Collector Jeffrey Johnson.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a member of the Grolier Club, which bills itself as the oldest and largest society for bibliophiles in the US. Founded in 1884, it holds regular exhibitions and late last year Johnson put his collection of detective fiction on show at the club’s New York premises.

Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction is still available to view online. Here he tells ATG about how his childhood reading informed his collecting habit and covers some of the top works in his possession.


Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction at the Grolier Club.

How did you get the collecting bug?

I started reading The Hardy Boys when I was about eight or nine years old. I enjoyed the stories but I also equally enjoyed seeing the matching spines lined up on my bedroom bookshelf. I’ve been collecting books ever since.

What is the focus of your collection?

My largest collection of books is detective fiction. I began collecting authors’ first mysteries and then went on to collect early examples of the genre. My earliest books date from 1824 and are The Newgate Calendars, based on ‘true’ crime stories of inmates of London’s famous (or infamous) prison.


Confessions, Trials, and Biographical Sketches of the Most Cold Blooded Murderers. Boston: George N Thomson and E Littlefield, 1839. A popular fictionalised ‘true crime’ account.

What was the first thing you bought for it?

Julius Fast’s Watchful at Night, published in 1945 and written while Fast was serving in the US Army. The book won the first Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Mystery.

How many pieces do you have now?

My detective fiction collection is comprised of about 400 books.

How did your recent exhibition come about?

I became a member of The Grolier Club in 2017. A couple of years later, one of the members mounted an exhibit of his science-fiction collection. That inspired me to propose an exhibition focused on detective fiction. I wrote the proposal in 2021 and it was accepted for the fall of 2023.


Gaston Leroux. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. New York: Brentano’s, 1908. The first novel by the author, best known for The Phantom of the Opera. It is the first English translation of his locked room mystery.

Where do you usually buy and what do you look for when buying?

I prefer to buy directly from a dealer, rather than through a third-party website. I bought many of my better books from the catalogues of dealers, some of whom specialise in detective fiction.

I’ve always bought books in the best condition I can afford, and I like to buy books that were signed or inscribed by the author or came with author-signed notes or other ephemera.


Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles. London: George Newnes, 1902. The first edition of the book after its serial publication with a cover designed by Garth Jones.

What is the most expensive item in the collection?

I paid about the same for two ‘must-haves’ for the collection: the first edition/first state of Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the first Canadian edition (using the sheets of the first New York edition) of Agatha Christie’s first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles which came with a letter signed by Christie.

It is slightly ironic that she was published first in New York and then in Toronto before being published in London.

What is one great discovery you’ve made?

In terms of a bargain, I suppose finding two dust jacketed Hardy Boys from the late 1940s for a few dollars each at a library sale was it. My most exciting purchase was from a London-based dealer’s Christmas catalogue. It was Recollections of a Detective Police Officer by “Waters” (William Russell).


Recollections of a Detective Police Officer by “Waters” [William Russell]. London: J&C Brown, 1856. One of the first detective ‘memoirs’ in ‘yellow-back form’. These cheaply made editions were typically offered for sale in railway station bookstalls. This particular volume was once in the extensive collection of Edward and Florence Kaye of New York.

It had once been in the collection of Florence and Edward Kaye. I later read about the circumstances of the sale of the Kaye collection in Otto Penzler’s memoir Mysterious Obsession. I love being able to discover the provenance of specific books.

What’s the most unusual place you’ve made a purchase?

The place is not unusual; in fact it’s my favourite rare bookstore in New York. What was unusual was the purchase itself: a sheet of used letterhead from the office of the French detective Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1857), the father of modern criminology. I certainly wasn’t looking for it, didn’t know it existed, but was thrilled to see it.

How do you display the collection in your home?

Until my exhibit, I had my detective collection organised by year of publication. One could see the bindings and graphics styles change as the years passed, from leather bound to simple dust jackets to highly designed dust jackets.


Agatha Christie. Sparkling Cyanide. London: Collins for The Crime Club, 1945. An expansion of a Poirot short story featuring one of the detective’s partners. The dust jacket is designed by Leslie Leonard Stead.

Do you ever sell items on?

When I retired from my 45-year career as a designer and architect, I began selling some of my non-detective fiction related books on consignment through dealer friends. My detective fiction will eventually be for sale, but I’ve not decided how to dispose of it yet.

Do you collect anything else?

I have a collection of miniature metal buildings, all of which I’ve been to, from the Empire State Building to the Eiffel Tower.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a collector?

Focus on what you love, do lots of research, and keep your receipts!