Ephemeral Assays – Jane Jackets

Mary C. Jane, children’s author. I certainly never heard of her before. Ms. Jane is a little difficult to Google up because the name is so common, but eventually we find the trail in a Maine Writers Index. “Mary Childs Jane (18 September 1909 – 26 July 1991). Children’s mystery writer Mary Childs Jane was born in Needham, Massachusetts, and graduated from Bridgewater State Teachers College (Mass.) in 1931. Before her marriage to William Jane in 1937, w[ith] whom she had two sons, she taught in Pippapon, Kentucky (1931-1932), Chester, Massachusetts (1932-1935), and Needham, Massachusetts (1935-1937). She was a long-time resident of Newcastle, Maine. Jane’s specialty was writing mysteries for middle school age children. She knew, from her teaching experience, that many reluctant readers can be lead to reading with mysteries.”

And then there’s this from the rear panel of a Jane jacket. “To teach, to write, and to have a family of her own-these are cherished dreams come true for Mary C. Jane. This is why we believe she is particularly well qualified to write children’s books, and we are proud to publish her mystery stories. A graduate of Bridgewater State Teachers’ College in Massachusetts, Mrs. Jane began her teaching career at the Caney Creek Community Center in Kentucky. After several years in Massachusetts schools she married and moved to Newcastle, Maine, where she is the fifth generation of her family to live in the same neighborhood. Here she became an enthusiastic member of creative writing groups and for several years was president of the Poetry Fellowship of Maine. Her feature stories and poetry have appeared in many journals and newspapers, among them the Lewiston Journal, the Portland Sunday Telegram and the Christian Science Monitor. Reading aloud to her two sons sparked an interest in children’s literature that was fanned later by her experiences working with fifth and sixth graders when she returned to teaching.”

The online bibliography reveals that Jane authored juvenile mystery novels at the rate of exactly one per year from 1955 through 1970. They were all published by J. B. Lippincott, they all take place in Maine, and they were all illustrated by Raymond Abel. There is something remarkably uniform about this. Her run spans the height of wholesome post-war enthusiasm and American dominance on the double nickel right through to the end of the turbulent ’60s and the Summer of Love. Did she tire of this genre at age sixty, or did Lippincott give her the axe?

Two years ago I came upon a pile of these at a country auction. Various full tables of books around the hall were going for one money each, and this particular lot was way over near the office and out of view. Snagging it required careful previewing and absolute attention to the auctioneer, as evidenced by the general confusion of the audience by the time the hammer fell. That haul included fifteen out of sixteen available Janes, lacking only her premier effortMystery in Old Quebec. They are all first editions, in dustjackets, in very good condition, and signed and inscribed by the author to her brother-in-law Donald! I found some other Donald Jane stuff that day, such as a photo of him lying languidly on top of a baby grand piano looking a bit like Cole Porter, and lots of theatrical materials, so we can perhaps assume that the books came from his unclaimed estate.

I knew this was a great find, and after some research priced them at an average of $325.00, which is actually a bit low in today’s market all things considered. Although Mary C. Jane works are quite rare in this state, I don’t believe the author is all that collectible, and I was hoping they would all go to one appreciative buyer. There was a damaged copy of her penultimate, The Rocking-Chair Ghost from 1969, that I sent up as a trial balloon on eBay, but it was quickly deflated there, so I resolved to market the rest in a more traditional manner, where they sat for two years with only one nibble. I am moved to document the collection now, however, because a savvy buyer has come forward to claim the prize. She grew up in Maine and was given many of the early volumes by her grandmother, who claimed Mary Jane as a distant relative. She came back from college to find them all gone. After some pleasant negotiations we arrived at a discount price of nearly 25% off for the entire lot.

So here’s what’s ephemeral about these books. Wandering around online in the midst of The Glut, where instant booksellers stumble into each other like zombies on moonless nights, there are tons of shabby ex-library copies, a good number of softcover reprints, and that’s it. Many awful examples are priced not far below what I was asking, and only one poor soiled but “in tact” specimen was signed. There are approximately 450 copies of these fourteen titles available on one of the largest search services as of this writing, and only three or four are bona fide non-ex-library first printings in good dustjackets. The paper Jane jackets are rendered ephemeral by their very scarcity. And what jackets these are! Raymond Abel’s breezy, colorful covers and frequent black and white text illustrations must have really set the tone for many a young reader. The other unique aspect of this set are the personalized inscriptions and some of the materials found inside. These intact Mary C. Jane first printings should be recorded for posterity.

-The Ghost Rock Mystery (1956). A small blurb over the front inside flap title and description reads, “Weird hoofbeats and sinister visitors disturb a Maine vacation.” The inscription reads, “For Brother Don, with love from Mary.” Lippincott letterhead stationary pencil dated 9/19/1956 is laid in. “The exciting pattern set by Mary C. Jane in her first book is carried on in this new action-packed thriller for young readers.” Two paragraphs of plot line follow. “Mrs. Jane has further justified the interest she aroused with her excellent first story, ‘Mystery in Old Quebec.’ THE GHOST ROCK MYSTERY is available at your local bookstores, and the price is $2.25.” The rear inside flap promotes Mystery in Old Quebec. “A mongrel pup helps two children unmask a clever deception.” The dedication reads, “To my favorite Vermonters Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Jessie Wheeler Freeman.”

-Mystery at Pemaquid Point (1957). “Who was the thief and arsonist plaguing the Maine Village?” “With love to Don from Mary. September 1957.” A newspaper burn on this page probably attests to a contemporary review which slipped away like a wayward remora some time ago. Another Lippincott letter laid in. The dedication reads, “To the memory of my mother and father Grace Dyer Childs and Henry Thomas Childs.”

-Mystery at Shadow Pond (1958). “Once more the air is alive with suspense in MYSTERY AT SHADOW POND.” That blurbette doesn’t tell us anything, so we’ll continue down the front inside flap. “When Neale and Margie Lawson heard that their father would have to sell his shore land and their beloved horse, Firefly, they were miserable. They could find no way to help him until a strange red car, a lost cat, and the odd behavior of an eccentric old man drew them into a mystery involving the lost letters of a famous New England artist. The Lawsons and their friend Rupert Reed, son of the Ranger at the camp across the lake, were plunged into a bewildering tangle of strange doings. Neale thought that his robot-burglar alarm might help to solve the mystery, and Margie was sure that her grandfather’s books held the key to the problem. Both children were right, but it took two discoveries-one in a cave on the mountain and one in the middle of Shadow Pond-to set things straight.” “With love to Don from Mary.” The price has crept up a quarter to $2.50. This one still has its clipping, from the “For Young People” column of the 6/28/1958 Saturday Review, but it’s more of a blurb rehash announcement than a review, though it does offer one concluding opinion. “The insatiable young readers of mystery stories will welcome this title.” The dedication reads, “To my sisters and brothers Nell, Margaret, Charlie, and Ken.”

-Mystery on Echo Ridge (1959). “Was the strange old house haunted?” “With love to Brother Don from Mary. Christmas 1959.” Another Lippincott letter laid in, this one with the envelope, showing Donald to be residing at 243 Ryerson St. in Brooklyn. By now we know the general Jane plot line. Two or more kids, usually a brother and sister but sometimes close friends, discern and crack mysteries in about 125 pages. The dedication reads, “To my Aunt Nella and my Uncle George who always encouraged my scribbling.”

-Mystery Back of the Mountain (1960). “Two young detectives track down the mystery of their summer house.” “With love to Don from Mary.” The first four include a rather dowdy head shot photo of the author on the rear panel over her brief bio. They all used “Introducing Mary C. Jane” in large letters. This one drops “Introducing.” Looks like she has finally arrived. The dedication reads, “To my dear friend, Florence Sturges.”

-Mystery at Dead End Farm (1961). “An ancient feud, an Indian plot and a lost silver mine figure in the MYSTERY AT DEAD END FARM.” Same inscription as last year. These all smell great by the way, at least to me. Slightly musty like they’re thawing out a bit in a northeast cabin once the fire gets going. Just didn’t feel like doing a dedication this time around, Mary? You’ll wish you had later when you have to jam a whole bunch in.

-Mystery Behind Dark Windows (1962). “A deserted mill in New England conceals a MYSTERY BEHIND DARK WINDOWS.” Same inscription. This is the only second printing of the bunch, with an ugly silver “longlife binding” sticker defacing the jacket. It is also the only fully price-clipped copy. The bio retreats to the inside rear flap where the promo for the previous title used to appear, the rear panel lists all the titles, and the photo is dropped altogether. Small, simple, signed, white, gold and silver illustrated Christmas card laid in with an aerial view of two houses with snowy fields for back yards. The dedication reads, “To David Walker, next author in the family.”

-Mystery by Moonlight (1963). “An old deserted house conceals a MYSTERY BY MOONLIGHT.” “With love to Don from Mary. Christmas 1963.” $2.75 now, and a better photo of MCJ sitting on a dock with pad in lap and a raised hand partially obscuring her face. Abel at his scariest with this cover. The dedication reads, “To those delightful people, the boys and girls who read my books, and to the understanding teachers and librarians who introduced us to each other.” Perfect.

-Mystery in Longfellow Square (1964). “A boy and dog take a dangerous chance to solve the MYSTERY IN LONGFELLOW SQUARE.” Same inscription, updated. $2.95 already. Set in Portland, Maine. The boards vary throughout the series. One color with stamped letters early on, colored paper over a cloth binding with stamped decoration, etc. This one sports a stormy visage repeat of the jacket theme on red-orange boards with black spine lettering.

-Indian Island Mystery (1965). They dropped the little blurbette at the top of the inside cover altogether! Has to do with Tim Neptune, star Maine Native American athlete and class valedictorian, who disappears at the same time a valuable bear’s-tooth necklace vanishes from an antiques shop. The author’s photo has gone missing again too. “With love to Don from Mary.” The first name basis signed inscriptions are always on the first free endpaper or half-title page, but this one includes an additional full signature on the title page. The dedication reads, “To the boys and girls of Indian Island, especially my first friend, Howard Mitchell, and to their teacher, Sister Mary Laura, with warm regard.”

-The Dark Tower Mystery (1966). Old Mrs. Parmenter had planned on making her mountaintop, High Blue, into a wildlife refuge in memory of her late husband. Outsiders would put a commercial park there instead. The old tower bell rings out mysteriously, and then there’s the ghost of beautiful Irene who died on this spot long ago. The kids unearth a strange secret that leads to the solution of a fascinating puzzle. “With love to Don from Mary. Too bad you’re not the age you were when I first knew you, as you could really enjoy this. The dark tower is the one on Mt. Bathe, in Camden-there’s a road up there now.” A new and slightly unflattering photo appears over the rear inside flap bio. “Horrible picture” next to this in her handwriting.

-Mystery on Nine-Mile Marsh (1967). Moody’s Island is set like a jewel in this marsh, and rumors fly when a suspicious stranger “who, after all, was not even a local Maine resident,” inherits the property to the dismay of the last living Moody. “To Donald with love from Mary. 1967. These marshes might remind you of those on the far side of Santorini. You should see them.” All the other covers are glossy, but this one suffers from flatness and attendant minor soiling. Dropping that last photo was probably her first order of business this time around.

-Mystery of the Red Carnations (1968). Prue Tenney was bummed out on Sunday night. All of her friends had either caused or found an exciting adventure to write about for class over the weekend. Then she remembered that an unknown young man had been mysteriously shot eight years back, and somebody placed red carnations at the grave site on every anniversary of the unsolved murder. I would almost read this just to hear her explain why the police didn’t think to stake out this cemetery. The final line of the inside front flap blurb is a little odd. “While her characters are confronted with a hidden gun, a strange woman prowling around an empty house, and a suspicious neighbor, these details fit plausibly into the everyday world of a small New England town.” And we learn from the inside rear flap under the usual boilerplate bio that, “for the first time, she has put herself in the story-as the teacher.” Was Mary C. Jane losing her footing? Was Lippincott getting cold feet? “With love to Donald from Mary. Christmas 1968. This one you’ll like-I think.” The dedication reads, “To the J. B. Lippincott Company on its 175th anniversary, to all my friends, past and present, in their children’s book department, to artist Ray Abel, and especially to the memory of Ollie Talbot, Lippincott’s New England sales representative, who kindly gave me the true story of XYZ on which this mystery is based.”

-Mystery in Hidden Hollow (1970). This time the kids get to spend the winter in a big old house with Uncle Ken, escaping their father’s trailer and its “shiftless tribe.” Their friends live out that way, and they can all solve a haunted house mystery together. In the process, they “learn how to hold up their heads and keep their self-respect in spite of what neighbors might think of their family.” “With love to Don from Mary. Christmas 1970.” Did Abel drop acid before illustrating this cover? There’s a nice new photo of the author sitting in front of a bookcase with a faraway look in her eyes. The dedication reads, “To my dear first grandson, Jesse Jane, with love.”

That’s it, as far as I can tell, for the Lippincott Janes. My guess is that the early years were the happiest. Imagine her thrill at seeing these dustjackets for the first time as they came from the publisher, of passing the new books out to friends and family, and of seeing them all stacked up in stores. It probably became a chore toward the end, and it was getting harder to reconcile innocent juvenile mysteries with the shock value of late 1960s culture. Mary C. Jane did live another 21 years, into her eighties, passing away in 1991. She must have had many happy memories of her writing days. The last passage in her final mystery reads as follows. “I guess you can get to feel on top of the world in lots of different places,” Amy said. “But it sure would be hard to beat this!”

Shawn Purcell is the principle of Balopticon Books & Ephemera in Delmar NY, online at http://www.balopticon.com, and may be e-mailed atmail@balopticon.com
Copyright © 2004 Shawn Purcell


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