A couple of weeks ago I brought home a beautiful set of five hardback Raymond Chandler books, reissued with their original early Hamish Hamilton covers. I showed them to my friend and we sat there for a few minutes, just admiring them. “I did them all by myself,” I said. (This may not be an entirely accurate representation of how the publishing industry works, and may indeed annoy many people who really do ‘do’ the books, but we all have to bend the truth to impress our friends – otherwise we’d have nothing to talk about.) “Wow,” she said. “It’s like you’ve . . . given birth.” “Yeah,” I said, “It’s exactly like that.” But in the case of my little litter of hardbacks, birth was the least painful part – it was their conception that was hard work.
Back in summer 2008, when we came up with the idea of reissuing a selection of four of Chandler’s most well-known books (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Little Sister, and The Long Good-bye) we vaguely waved away the issue of getting hold of the actual covers. Chorion, who look after Chandler’s estate, had already established that the Bodleian library in Oxford had a jacket for The Little Sister, so we assumed that it would be quite straightforward to get the other three. Easy, I thought. We get in touch with the Bodleian, they dig up copies of all of the books from the stacks, and then they whack the jackets on a scanner and whizz them over to our ftp site for me to send to our art department. And then I go home at 5.30 and run around fields and eat strawberries.
The Bodleian got back to my email and told me that they’d unearthed copies of The Little Sister, Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep but that none of them had jackets with them; they’d presumably been lost over the years or thrown away when they became too damaged. However, there was a dust jacket collection somewhere in the library called the John Johnson collection; perhaps the jackets would be in there. Sure enough, I contacted a lady there to find out that the collection held the jacket for the 1949 first edition of The Little Sister and as long as we sorted out all the boring bits, we should be able to procure a scan. Bingo. One down, three to go.
The next stop was the Penguin Archive, a mysterious mountain of first editions and rare treasures stored somewhere in Rugby. In theory, the archive should hold a copy of everything that Penguin has ever published. In practice, the picture is rather different. The archive had one old-looking Hamish Hamilton edition of a Chandler book which they sent to me – a 1949 fourth impression of Farewell, My Lovely with a blue cover showing a gloved hand holding a gun. Vintage classic and as retro as we could hope for, but not technically a first edition – the book was originally published in 1940. We decided to hang onto the book and wait to see what turned up next; for all we knew the first edition looked exactly the same.
Since we’d got lucky with the Bodleian, the next logical step was to phone and email lots of other libraries all over the country, concentrating particularly on copyright libraries, which should hold copies of every book ever published. So we phoned around, and emailed, and phoned, and emailed and phoned. Mostly we got the expected response, that although copies of the books existed, the jackets were far more elusive. But Cambridge University Library happened to still have an intact 1953 first edition of The Long Good-bye – complete with its dust jacket. I thanked my stars. Two down.
We were running out of libraries by now and our production schedule was threatening to gallop ahead without us. After some crossed wires with a library in New South Wales, Australia – a surprising rumour that they had a first edition jacket of The Big Sleep turned out, less surprisingly, to be a red herring – I decided that there was no library in the world that had what I needed. But I was not to be deterred: those jackets were out there, and I was going to find them. So I slipped back on my metaphorical detective raincoat and 40s femme fatale shoes and did what anyone would do in an emergency like this: I googled. And I googled.
The idea was that there must be vintage book dealers out there somewhere who had copies of the books and would be willing to help. And there were. My starting point was a website called Saratoga Books, Vintage Mysteries for Guys and Dolls run by a guy called Mark Gappa. I emailed and asked if he had a copy of The Big Sleep, and also if he could help us with Farewell, My Lovely. Mark was incredibly helpful. He didn’t have a first edition of The Big Sleep or of Farewell, My Lovely, but he sent me a photo of the third impression of Farewell, My Lovely and told me that he’d read in Matthew Bruccoli’s definitive bibliography of Chandler’s books that the first edition was very similar to the cover of The Big Sleep, which featured a hand holding a revolver. The third impression (below) looked exactly like our fourth impression from the archive, and from what Mark said, it seemed that the first edition was the same too – on the front at least – so we decided to include it. Three out of four.
For more information, he directed me to Mark Terry, a collector from San Francisco who has a business creating high-quality reproductions of vintage dust jackets. Needless to say, I couldn’t find any of the jackets I needed on the site, but I decided to get in touch directly. Like Mark Gappa, Mark Terry was enthusiastic about the project and eager to help, but his initial response did come with a damper. He warned me not to be too optimistic about finding first edition jackets of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. “I do know they exist,” he wrote to me, “I’ve seen The Big Sleep at a book fair several years ago and I once saw Farewell, My Lovely on ebay, but the winner or seller wasn’t ready to scan the jacket for me.” But he was willing to help with any other jackets that we might want. Looking at the Chandler selection on his site, I had been struck by the original cover of The Lady in the Lake – a hammer horror silhouette against a craggy mountain-scape, with a surprisingly pink colour scheme. Next to the macho gun imagery and super-cool retro vibe of the others, it seemed a welcome splash of frivolity. At this point, unsure if The Big Sleep would ever even turn up, and keen to have four titles to reissue, we decided to slot it into the collection.
So we now had four covers, but there was still an air of mystery surrounding the jacket of Chandler’s most famous and well-loved book of all, The Big Sleep. Luckily, Mark also knew someone else who might be able to help – a mystery dealer from Yorkshire called Mark Sutcliffe. (The fact that all vintage mystery dealers and jacket collectors are called Mark is just one of the many weird and wonderful things that I learned on my journey of discovery. Why it is, I have no idea, but perhaps it’s not the only coincidence of its kind: I recently visited the printing press Clays and was confused when I found that that everyone there is called Andy.) Mark was as willing to help as his name-sakes, but he didn’t have a copy of The Big Sleep. However, it had passed through his hands a couple of times over the years and he had some high-quality photocopies that he was willing to share. With some skilled help from our art department, we managed to use these to piece together an image exactly identical to the original first edition cover of The Big Sleep – the same gloved hand holding a revolver that also appears on the third and fourth impressions of Farewell, My Lovely, but on a red background, and with a plume of smoke wisping away from the gun.
So we had five vintage jackets – four of which were first editions and one of which, according to the information in Matthew Bruccoli’s bibliography – was probably pretty much the same. We were ready to go.
Five months later, I proudly lifted out five beautiful little books from their boxes and examined them, half in elation, and half in fear. I breathed a sigh of relief. Endpapers and ISBNs all correct. It was time to show them off. To say ‘thank you’, I sent copies to all the Marks who had helped me. Mark from Yorkshire got his first, and emailed me immediately. The books were lovely, he said, but he did have to tell me something. The cover we’d used for Farewell, My Lovely was nowhere near what was on the first edition. “I don’t have a copy of the first to show you,” he wrote, “but can tell you that it’s a reddish-colour jacket with a line illustration on the front of a man and woman in an embrace, seated, with drinks on a table before them.”
So the twists and turns continue. Someone, somewhere, has the real first edition cover for Farewell, My Lovely. If you’re out there, come forward. You never know, there might be a free set of Chandler reissues in it for you.