By Steve Donoghue
As I’ve chronicled in this space a few times, friends of mine tend to tell me when they come into possession of great heaping hordes of books. It’s natural among bookish people, I think, and it’s usually not bragging or vindictive. I like to think of it more as sharing the happiness, the sheer giddiness, of that first moment when all of those new acquisitions are finally yours.
If you venture onto social media – which you certainly should not – you see this kind of thing all the time. Genuine book people are a very, very small minority in such places, just as they’re a very, very small minority in all other places. But FAKE book people? Oh my – they’re everywhere, buried under layers of lip gloss and hair gel, making duck faces and flashing peace signs over piles of books they’ll not only never read but never even physically handle (a terrified, browbeaten underling actually puts the book-things on shelves … arranged by cover-color, of course). Instagram, Snapchat, especially Tik Tok – platforms like these feature a great many of these soft-focus ring-lighted posers smiling extra-wide while simulating the joy of acquiring new books.
But for some of us, the hauls are very real! And when that happens, the urge to share the excitement is very real and almost unbearable. Those are the Facebook and Instagram pages I really like, and those are the tales I love hearing from offline book friends.
That happened late last year, when an old friend came into possession of a gigantic dragon horde of books – a great towering pile of them in boxes, the kind of thing that would take an industrious cataloger days and days of careful work to inventory. As that friend was inventorying his new treasures, he was regularly setting aside some goodies for me. I recently got the proceeds, and they did not disappoint.
There were a few Emma Lathen murder mysteries, for instance. “Emma Lathen” was a pen name for the writing duo of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, and they came up with the idea an unexpected star for their mystery series: not a cop, not an amateur sleuth, not a kindly old lady – instead, John Putnam Thatcher, vice president at a well-heeled Wall Street bank. As Emma Lathen, they wrote two dozen novels starring Thatcher, and they justified their odd choice of protagonist very simply: by declaring that bankers are actually in the perfect position to both find and solve any number of crimes. “Wall Street is the greatest money market in the world,” they write. “This means, among other things, that it is a quivering communications network, plucking information from the air, putting it on high-speed tickers and speeding it to men who make or lose millions of dollars by knowing things before the rest of the world.”
These small slivers from that friend’s dragon horde were utterly delightful, and they served to remind me of how fickle and forgetful the publishing world can be. Is Emma Lathen remembered, even by most mystery fans? There’s a little batch of tired-looking e-books available, but what about printed books with stylish covers? Not a hint of them.
And if Emma Lathen has disappeared from the active bustling book-world, how much less visible is Boston author Emilie Loring, even though by the time of her death in 1951 she’s sold great heaps of books – in fact, thanks to the single-minded industry of her literary estate, she kept right on selling great heaps of books for twenty years after her death. Publishers had no trouble distributing her works; booksellers knew her backlist titles intimately – and yet, she’s completely forgotten today.
My tithe from the dragon’s horde included a small number of Emilie Loring’s novels in neat little paperbacks, and when I read one of them, I saw immediately why she’d been so popular in her day: she’s a crackerjack storyteller, clearly having a blast. One of her novels opens like this: “A resplendent roadster, yellow with black trimmings, shot down the main street of Garston violating laws both human and divine. As it approached the crossroads in the crowded business section a man in uniform held up an authoritative, white-gloved hand. With a wicked little smile of defiance, the girl at the wheel kept on her impetuous course.” Who wouldn’t feel compelled to keep reading?
Even more faded – gone beyond recall – is the bestselling early 20th century novelist Marjorie Bowen, who began her writing career at the age of 16 with a breathless historical novel called “The Viper of Milan” (she wrote it then, anyway, although no publisher wanted it at the time; later on, she had the perfect revenge of seeing it become a huge hit). Bowen had a gruesome mother and a useless father; her invention of herself as a wildly popular novelist was a story worthy of one of her own stories (I don’t think there’s ever been a biography of Bowen, but there should be). From the horde I got her 1912 George Washington novel “The Soldier from Virginia,” and it was what an earlier generation would have called a rattling good yarn.
SO many rattling good yarns in that recent book-haul! My friend had to tell me about them – and of course I had to tell you.