Constance Fuller is the narrator and remarkably outspoken protagonist of The Colfax Book-plate (1926), the sole adult mystery novel by Agnes Miller who previously was known for a brief series of unusually literate juvenile mysteries called The Linger-Nots featuring a group of girls from a Dramatics Society who stumble upon puzzling adventures all having to do with historical eras. The third book in that series, The Linger-Nots and Their Golden Quest (1923), interestingly shares a key plot point with The Colfax Book-plate.
Constance has worked her way out of the confines of the stenographers' pool at the busy downtown Manhattan book shop Darrow's to a place that better suits her intelligence and sophistication. She works in the rare book room - specifically a section devoted to prints and engravings. Bookplates make up a sizable portion of this collection. As the story opens Constance is in charge of cataloging a large group of books recently purchased from a judge who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Among those books is a limited edition printing of a book entitled Notes on Medical Statutes in the Virgina Code by W. Clarihew. This particular copy, number 239 of 300, has an unusual pictorial bookplate thought to be the work of Hugh Colfax, a Revolutionary War era engraver whose work primarily has only been seen in England. If the bookplate should prove to be genuine and for it to appear on a copy of an American published book would cause a sensation in the bookplate collecting world and probably the world of bibliophilia at large. The US 1st (and only) edition, by the way, sports a replica of the bookplate exactly as described in the story as a paste-down on the front board.
|Click to enlarge.|
The amazing fine details in this bookplate are
integral to the intricacies of the plot.
Constance makes for a sharp witted and sharper tongued narrator with little tolerance for flighty shop girls, her former harridan of a supervisor Miss Wilkes, or the manipulations of damsels in apparent distress. She's also a bit of a snob. There is a very funny scene in which she disparages the "fad" of crossword puzzles which has so hypnotized two of the other women characters. As an employee she is a mental match for her Scottish boss, Mr. Roberts the manager of the store who alternately applauds and insults her for being too intelligent. It is mainly due to her presence that The Colfax Book-plate is such a fast moving, absorbing read.
Miller has more than a few surprises in store. Like the maze-like aisles of Darrow's Constance finds herself travelling deeper into a circuitous world of deception, thievery and betrayal. The Clarihew volume and the bookplate itself will reveal multiple layers of secrets. And that's a literal image not a figurative one. The climax of the book provides for several eyebrow raising surprises, and a few that made me laugh, in a book already brimming with twists and sudden reveals.
While Miller's writing style suffers from a heavy Victorian syntax overloaded with descriptive clauses and asides set off by commas, the story is still engaging and uncommonly modern for a book published in the late 1920s. She endows Constance with a very modern sensibility that foreshadows the feminist heroines who populate the mysteries and Gothic Romances of the 1970s. In fact, all of her female characters seem to be stronger than the men. Though Miller has a policeman detective, Benjamin Almy (his rank is never mentioned), among her cast he does most of his detective work offstage. It is Constance, Nancy Burton (Peter's sassy garrulous sister) and a seemingly dumb blond shop girl named Daisy Abbott who all do clever girl sleuthing on their own offering up sections of the complex solution at key points in the tale.
|The UK edition (Benn, 1927)|
No bookplate, though
And now the bad news. (Oh yes, you knew it was coming.) Agnes Miller's finely constructed novel is yet another of those scarce detective books. My catalog notes tell me I bought mine back in 2005 from a well known, reputable mystery novel dealer for $30. Now the mere dozen copies offered for sale range from $18 for an ex-library copy to $135 for a book that sounds from its description to be in comparable condition to my own copy with its discolored and spotty boards. Perhaps if you're lucky you may stumble across a cheap copy or one in your local library. It was published originally in the US by Century Company and one year later in the UK by Ernest Benn so there is equal opportunity of finding one on both sides of the Atlantic.