The Grolier Club in New York City is set to explore a history of detective stories and murder mysteries in the exhibition Whodunit? Key Books in Detective Fiction. On view from Nov. 30 to Feb. 10, Whodunit features more than 90 detective novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries by Francois Vidocq, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anna Katherine Green, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
Included among the rarities: a four-volume set of the Newgate Calendar (1824), a sensationalist publication on criminal activity; the first American edition of The Memoirs of Francois Vidocq (1834), the world’s “first” detective; the first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories (1892); and Agatha Christie’s first novel, featuring the debut appearance of the little Belgian Hercule Poirot (1920).
I interrogated collector Jeffrey Johnson, who organized this exhibition from his vast stash of Whodunits.
How did you get involved collecting Whodunits?
My love of mystery novels started when I was about 8 years old with The Hardy Boys. I enjoyed reading them but I really liked them lined up in order on my bookshelf. When I was older (and had more money), I started collecting the Edgar Award winners for best first mystery. I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar and was told that using somebody else’s list was just “shopping.” So I decided to begin collecting the beginnings of detective fiction. I concentrated on the 19th century.
I wasn’t raised on murder mysteries but since COVID I love reading Agatha Christie, especially the short stories and, of course, Hercule Poirot. I was introduced to the writing through the BBC TV shows. So now, I’m exploring C.K. Chesterton. Who is your favorite author in this genre?
Poe’s early Dupin stories are excellent, and as a boy I went from The Hardy Boys to Sherlock Holmes. Donna Tartt and Paul Auster are favorites today.
From a cover and jacket design perspective, are there any authors who controlled what their “brands” would look like?
Len Deighton and Ian Fleming had the most consistent looks, but they are more spy novels than detective. Two of my favorite covers are The Hound of the Baskervilles and Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide.
Was there a genre graphic style that you noticed?
I have my collection arranged by date of publication, so one can see the changes from leather to pictorial cloth to dust jackets. I really love pictorial cloth.
Are there any taboos that you can pinpoint, other than not giving away the killer? Were certain clues deliberately included in cover art?
Love stories are not big factors in detective fiction, nor are cliffhangers. Also, last-minute solutions are not acceptable. The murderer can’t come from left field. I can’t think of any examples of cover art giving away the killer except on Ira Levin’s novel A Kiss Before Dying. The dust jacket does predict three victims.
Do you continue to collect Whodunits?
After I retired from a 45-year career as a designer and architect, I made a deal with my wife that my expensive purchases were over. But, I did purchase a couple of “stoppers” for my exhibit, with my wife’s approval.
What is the most prized possession in your collection?
My most prized possession is not one of the most expensive. It is a sheet of letterhead from Vidocq’s French detective agency, the world’s first. My Agatha Christie and A. Conan Doyle signed notes are close behind.