Sunday, April 28, 2013

When books go abegging

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged next to my house in northwest Mumbai (Bombay) organises annual sales of a range of new and old household items like clothes, furniture, books, and foodstuffs, as well as lucky draws for the unlucky, the proceeds from which go towards the care of the elderly inmates of the Home.

This morning we attended one such bargain sale and I made my way to a small unused pantry where the section on books was located. The novels, mostly paperbacks and selling at less than half a dollar, were strewn carelessly above and below the dusty kitchen platform, in the dry sink, and in a couple of cartons.

Most visitors to the sale looked inside the pantry, probably murmured “oh books,” and went away. So we had the place all to ourselves except for the elderly lady who managed it. She sat there reading some biblical pamphlet. The only time she said anything was when two young men walked in, picked up a couple of books at random, put them back, and walked out. She said, “Your eyes and hands should know the books you’re looking for.” I think what she meant was the moment your eyes spot a book your hands will automatically pick them up, because, as a book lover, you’re familiar with the book and its author. It left me scratching my head, nonetheless.

On display in the pantry were assorted novels by various authors such as Dick Francis, Len Deighton, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Irving Wallace, Sidney Sheldon, Michael Crichton, Charles Dickens, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson), Jeffrey Archer, Henry Miller, Barbara Taylor Bradford, J.T. Edson, Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), Oliver Strange, Joseph Conrad, George G. Gilman, Loren D. Estleman, James Herriot, A.J. Cronin, Daniel Steele, David Baldacci, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth and a dozen others whose names I can’t recall, post-lunch.

Whoever donated all these books knows books well; hopefully, well enough to have read them first and then donated them for a worthy cause. 

We bought nine books of which four were mine of which two were by my favourite writers, namely Sudden Strikes Back, a rare western by Frederick H. Christian (English author Frederick Nolan) based upon characters originally created by his countryman Oliver Strange, and the monstrous 544-page Hatter’s Castle by Scottish writer A.J. Cronin of whom reference has been made elsewhere on this blog.

The other two novels I picked up were both westerns: Bloody Season by seasoned American writer Loren D. Estleman, and Breakheart Pass by popular Scottish author Alistair MacLean.

Breakheart Pass rang a bell for some time until my wife mentioned that we had seen the movie. I reached for IMDb. The film, made by Tom Gries in 1975, is about “A train with medical supplies and a small US Army unit heading through the Rocky Mountains towards the plagued Fort of Humboldt. Its passengers include a territory governor, a priest, a doctor, and a US Marshal with his prisoner, John Deakin. However, nothing on that train is what it seems.” The film starred Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, and Charles Durning.

Many of MacLean’s novels have been turned into successful films, notably The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, and Force 10 From Navarone.

The back cover of my used 1987 Fonata/Collins edition says, “The Rocky Mountains, Winter 1873… One of the most desolate stretches of railroad in the West. Travelling along it is a crowded troop train, bound for the cholera-stricken garrison at Fort Humboldt. On board—the Governor of Nevada, the daughter of the fort’s commander and a US marshal escorting a notorious outlaw. Between them and safety are the hostile Paiute Indians—and a man who will stop at nothing—even murder…

Both the novel and the film look interesting and I might allow my yellowed and dog-eared copy of 
Breakheart Pass to jump the queue. In fact, I've been toying with the idea of my own Alistair MacLean Festival for quite some time now. All his novels have been reprinted. Like many popular authors of his era, MacLean was predictable but entertaining. 

The nine books, which included three Jeffrey Archer titles, cost us Rs.180 ($3.6)—a fine catch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.


  1. Prashant: It sounds like the search was as interesting as the books found. It has been a long time since I read a Western. Once I gravitated to crime fiction I have not read much other fiction.

    1. Bill, rummaging through the pile was, indeed, interesting and I have no regrets that I didn't buy more than I did. I have far too many books to read already. I enjoy reading Western. I picked up SUDDEN because there have been no reprints since Corgi stopped reprinting them in the 1980s though an Indian imprint, I believe, has recently republished Oliver Strange's set of 10 novels. Another five were written by Frederick H. Christian. The Corgi paperbacks are selling at obscene prices on the internet.

  2. Sounds like a good sale to go to, but I already have too many books too. At least buying them at a reasonable price is good. I think I bought an Alistair McLean at the last big book sale I went to; I have enjoyed some of his movies.

    1. Tracy, it's always a "good sale to go to" and we rarely miss an opportunity. We have picked up some fine books, at throwaway prices, over the past two to three years including hardback classics. Many of the books are in mint condition which indicates that someone bought the book new, read it, and donated it right away. For example, we bought a brand new edition of ONLY TIME WILL TELL, the first of the five-part Clifton Chronicles, by Jeffrey Archer for Rs.30 when it is selling at Rs.299 in new bookstores. Writers like MacLean will always be around.

  3. There are several for-sale shelves at the local public library. I buy westerns if I find them (and they are not large print editions). Occasionally there is an amazing find that is a bargain at 50 cents. I enjoy the hunt itself and may pick up several books, of which I take only one or two home. You've got me interested in Breakheart Pass.

    1. Ron, I agree with Bill and you about the hunt for a rare or vintage book being as enjoyable as purchasing it. The secondhand books market in Mumbai at least is suddenly flooded with mid to late 20th century western paperbacks selling at less than 25 cents. Most of these books come in shiploads from America while the rest are offloaded by local circulating libraries shutting down.

      I think BREAKHEART PASS is probably the only western written by MacLean though I'll have to verify it. I hope to read the book first and then watch the movie.