Trying to build her fledgling shop and keep her young son and cat fed, Dido Hoare, London's most intrepid antiquarian bookseller, needs some good luck. Her break comes when the aged and daunting Clare Templeton Forbes, the ex-lover of a celebrated American modernist poet, offers Dido her prized personal library a bookseller's dream come true.Dido's luck, however, vanishes as quickly as it arrives. First, Clare dies when a suspicious fire destroys her house. Then a valuable stolen manuscript winds up in Dido's possession-bringing the police straight to her door. Someone wanted Clare dead and Dido out of the picture. But who? And why? With the help of her father, a retired researcher, Dido leaves no page unturned to find a clever killer before he can close the book on her.
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In my experience, trouble rarely arrives with a big placard reading “BEWARE!” It usually saunters in through some unexpectedly open door, looking casual, while your thoughts are on something else: minding your own business, making a living, being lectured to by a friend...
With most of my attention, I was listening to Jeff saying, “I happen to know that the 1895 American edition of The Time Machine takes precedence over the English...So will you marry me?”
Ever since I've known him, Jeff has been noticeably married to a strong-minded lady in Wales. I jumped to conclusions and assured him: “I'm listening. I've been hanging on your every word. Only, Her Majesty has come in I can see her over your shoulder...She's looking this way.”
Jeff mumbled something that sounded surprisingly like Oh shit watch my stand and evaporated through the gap between his bookshelves and mine, vanishing into a group of our fellow antiquarian book dealers who had congregated momentarily in the next aisle.
I replaced my underpriced volume of H.G. Wells on the shelf. Then I pulled it off again, opened the front cover, changed the first digit of the price from a “1” to a “3,” and printed “TRUE FIRST US EDITION TAKES PRECEDENCE OVER ENGLISH” underneath. The Modern First Editions market is full of these little surprises. At least Jeff had made sure that I'd discovered this one before selling the book, rather than embarrassingly afterward. I owed him.
Though I really ought to have known about it. The thought left me with the gloomy suspicion that my professionalknowledge was full of holes, that my whole stock probably consisted of wrong editions, that nobody in her or his right mind would have the slightest interest in buying anything from me, and that in short I had no right pretending to be an antiquarian book dealer. The normal paranoia. It was just one thing in a whole mountain of reasons why I wasn't enjoying my weekend.
The Oxford Autumn Book Fair was in its opening hours. We had set up our stands in rows along the hotel ballroom, and by now two hundred bargaining voices were in full clamor. Dido Hoare Antiquarian Books and Prints (London) wasrepresented, as usual, by six slightly rickety folding shelf-units, heavy with books and balancing nervously in vertical pairs. There was also one chair, for which I had to compete with the neighboring stand, and one proprietor: me only too aware that my back ached from heaving boxes of old books around, that my new red shoes had rubbed a hole in my right heel, and that a double gin and tonic would probably do even more for my morale than a really good sale. Maybe thirty-three is too old to do book fairs? Or maybe it's just that mothering a small baby is the most tiring activity in the universe. The only reason I was here at all was that I'd been trying to take myself in hand.
The Oxford fairs are usually profitable ones, and a year or two ago I used to enjoy them. The University provides us with hundreds of customers for academic volumes and mid-range collectibles; also the big book dealers in the city use the fairs to refresh their own stock. So I'd booked my stand, though when the form arrived it had taken me a little while to decide. To get up my courage, that is.
The problem was that the fair is held at the Randolph Hotel, a Victorian Gothic edifice in the city center which holds some nasty memories for me. I hadn't been sure that I ever wanted to see it again, but I'd told myself not to be so childish. And at first I'd been too busy buying and selling to brood. Much.
I pretended to be staring with professional satisfaction at my own shelves while I watched Her Majesty's progress out of the corner of my eye. I'd seen her before at these Oxford fairs. There was something ancient and eccentric about her that suggested she might be, say, the wife of a retired don. The nickname was certainly Jeff's invention, and I knew that it wasn't particularly friendly. I tried to remember something I'd heard that would explain his sudden flight. She was his customer though I thought I could remember selling her something, once...My anxiety level rose when I realized I hadn't the faintest idea of her real name. Yet it wasn't as though anybody could possibly forget her a battleship under sail, a stately juggernaut, a chain-smoking, ash-scattering volcano...
I got hold of myself.
She was tall, perhaps five feet ten, and her massive body strained the seams of a tailored blue suit which had been fashionable in the fifties, though its elegance at this moment was modified not just by time, but by a serious dip in the hemline and the cascade of cigarette ash down the front of the jacket. She was obviously in her late sixties, but her pale, heavy-jawed face was topped by a confection of bright red hair which was beginning to escape from pins and spray. The orange lipstick was too bright for her skin, and eye shadow only heightened the lines around her watery blue eyes. Her unhurried course brought her directly to me.
“Miss...” she angled a glance at the sign above my shelves, making it obvious that she didn't remember me. I relaxed. “...Miss Hoare?” She hesitated and frowned as though something puzzled her. “I was hoping for a word with your neighbor. Is Mr. Dylan about?” The accent was educated, the tones as musical (and carrying) as any opera singer's.
I lied, “I think that he had to go out on business for a moment. I'm minding his stand can I..."Smoke Screen. Copyright © by Marianne Macdonald. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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