Almost all true fans of classic mysteries have a soft spot for the mysteries starring schoolteacher-sleuth Miss Hildegard Withers, the archetypal spinster yet child-adorer grammar-Nazi nose-sticking-into mystery solver first brought into print by Stuart Palmer in 1931. She has as great a variety of identifiable tics as any old-time sleuth. She always carried an umbrella, perhaps to keep the rain off her indescribable hats, and was towed along by her Marmaduke-sized Poodle, Talleyrand, although she was also a tropical fish fancier. An intuitionist detective, her mysteries were solved more by flashes of emotional insight than strict deduction, so she isn’t a member of the pile-up-the-clues fair play brigade. You either accept that or you don’t.
A series of movies starring such classic hatchet-faced character actresses like Edna Mae Oliver and Zasu Pitts keeps her image alive on the old movie channels.
So it’s extremely odd, probably unique, that the fourth Miss Withers book, The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree, has never been reprinted in any format since it first appeared in 1933.
Think about what that means.
Hardcover mysteries normally cost $2.00, a high price by Depression standards. They were almost invariably reprinted as dollar books by reprint mills like Triangle Books, Grosset & Dunlap, and later Tower. Old book buffs can tell these editions literally blindfolded. They used thin cardboard covers, reduced-sized pages, and had a lighter weight and heft than the first editions. But they outsold them many times over, which is why classic mystery first editions run into the hundreds of dollars and have ever since I can remember.
When the paperback came along in the 1940s, mysteries were a natural choice and indeed they were probably represent well over half of all titles printed. Phenomenally popular at 25 cents, the biggest names regularly sold a million copies, this at a time when the U.S. population was a third of what it is today and half the adults never graduated high school.
Contracts were for short periods and the same title can be found under several imprints just in the 1940s. Then they would see another printing in the 50s, and 60s, and so on.
Titles that fell out of print were always being rediscovered, starting with Anthony Boucher’s Collier Mystery Classics series in the 60s, which gave me the then-unfindable John Dickson Carr offbeat wonder The Blind Barber. Later specialty imprints like International Polygonics, Crippen & Landru, and Foul Play Press brought more classic titles onto the shelves in mass market paperback, trade paperback, and hardback versions.
Any serious collector could easily put together a dozen separate editions for most of the titles by any of the big names in the field.
Yet The Puzzle in the Pepper Tree has never had a reprint, book club, paperback, or rediscovery edition in 75 years! Why, I don’t know. Doubleday, a major publisher of the day, published it just like it did all the surrounding titles, which have made their way back into print. It appeared between two major motion pictures starring the character, so the timing was perfect to flog it unmercifully.
Ridiculous. The original hardback goes for $150-250 when and if you can find it. It is the single most unknown title of mysterydom.
Now, after all that, I’m sure you expect me to tell you that finally, at long last, The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is back in print.
What I’m telling you. and I realize that there aren’t even a full handful of people on the Dope who care about this, but those who do care, care very, very, very, very much, is that Rue Morgue Press has The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree scheduled to appear sometime this month! And you can pre-order it now from them or from Amazon!
It’s my birthday present to myself this year. I can’t wait.