Delivering a Missing Letter

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A disused bus shelter in the market town of Sedbergh is a curious place for a quest to end, literary or otherwise. The town itself is rather curious too; geographically in Cumbria but on the wrong side of the M6 to be in the Lake District proper, it sits almost exactly on the watershed where the rolling green fells give way to the harsher limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales. Hard up against the Howgill Fells, it has always attracted walkers but in recent years it has also become a haven for readers. It now has seven bookshops, including an enormous second-hand one at the end of the High Street, and bookshelves are squeezed into any available space in the town’s other shops and cafés. When we arrived for cake and a potter while holidaying in Hawes, it was more in hope than expectation that here we would find the missing piece to complete the Scandinavian puzzle that our dining-room bookshelf had become.

Collecting books is a funny thing and not something I’d ever set out to do. I have multiple copies of The Wind in the Willows because it’s an enduring favourite which I happen to misplace periodically and firmly believe should be on everyone’s shelf, young or old. I have almost all of the Poldark novels by Winston Graham, but that’s because I wanted to read them, not acquire them. The same goes in our house for Jo Nesbo and Roddy Doyle. They’ve been collected because they’ve been read, not the other way around. Collecting books is the ultimate rejoinder to digital books, making the book itself a physical item to treasure as much as the words contained within. But books are not intended to be just placed on a shelf to be admired. Until they’re taken down and opened, they’re not really books at all.

Several years ago, my husband picked up a copy of a book called Roseanna, probably from an Oxfam bookshop. It was a detective story, in all senses of the phrase, set in 1960s Stockholm and featuring a Swedish po

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A disused bus shelter in the market town of Sedbergh is a curious place for a quest to end, literary or otherwise. The town itself is rather curious too; geographically in Cumbria but on the wrong side of the M6 to be in the Lake District proper, it sits almost exactly on the watershed where the rolling green fells give way to the harsher limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales. Hard up against the Howgill Fells, it has always attracted walkers but in recent years it has also become a haven for readers. It now has seven bookshops, including an enormous second-hand one at the end of the High Street, and bookshelves are squeezed into any available space in the town’s other shops and cafés. When we arrived for cake and a potter while holidaying in Hawes, it was more in hope than expectation that here we would find the missing piece to complete the Scandinavian puzzle that our dining-room bookshelf had become.

Collecting books is a funny thing and not something I’d ever set out to do. I have multiple copies of The Wind in the Willows because it’s an enduring favourite which I happen to misplace periodically and firmly believe should be on everyone’s shelf, young or old. I have almost all of the Poldark novels by Winston Graham, but that’s because I wanted to read them, not acquire them. The same goes in our house for Jo Nesbo and Roddy Doyle. They’ve been collected because they’ve been read, not the other way around. Collecting books is the ultimate rejoinder to digital books, making the book itself a physical item to treasure as much as the words contained within. But books are not intended to be just placed on a shelf to be admired. Until they’re taken down and opened, they’re not really books at all.

Several years ago, my husband picked up a copy of a book called Roseanna, probably from an Oxfam bookshop. It was a detective story, in all senses of the phrase, set in 1960s Stockholm and featuring a Swedish policeman named Martin Beck. In it a young American tourist on a riverboat tour across Sweden is murdered, but the plot is secondary to a portrait of Martin Beck and the shortcomings of the police and the wider political system in which he is required to operate. We both read it, one after the other, even though our reading tastes rarely coincide. (I’ve never been tempted by his Irvine Welshes and he’s always run a mile from my Jane Austens.) But on this one, we were agreed. It was rather good. And then we discovered that there were more – ten in all, written by a pair of journalists who happened to be both committed Marxists and husband and wife. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö conceived the entire Beck series as a story in ten chapters, which they created together, writing alternate chapters, over a ten-year period between 1965 and 1975.

On one level, the books are straightforward crime fiction. The stories are complex but not complicated, told in clean Nordic prose. Scandinavian crime fiction has conquered the world in the last few decades, but the Beck novels have been largely (possibly criminally) overlooked. They are not simply police procedurals, they are the police procedural which kick-started the entire genre. Written in an era before DNA came of age and when the Internet was still thirty years away, they strip back crime detection to its nuts and bolts. Beck’s genes can be found in Kurt Wallander and Harry Hole, but his reach has gone far beyond Scandinavia. As a world-weary policeman with a social conscience, his influence can be found in any modern crime novel where the whydunit is just as important as the who.

It wasn’t until we’d picked up a few more in the series that the collection really began in earnest. As good as the books are, I have to admit that the urge to collect was sparked by other considerations. The copy of Roseanna that had started things off was a Harper Perennial edition from 2007 and on the spine of the book was the title in a spare oblong font, above which were the letter M and the numeral 1. Arrayed in order, the spines of the ten books would spell out MARTIN BECK. By this point, we had picked up a few in no particular order, and it was uniquely frustrating to look at the shelf and see just MTNB. There was nothing else for it. We had to complete the set.

Browsing in bookshops is hardly a chore and I’ve even planned entire weekends away around it, but the thrill of the chase gave our mooching an added sense of purpose. The peerless Barter Books in Alnwick yielded two, Cop Killer and The Terrorists, which we celebrated with cheese toasties in front of the fire in the station buffet. The Laughing Policeman, probably my favourite of the ten, turned up on a post-Christmas break to Lyme Regis, in a tiny honesty bookshop set back from the bustle of the harbour. We dropped a pound in the box and noted what we’d taken in the reporter’s notebook that served as a stock control system, then walked out to look back at the town in late December sunshine from the end of the Cobb. Like any good treasure hunt, there were surprises along the way. We returned empty-handed from an expedition to Hay one August bank holiday but tracked down the second book of the series in a Cannock charity shop on a miserable January lunchtime.

Eventually, the bookshelf proclaimed MARTINBCK and we had only to find the eighth book. Beck novels were suddenly everywhere but they were always numbers one or nine or four. When we came to Sedbergh, we hoped to find it in one of the town’s bookshops but we didn’t dream it would find us. Walking along the High Street, we spotted a defunct bus stop which had been repurposed as a Book Shelter. It was now lined with bookshelves instead of timetables, the idea being that you could borrow and return a book or swap one from the Shelter for one of your own. From several paces away, we could see the distinctive spine of a Beck and, nostrils twitching in anticipation, we came closer. There it was – The Locked Room, the elusive eighth book. Reflecting on the cosmic coincidences that had led to that book being deposited on that shelf in time for our arrival, I very nearly fell on my knees in the middle of the street.

As the whole system worked on an exchange principle, we couldn’t just take it and so I dashed into the charity bookshop across the road to buy a suitable offering to the Book gods that had brought us and the book to Sedbergh at this very moment. We’d visited Haworth the day before, and in the fields behind the Parsonage I’d seen four Japanese girls, clearly on a pilgrimage. They were waving scarves and dancing in a circle, looking as if they were trying to summon the spirit of Emily or Anne, or perhaps even Cathy’s ghost. So a well thumbed copy of Jane Eyre seemed an appropriate replacement. We toasted the end of the quest with swift halves in the Black Bull and made plans to return to dine there one day.

When we slotted E into place, I half-expected the bookshelf to slide creakily open to reveal a secret staircase. It didn’t, of course. But the conclusion of our hunt has left its mark in other ways. We still reflexively look to the ‘S’ or ‘W’ shelf as soon as we enter a bookshop and always point out a Beck book when we see one out of sheer instinct. The act of searching them out often led to unexpected shared delights, finding other bookish treasures or a newly discovered bookshop that we might otherwise have walked past. We’ve both yet to read the final book in the series, as that will truly mark the end of our adventure. Of course, we could have ordered the lot from Amazon in one go and filled the shelf in a matter of days. But where would have been the fun in that?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Kate Morgan 2020


About the contributor

Kate Morgan used to fill her time between bookshop jaunts by working as a lawyer. She is now a university law lecturer in Birmingham and is also working on her first book.

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