There is a special circle of literary hell reserved for completists—those of us who feel we need to read every book in a particular series, or by a particular author. Our friends and family recoil in horror each time we plunge into a dusty second-hand bookshop or shuffle through another obscure website, looking for those last few elusive volumes. Perhaps this time it will all be different—but it never is, and the next bookshop, the next Google search, sends us haring off again, hope triumphing over experience.
I am a fan of classic detective fiction, and detective fiction doesn’t get any more classic than the multitudinous works of Cecil John Street, who wrote under several pen names, mainly John Rhode and Miles Burton. Apart from a dozen or so non-series thrillers and non-fiction histories, Street’s entire output of over 150 books falls into two series: the Dr. Priestley detective stories written under the name of Rhode, and the Desmond Merrion/Inspector Arnold series, written as Burton.
Street was never as popular as, say, Agatha Christie, but he was a competent plotter, well-respected by his peers, and he made a very comfortable living from his considerable efforts. There’s a very good chance that your grandparents or great-grandparents were familiar with one or both of his pen names. I currently have about forty of his books—around a quarter of the total. Yes, I could grit my teeth and buy most of the rest at exorbitant prices from specialist booksellers, but most of them are in the UK, and the shipping to Australia alone would just about double the price.
So how does this competent, prolific, once-popular author rate on the great aggregator known as Amazon? The John Rhode page lists just five titles. The Miles Burton page has the same number, with one ‘collectible item’ listed for no less than $15,900. And none of them are e-books, because Street, who died in 1964, is trapped in copyright limbo—too new to be public domain, and too old, the copyright holders believe, to be popular. As far as Street’s fans are concerned, the e-book revolution never happened.
And with very few exceptions, most of Street’s Golden Age contemporaries are in exactly the same boat. Sometimes one or two of their works will appear in electronic format, where the book was especially popular, or the copyright was given or sold to someone with a clue, but the vast majority remain financially—and often physically—inaccessible.
A few Golden Age authors—particularly those from the United States—are getting more of the attention they deserve. Some small presses are busily reissuing works by Anthony Berkeley, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Clayton Rawson, Norbert Davis, Fredric Brown and other second-list detective writers. Some presses are starting to issue e-books, but their profit margins are small and their work is largely a labor of love, so it’s all happening very slowly. And of course, they generally issue the more popular books first, when any completist worth their salt will have all those already. I wish them well, but there’s no point in their trying to sell me books I already own.
Maybe we need a Completist ePress, dedicated to reissuing those dud books that only a collector could love—fumbling early attempts to find a market, last-ditch attempts to squeeze the last few dollars out of a creaking series. Failing that, I’ll just have to wait in patience till Street’s copyright holders wake up in the 21st century. When I can acquire complete sets of the Rhode and Burton series without cashing in my superannuation, then I’ll know that the e-book age has finally arrived.
But I won’t be holding my breath.
Editor’s note: As reported by Paid Content, some print magazine publishers have recently begun tackling an issue (no pun intended) similar to the one Jon raises in this post: They’ve started digitizing their entire archives, and making them searchable. Click here to read about it. (Books, of course, are another situation entirely, especially when complicated copyrights and deceased authors enter the picture.)
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