Identified only by the hastily—and clumsily—chosen alias Charles Brockden, the narrator of this story finds a bookstore that instantly piques his desire. He must call it his own; he must add it to his already-extensive collection of bookstores. But surely the owner of such a fine shop wouldn’t easily part with it. Brockden forms a plan to acquire the store in such a way that no one would ever suspect foul play: untraceable murder. And he knows he will be successful—because he has done it before.
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
By Joyce Carol Oates
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Joyce Carol Oates
All rights reserved.
I am very excited! For at last, after several false starts, I have chosen the perfect setting for my bibliomystery.
It is Mystery, Inc., a beautiful old bookstore in Seabrook, New Hampshire, a town of less than two thousand year-round residents overlooking the Atlantic Ocean between New Castle and Portsmouth.
For those of you who have never visited this legendary bookstore, one of the gems of New England, it is located in the historic High Street district of Seabrook, above the harbor, in a block of elegantly renovated brownstones originally built in 1888. Here are the offices of an architect, an attorney-at-law, a dental surgeon; here are shops and boutiques—leather goods, handcrafted silver jewelry, the Tartan Shop, Ralph Lauren, Esquire Bootery. At 19 High Street a weathered old sign in black and gilt creaks in the wind above the sidewalk:
MYSTERY, INC. BOOKSELLERS
New & Antiquarian Books,
Maps, Globes, Art
The front door, a dark-lacquered red, is not flush with the sidewalk but several steps above it; there is a broad stone stoop, and a black wrought iron railing. So that, as you stand on the sidewalk gazing at the display window, you must gaze upward.
Mystery, Inc. consists of four floors with bay windows on each floor that are dramatically illuminated when the store is open in the evening. On the first floor, books are displayed in the bay window with an (evident) eye for the attractiveness of their bindings: leatherbound editions of such 19th-century classics as Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and The Woman in White, Charles Dickens's Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, A. Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as well as classic 20th-century mystery-crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Ross Macdonald, and Patricia Highsmith and a scattering of popular American, British, and Scandinavian contemporaries. There is even a title of which I have never heard—The Case of the Unknown Woman: The Story of One of the Most Intriguing Murder Mysteries of the 19th Century, in what appears to be a decades-old binding.
As I step inside Mystery, Inc. I feel a pang of envy. But in the next instant this is supplanted by admiration—for envy is for small-minded persons.
The interior of Mystery, Inc. is even more beautiful than I had imagined. Walls are paneled in mahogany with built-in bookshelves floor to ceiling; the higher shelves are accessible by ladders on brass rollers, and the ladders are made of polished wood. The ceiling is comprised of squares of elegantly hammered tin; the floor is parquet, covered in small carpets. As I am a book collector myself—and a bookseller—I note how attractively books are displayed without seeming to overwhelm the customer; I see how cleverly books are positioned upright to intrigue the eye; the customer is made to feel welcome as in an old-fashioned library with leather chairs and sofas scattered casually about. Here and there against the walls are glass-fronted cabinets containing rare and first-edition books, no doubt under lock and key. I do feel a stab of envy, for of the mystery bookstores I own, in what I think of as my modest mystery-bookstore empire in New England, not one is of the class of Mystery, Inc., or anywhere near.
In addition, it is Mystery, Inc.'s online sales that present the gravest competition to a bookseller like myself, who so depends upon such sales ...
Shrewdly I have timed my arrival at Mystery, Inc. for a half-hour before closing time, which is 7 P.M. on Thursdays, and hardly likely to be crowded. (I think there are only a few other customers—at least on the first floor, within my view.) In this wintry season dusk has begun as early as 5:30 PM. The air is wetly cold, so that the lenses of my glasses are covered with a fine film of steam; I am vigorously polishing them when a young woman salesclerk with tawny gold, shoulder-length hair approaches me to ask if I am looking for anything in particular, and I tell her that I am just browsing, thank you—"Though I would like to meet the proprietor of this beautiful store, if he's on the premises."
The courteous young woman tells me that her employer, Mr. Neuhaus, is in the store, but upstairs in his office; if I am interested in some of the special collections or antiquarian holdings, she can call him ...
"Thank you! I am interested indeed but just for now, I think I will look around."
What a peculiar custom it is, the openness of a store. Mystery, Inc. might contain hundreds of thousands of dollars of precious merchandise; yet the door is unlocked, and anyone can step inside from the street into the virtually deserted store, carrying a leather attaché case in hand, and smiling pleasantly.
It helps of course that I am obviously a gentleman. And one might guess, a book-collector and book-lover.
As the trusting young woman returns to her computer at the check-out counter, I am free to wander about the premises. Of course, I will avoid the other customers. I am impressed to see that the floors are connected by spiral staircases, and not ordinary utilitarian stairs; there is a small elevator at the rear which doesn't tempt me as I suffer from mild claustrophobia. (Being locked in a dusty closet as a child by a sadistic older brother surely is the root of this phobia, which I have managed to disguise from most people who know me, including my bookstore employees who revere me, I believe, for being a frank, forthright, commonsensical sort of man free of any sort of neurotic compulsion!) The first floor of Mystery, Inc. is American books; the second floor is British and foreign-language books, and Sherlock Holmesiana (an entire rear wall); the third floor is first editions, rare editions, and leatherbound sets; the fourth floor is maps, globes, and antiquarian art-works associated with mayhem, murder, and death.
It is here on the fourth floor, I'm sure, that Aaron Neuhaus has his office. I can imagine that his windows overlook a view of the Atlantic, at a short distance, and that the office is beautifully paneled and furnished.
I am feeling nostalgic for my old habit of book theft—when I'd been a penniless student decades ago, with a yearning for books. The thrill of thievery—and the particular reward, a book! In fact for years my most prized possessions were books stolen from Manhattan bookstores along Fourth Avenue that had no great monetary value—only just the satisfaction of being stolen. Ah, those days before security cameras!
Of course, there are security cameras on each floor of Mystery, Inc. If my plan is successfully executed, I will remove the tape and destroy it; if not, it will not matter that my likeness will be preserved on the tape for a few weeks, then destroyed. In fact I am lightly disguised— these whiskers are not mine, and the black-plastic-framed tinted glasses I am wearing are very different than my usual eyeglasses.
Just before closing time at Mystery, Inc. there are only a few customers, whom I intend to outstay. One or two on the first floor; a solitary individual on the second floor perusing shelves of Agatha Christie; a middle-aged couple on the third floor looking for a birthday present for a relative; an older man on the fourth floor perusing the art on the walls— reproductions of fifteenth-century German woodcuts titled "Death and the Maiden," "The Dance of Death," and "The Triumph of Death"—macabre lithographs of Picasso, Munch, Schiele, Francis Bacon—, reproductions of Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Children," "Witches' Sabbath," and "The Dog." (Too bad it would be imprudent of me to strike up a conversation with this gentleman, whose taste in macabre art-work is very similar to my own, judging by his absorption in Goya's Black Paintings!) I am indeed admiring— it is remarkable that Aaron Neuhaus can sell such expensive works of art in this out-of-the-way place in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in the off-season.
By the time I descend to the first floor, most of these customers have departed; the final customer is making a purchase at the check-out counter. To bide my time, I take a seat in one of the worn old leather chairs that seems almost to be fitted to my buttocks; so comfortable a chair, I could swear it was my own, and not the property of Aaron Neuhaus. Close by is a glass-fronted cabinet containing first editions of novels by Raymond Chandler— quite a treasure trove! There is a virtual itch to my fingers in proximity to such books.
I am trying not to feel embittered. I am trying simply to feel competitive—this is the American way!
But it's painfully true—not one of my half-dozen mystery bookstores is so well-stocked as Mystery, Inc., or so welcoming to visitors; at least two of the more recently acquired stores are outfitted with ugly utilitarian fluorescent lights which give me a headache, and fill me with despair. Virtually none of my customers are so affluent-appearing as the customers here in Mystery, Inc., and their taste in mystery fiction is limited primarily to predictable, formulaic bestsellers—you would not see shelves devoted to Ellery Queen in a store of mine, or an entire glass-fronted case of Raymond Chandler's first editions, or a wall of Holmesiana. My better stores carry only a few first editions and antiquarian books—certainly, no art-works! Nor do I seem able to hire attractive, courteous, intelligent employees like this young woman— perhaps because I can't afford to pay them much more than the minimum wage, and so they have no compunction about quitting abruptly.
In my comfortable chair it is gratifying to overhear the friendly conversation between this customer and the young woman clerk, whose name is Laura—for, if I acquire Mystery, Inc., I will certainly want to keep attractive young Laura on the staff as my employee; if necessary, I will pay her just slightly more than her current salary, to insure that she doesn't quit.
When Laura is free, I ask her if I might examine a first-edition copy of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. Carefully she un locks the cabinet, and removes the book for me—its publication date is 1940, its dust jacket in good, if not perfect, condition, and the price is $1,200. My heart gives a little leap—I already have one copy of this Chandler novel, for which, years ago, I paid much less; at the present time, in one of my better stores, or online, I could possibly resell it for $1,500 ...
"This is very attractive! Thank you! But I have a few questions, I wonder if I might speak with ..."
"I will get Mr. Neuhaus. He will want to meet you."
Invariably, at independently owned bookstores, proprietors are apt to want to meet customers like me.
Rapidly I am calculating—how much would Aaron Neuhaus's widow ask for this property? Indeed, how much is this property worth, in Seabrook? New Hampshire has suffered from the current, long-term recession through New England, but Seabrook is an affluent coastal community whose population more than quadruples in the summer, and so the bookstore may be worth as much as $800,000 ... Having done some research, I happen to know that Aaron Neuhaus owns the property outright, without a mortgage. He has been married, and childless, for more than three decades; presumably, his widow will inherit his estate. As I've learned from past experiences, widows are notoriously vulnerable to quick sales of property; exhausted by the legal and financial responsibilities that follow a husband's death, they are eager to be free of encumbrances, especially if they know little about finances and business. Unless she has children and friends to advise her, a particularly distraught widow is capable of making some very unwise decisions.
Dreamily, I have been holding the Raymond Chandler first edition in my hands without quite seeing it. The thought has come to me—I must have Mystery, Inc. It will be the jewel of my empire.
"Hello?"—here is Aaron Neuhaus, standing before me.
Quickly I rise to my feet and thrust out my hand to be shaken—"Hello! I'm very happy to meet you. My name is—" As I proffer Neuhaus my invented name I feel a wave of heat lifting into my face. Almost, I fear that Neuhaus has been observing me at a little distance, reading my most secret thoughts while I'd been unaware of him.
He knows me. But—he cannot know me.
As Aaron Neuhaus greets me warmly it seems clear that the proprietor of Mystery, Inc. is not at all suspicious of this stranger who has introduced himself as "Charles Brockden." Why would he be? There are no recent photographs of me, and no suspicious reputation has accrued to my invented name; indeed, no suspicious reputation has accrued about my actual name as the owner of a number of small mystery bookstores in New England.
Of course, I have studied photographs of Aaron Neuhaus. I am surprised that Neuhaus is so youthful, and his face so unlined, at sixty-three.
Like any enthusiastic bookseller, Neuhaus is happy to answer my questions about the Chandler first edition and his extensive Chandler holdings; from this, our conversation naturally spreads to other, related holdings in his bookstore—first editions of classic mystery-crime novels by Hammett, Woolrich, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald, and Ross Macdonald, among others. Not boastfully but matter-of-factly Neuhaus tells me that he owns one of the two or three most complete collections of published work by the pseudonymous "Ellery Queen"—including novels published under other pseudonyms and magazines in which Ellery Queen stories first appeared. With a pretense of naïveté I ask how much such a collection would be worth—and Aaron Neuhaus frowns and answers evasively that the worth of a collection depends upon the market and he is hesitant to state a fixed sum.
This is a reasonable answer. The fact is, any collectors' items are worth what a collector will pay for them. The market may be inflated, or the market may be deflated. All prices of all things—at least, useless beautiful things like rare books—are inherently absurd, rooted in the human imagination and in the all-too-human predilection to desperately want what others value highly, and to scorn what others fail to value. Unlike most booksellers in our financially distressed era, Aaron Neuhaus has had so profitable a business he doesn't need to sell in a deflated market but can hold onto his valuable collections—indefinitely, it may be!
These, too, the wife will inherit. So I am thinking.
The questions I put to Aaron Neuhaus are not duplicitous but sincere—if somewhat naïvesounding—for I am very interested in the treasures of Aaron Neuhaus's bookstore, and I am always eager to extend my bibliographical knowledge.
Soon, Neuhaus is putting into my hands such titles as A Bibliography of Crime & Mystery Fiction 1749-1990; Malice Domestic: Selected Works of William Roughead, 1889-1949; My Life in Crime: A Memoir of a London Antiquarian Bookseller (1957); The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction; and an anthology edited by Aaron Neuhaus, One Hundred and One Best American Noir Stories of the 20th Century. All of these are known to me, though I have not read one of them in its entirety; Neuhaus's One Hundred and One Best American Noir Stories is one of the backlist bestsellers in most of my stores. To flatter Neuhaus I tell him that I want to buy his anthology, along with the Chandler first edition—" And maybe something else, besides. For I have to confess, I seem to have fallen in love with your store."
At these words a faint flush rises into Neuhaus's face. The irony is, they are quite sincere words even as they are coolly intended to manipulate the bookseller.
Neuhaus glances at his watch—not because he's hoping that it's nearing 7 P.M., and time to close his store, but rather because he hopes he has more time to spend with this very promising customer.
Soon, as booksellers invariably do, Aaron Neuhaus will ask his highly promising customer if he can stay a while, past closing-time; we might adjourn to his office, to speak more comfortably, and possibly have a drink.
Each time, it has worked this way. Though there have been variants, and my first attempt at each store wasn't always successful, necessitating a second visit, this has been the pattern.
Excerpted from Mystery, Inc. by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright © 2014 Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I stumbled upon this short story/novella on B&N's Nook store. The description & sample intrigued me enough to purchase the full ebook, and I can only say this is the best $2 I've spent in quite some time. For a true page turner brimming with atmosphere & tension, you need look no further. This is the first work from this publisher I've had the pleasure to read, and I look forward to exploring their catalogue further for more great mystery stories.
Mystery, Inc. is a delightful tale about a specialty bookshop owner who has made a habit of acquiring competing stores, not by purchasing them, but by murdering their owners and then buying the stores at bargain basement prices from the grieving heirs. As the title suggests, the bookshops at issue specialize in mysteries, and our villain, though an enthusiast of the genre, has not read enough of his own stock. Not surprisingly, his scheme does not work out quite the way he planned when he comes up against Aaron Neuhaus, the proprietor of Mystery, Inc. What is even more satisfying than the resolution of our narrator's encounter with Mr. Neuhaus, however, is the store's gruesome history and the ambiguity of Mr. Neuhaus's own acquisition of it. As Mr. Neuhaus says, "If you are an aficionado of mystery-detective-crime fiction, you know that someone, in fact many people, and many of them ‘innocent,’ must die for the sake of the art — for mystery’s sake. That is the bedrock of our business: Mystery, Inc. Some of us are booksellers, and some of us are consumers, or are consumed. But all of us have our place in the noble trade." I received a free copy of Mystery, Inc. through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
What more is there to say?