Steele’s Passion — Books
My mother, Noreen Curry, was an inveterate lifelong reader and collector of books, amassing a library of some 7,000 first editions, many of which were exquisitely illustrated. Consequently, my two brothers, sister and I grew up as avid readers, continuously encouraged by our mother to enjoy different types of books.
While the highlights of my mother’s book collection were literature and children’s books illustrated by the finest American and British illustrators of the 19th and early 20th centuries, her taste in books was eclectic, covering a wide range of subjects. This was prompted by her strong sense of curiosity, worldwide travels and passionate interest in the environment and wildlife. Every year my mother read about 120 books and strove to discover new fiction and poetry authors before they became well-known, especially translated books of international authors.
Ultimately, I got involved in helping my mother with her book collecting (mainly to avoid her acquiring duplicates) and ended up cataloguing her entire library. Instinctively, my mother always understood the paramount importance of only purchasing books for her collection that were first editions in “fine” or “near fine” condition.
Early in my reading career, I developed a particular passion for mysteries and thrillers. It started when I was sick in bed at the age of 10 and a neighbor brought me one of the first Hardy Boy mysteries. I quickly devoured it and read the remaining 20 books in the Hardy Boy series as fast as I could get my hands on them. Today, the Hardy Boy series has grown to number about 190 books and digests.
In my mid-teens, I especially enjoyed reading all of Raymond Chandler’s books set in Southern California, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Geoffrey Household’s The Rogue Male. The latter book hooked me on mysteries and thrillers with an espionage element in them. Over the next 15 years, I also enjoyed reading fiction written by J. P. Donleavy, Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Damon Runyon, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Irwin Shaw, Laurence Durrell, D. H. Lawrence, André Malraux, Mary Renault, C. P. Snow and Morris West.
Following university, I began reading a large number of espionage-related mysteries, starting with all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and then on to those written by Len Deighton, Jack Higgins, John le Carré, Helen MacInnes, Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follet. I also developed an interest in translated mysteries set in foreign locales written by authors such as Friedrich Duerrenmatt, H. H. Kirst and Georges Simenon.
Gradually my library grew in size as my reading interests went through various phases. For a period, I read a large number of both non-fiction and fiction books on politics, including many biographies of Churchill and Kennedy plus the three classic American political novels – Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah and Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. I also was hugely impressed with David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, describing what went wrong with the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
About 30 years ago, I somehow got it into my head that I should create a “world-class” mystery collection, focusing on three categories of mysteries and thrillers — “hard-boiled” mysteries, novels with an espionage slant, and mysteries set in foreign locales outside of Canada and the U. S., especially those written by foreign authors. Fortunately, at that time my library already contained many books in these three genres.
“Soft-boiled” mysteries, so-called “cozies” and mysteries set in Victorian or ancient times are generally not for me, nor are mysteries involving crimes committed against children. The same applies to paranormal mysteries and those featuring the discovery of ancient relics with supernatural powers. And not all hard-boiled mysteries are to my taste. Some are too noirish and despairing. Similarly, I don’t enjoy mysteries that feature gratuitous or prolonged violence. In short, I prefer my mysteries and music to have some soul.
I started by developing a network of knowledgeable used and new book dealers in England, the U.S. and Canada, many of whom became good friends. These included Mike Bursaw of Mystery Mike’s, Ron Griswold in Massachusetts, Otto Penzler at The Mysterious Bookshop, Barbara Peters and Patrick Millikin at The Poisoned Pen Bookshop, Ralph Spurrier at Post Mortem Books, Don and Jen Longmuir at Scene of the Crime Books, J. D. Singh and Marion Misters at Sleuth of Baker Street, Tim Friesen at Pandora Books, Cameron Treleaven at Aquilla Books, Mark Post in San Francisco, Ron Surdick at Pulp Fiction in Australia and Don Gorman, now with the publisher Rocky Mountain Books in Victoria, British Columbia. One of the biggest pleasures of book collecting is meeting the wonderful people engaged in the book trade everywhere.
Whenever I traveled anywhere in the U.S., Canada or England, I took the time to prowl around used bookstores, usually introducing myself to their owners. Based on my research and taste in authors, I compiled a search list of books to acquire for my collection which I circulated to used book dealers and carried with me on my travels.
In addition, I immersed myself in a large number of mystery fiction reference sources, including any I could find on espionage novels. Two sources were especially valuable in my quest to become well-informed about mystery fiction – The Armchair Detective Magazine (“TAD”) published from 1968 to 1997 and the two volumes of Allen J. Hubin’s Crime Fiction II: A Comprehensive Bibliography 1749 – 1990 (later expanded to five volumes in Crime Fiction IV covering every mystery published in English from 1749 to 2000). The original publisher and editor of TAD Magazine was also Allen J. Hubin. In particular, I greatly benefited from reading a series of articles in TAD Magazine written by Otto Penzler on collecting the books of the most outstanding mystery authors up to that time. Otto is widely regarded as the dean of the mystery book world, being both a long-standing publisher of mystery novels and the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York.
I also subscribed to some ten American and English magazine publications dealing with books, the majority of which are devoted to mystery fiction. These publications contain profiles of authors, reviews of new books and articles on book collecting. They include CADS in England and Crimespree, Deadly Pleasures, Firsts, and Mystery Scene in the U. S. The publishers and editors of these magazines epitomize the expression “a labor of love” as they devote tremendous efforts at keeping their readers well-informed for minimal financial returns.
George Easter, the publisher of Deadly Pleasures, and I share identical tastes in hard-boiled and thriller novels, and have become good friends. On occasion, George has permitted me to be a guest reviewer for Deadly Pleasures of books that I have especially enjoyed.
Early on, I decided to “follow the flag” of authors by preferring to collect the American first editions for American authors, Canadian first editions for Canadian authors and English first editions for U.K. authors. I also decided not to collect advance reading copies (“ARC’s”) of books, especially as they typically contain printing errors, and to avoid any books with remainder marks, stamps and the signature or writings of prior owners.
Each year I read about 100 books, mostly mysteries but also some general fiction, biographies, history and a few on current affairs. Whenever I read a book by a new author that I especially enjoy, I try to let the author know how impressed I was by telephone, e-mail or a letter sent c/o his or her publisher, saying, “I just finished reading _________. That was a great book! When is your next book going to be published? Keep up the terrific writing!” or something to that effect. As a result of doing this, I have developed long-distance friendships with authors living in Canada, the U.S., England, Australia, Italy and South Africa. Given the tremendous efforts authors devote to writing their books, most authors are pleased to hear from individuals who think highly of their books.
As an example, some years ago after I read J. Robert Janes’s Mayhem, a fabulous mystery featuring the two detective partners Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the Sûreté Nationale and Herman Kohler of the Gestapo, and set in Occupied Paris during World War II, I called the information operator to get the author’s phone number in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Then, I called him and expressed my enthusiasm for his book. We proceeded to have a long conversation about his plans for writing a series of books with the same two main characters, all set in Occupied France. Ultimately, Bob and I became close friends and we now talk to each other on a regular basis.
One of the challenges of collecting books is to discover authors before they become well-known and the value of their earlier books escalates. I am constantly reading reviews of new and forthcoming books from a wide range of sources in an attempt to identify new authors whose books I will likely enjoy. The Internet has dramatically increased the number of such sources and enabled bookstores, such as The Poisoned Pen, The Mysterious Bookshop and Sleuth of Baker Street, to do a great job of informing customers about new books through their newsletters, available online.
Three times a year, I do a search using the large Internet booksellers to determine if any of my favorite authors are going to have a new book published over the next 12 months as this information is usually posted on their websites well in advance. This is not necessary for high profile authors whose new books are well-publicized but it is required for both mid-list and most U.K. authors to enable me to order their new books prior to the date of publication. Doing so increases my chances of obtaining a copy of a book’s “first edition” (e.g., the first printing of the first edition), especially in England where hard cover print runs are usually quite small.
Almost every weekend, I peruse a number of websites containing book information, including EuroCrimes.co.uk, Barry Forshaw’s Crime Time website at CrimeTime.co.uk/mag/ and Mike Stotter's ShotsMag.co.uk where I especially enjoy Mike Ripley’s monthly column Getting Away With Murder. Out of all the countless blogs devoted to books and mystery fiction, I find www.crimereads.com (sponsored by a diverse group of partners from across the mystery fiction community), Jeff Pierce’s The Rap Sheet at TheRapSheet.blogspot.com and Jeff Popple’s at murdermayhemandlongdogs.com to be the best.
Every summer I take about 35 books with me to the Greek island of Skiathos for a three-month holiday with my wife and family. Many of these books are translated mysteries by new authors I haven’t read before. Recently, a number of enterprising publishers have greatly enriched the pleasure of English language readers by making translations available of the best non-English mystery authors from many other parts of the world.
In 2000, I started attending Bouchercon which is the world’s largest annual mystery book convention held mainly at different cities in the U.S. There are typically some 1,500 attendees at Bouchercon — split about one-third mystery authors, one-third mystery book fans such as myself, and one-third people in the mystery book business such as agents, publishers and bookdealers. The authors participate in panel discussions and afterwards sign their books brought to Bouchercon by their fans and the bookdealers. I usually bring about 40-60 books by my favorite authors to Bouchercon for signing.
From 2008 to 2012, I was a member of the board of directors of the Bouchercon National organization and, for the latter year, served as its Co-Chair together with Mike Bursaw. At the Toronto Bouchercon on October 12, 2017, I received the Don Sandstrom Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Mystery Fandom presented by George Easter, the Publisher and Editor of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.
In many cases, I try to obtain signed copies of my favorite mystery authors’ new books from a handful of new mystery bookdealers who go to great lengths to secure signed copies for their customers. Sometimes I send books directly to an author to have them signed. Also, whenever I visit a place where one of my favourite authors lives, I’ll contact that author ahead of time to arrange to meet and have his or her books signed. Most authors are delighted to do so.
One of my most interesting book experiences was an evening spent with Nicholas and Connie Basbanes, together with Cameron Treleaven, the owner of Aquilla Books in Calgary. Nick is the author of a number of fascinating books on the world's greatest libraries and many of the most notable book collectors. These include A Gentle Madness in the Twenty-First Century, Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. For more than three hours, Nick entertained us with stories about the idiosyncrasies of the various book collectors he met over the years.
Another notable book experience occurred in September of 2014 when I had lunch in London with Mike Ripley, a well-known English mystery author, columnist and book critic, at Green’s Restaurant. This was to be my treat as several months earlier Mike had arranged for Len Deighton to sign my copies of the renowned spy fiction author’s first six novels. Mike and I had just started to eat when someone tapped my shoulder and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” There was Len standing beside me. Mike wanted to surprise me by inviting Len to our lunch. For the next three and a half hours, Len regaled Mike and me with anecdotes about his writing career and the world of spy fiction. Afterwards, the three of us visited Hatchard’s together.
My mystery fiction collection now totals about 7,500 first edition books, including all of the cornerstone espionage novel classics, most of the hard-boiled fiction masters, and the best mystery authors from around the world. Our library also contains other categories of books, such as art, general fiction, humor, poetry, illustrated children’s books, biographies and history. These are principally confined to those authors whose books I or the members of my family enjoy reading, plus books on subjects in which we have a strong interest.
Recently, I decided to donate all of my mystery, espionage and thriller books to the University of Calgary for its special collections revolving around popular culture. These already include one of the world’s largest science fiction collections, a major collection of Canadian poetry, EMI Music Canada’s records collection and the archives of a number of prominent authors. The turnover of my books to the University took place in March of 2021. The University has agreed to keep my collection intact as The Steele Curry Mystery, Espionage and Thriller Collection.