) secretary, Jean.

It was Vounder-Davis who, while declining Chandler’s offer of marriage, took care of him and kept him sober and focused on writing. In his turn Chandler helped Jean through divorce, became official guardian to her children and at his death left her his books. This most personal copy of The Big Sleep sold at $210,000 (then £134,800).

Black Mask’s favourite


Carroll John Daly’s The Snarl of the Beast – $8500 (£6490).

The Snarl of the Beast, a 1927 first that made a record $8500 (£6490), is the work of a writer whose name is perhaps less familiar.

However, Carroll John Daly once beat Erle Stanley Gardner and Hammett into 2nd and 3rd places in a Black Mask reader’s favourites poll.

Previous auction best for The Bride wore Black of 1940, the first in a series of six novels by Cornell Woolrich with ‘Black’ in the title, was £26,000 (at Sotheby’s in 2005) but here another made $12,000 (£9160). Woolrich was a notorious recluse who seldom signed books but this copy was inscribed for Donald Yates who befriended him. Yates’ own work included translations of Borges and other Latin American writers.

Among modern firsts in the mixed-owner Heritage sale of the same day was John Le Carré’s Call for the Dead of 1961, a debut novel and one that marked the first appearance of the character George Smiley.

Heritage catalogues print ‘starting bids’ rather than broad estimates, but quite how this lot was marked at just $500 is another mystery.

A fine copy, signed by David Cornwell using his much more familiar pseudonym, it made a record $12,000 (£9160) – the previous best being £7000 for a copy sold at Sotheby’s London in 2000.

Celebrated essays


A 1787 first of The Federalist, the celebrated collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay relating to the proposed new US Constitution sold at $150,000 (£114,505) at the Heritage auction.

The general catalogue was, however, led by something very different: a 1787 first of The Federalist, the celebrated collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay relating to the proposed new US Constitution.

Entirely uncut and partly unopened in the publisher’s boards, the two volumes sold at $150,000 (£114,505). 

* The Otto Penzler collection of British Espionage & Thriller Fiction was sold in April 2010 in New York by Swann Galleries.