A Grave Talent Mystery

GT coverWhen is a first edition not a first edition?

When it’s a “second state first.”

Back when the first Laurie King book was published, in 1993, A Grave Talent was just one of dozens of debut mysteries. St Martin’s Press printed 2500, sold them quickly thanks to pre-publication reviews, and was pleased to go back to press for another 1500. Amazingly, the hardback is still available, all these years later.

A Grave Talent went on to win the Edgar for Best First Novel, and Laurie King is now a bestselling writer. This combination of facts has made those 2500 first editions valuable commodities, especially since maybe half of those went into libraries and have the black stamp of their original owners sullying their pages.

And when a book is–I won’t say worth, but certainly priced at–$900, it wouldn’t be too surprising if somewhere along the line, someone decided that there really ought to be a few more first editions out there.

That’s what I thought happened when I first came across these oddities. In Seattle, during the tour for A Darker Place, I was asked to sign a newly acquired, very pretty, first edition copy of A Grave Talent. I glanced at it, and happened to notice that although the back of the title page indicated that it was a first, the printing mistake of the dedication page, on which the Hebrew was printed upside-down, was not there. The Hebrew was right-side up, which I had thought occurred only from the second printing on.

Then I looked more closely, and saw brown glue marks and the slight fading one gets when photocopying heavy black text such as the title page letters and dachshund logo (his name is Sparky).

That’s right. The title page had been photocopied on matching paper, neatly trimmed, and glued into a second (or fourth, or eighth?) printing to create a first. The book the reader had paid $450 for was a fake.

It was all very puzzling. If this was a forgery, someone had to know the book’s value, but was not aware of the printer’s mistake with the Hebrew; they had the skill to match the paper and trim it flawlessly, but couldn’t manage to darken the photocopy; they laid the page in so it turned naturally, then used a glue that left brown blobs.

Persistent enquiry determined that the book had come from a dealer in New York, who bought it from another dealer, who had found it on a rack outside a thrift shop in New York for $10. Which, I thought, is where an unsuccessful attempt at forgery might well have ended up, while the forger went on to polish his or her technique on later, undetected versions that are now sitting proudly on the shelves of collectors and bookshops. I wrote a warning letter to my fellow Mystery Writers of America in the newsletter, and took to examining first edition Grave Talents more closely.

And then I started talking to antiquarian booksellers about this apparent forgery, and discovered that there are so many of these out there, and they’ve been around so long, that they’re known as “second state first editions.”

In the words of Steve Lee, of Heirloom Books, LCC, “Although it is an expert job, if you look quite closely (maybe apropos for a detective novel!), you can see that the title/copyright page IS a photocopy, and IS stubbed/tipped onto the remnant of an excised sheet. It’s a great job, and you can really only tell if you compare the two states side by side. If you look on the net, there are a number of these “second states” listed for sale. I have also consulted with a couple other major mystery dealers that currently have copies of both states listed for sale. One pointed out to me that this “point” or error did not come to light in the general book collecting public until the book had been out for several years, at which time, dealers took a re-look at the copies that they already had and some discovered that they were indeed corrected. So, this issue must have been around almost from the beginning, as many dealers purchased these books new from St. Martin’s.”

“Since we have all seen publishers use photocopied sheets (on occasion) tipped in to correct a mistake, my guess would be that this was actually done by St. Martin’s or their printer (if they farmed it out). There are just too many of them around (and around from the beginning), and the job is too good – a forger would have had to make hundreds at this point, and it just doesn’t seem likely.”

It seemed less likely to me that St Martin’s would have bothered going to so much trouble to correct this first novel of an unknown writer, but as Steve says:

“I have to agree with most of the mystery booksellers that I have talked to about this – it seems unlikely that they were done by a counterfeiter or forger, and much more likely that they were done at the press or the bindery. There are scores of these (if not hundreds) around – I can see a forger doing a few, but not hundreds, and not as professionally and consistently as these have been. I have been doing rare books for at least the last 20 years, and have seen all kinds of crazy things done by publishers, whether or not they seem to make any sense!”

So there you have it: A corrected first is a first when there are enough of them around.

And if anyone out there can throw more light on The Mystery of the First that Wasn’t, I’d be glad to post an update.