This Bookselling Caper Stirs Echoes of Philip Marlowe

In ‘The Big Sleep’ Private Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) asks “Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860, third edition, with duplicated line on page 116 . . .or a Chevalier Audubon 1840?’ Clerk (Dorothy Malone) responds, ‘Nobody would. There isn’t one.’


During my long career in book publishing, I was often accused by sales managers of enhancing my weekly marketing reports with excessive details.

One manager, in particular, took a gentle shot in my direction at a company dinner one evening when he told the group about reading my observations.

He said, “I always use the hour-long morning train trip to the office to read the reps’ reports. I really enjoyed the last one from Bob that I began reading on Monday and on into Tuesday—and finished up on Wednesday.” He added, “Bob’s the only rep in the publishing business who feels he’s required to inject setting and mood into his reports.

I recently found one of those early reports, and I must admit that it contained a bit more flamboyance than I had remembered.

Humphrey Bogart played the hero in Philip Marlow’s novels.

It all began when a burly East Coast guy named Consolino put me onto a caper that involved pushing his books on some unsuspecting clients in the Los Angeles area. Even though the pay was miserable, I was in need of some quick cash, so I took the job.

 I was still trying to figure out why I was picked for this assignment, given my questionable background as a small-time private dick. Nevertheless, I began looking for some easy marks in bookstores who might take the bait. I found a phone booth at Hollywood and Vine and checked out the yellow pages for some leads. 

There was a chill in the air the morning I entered the back door of the dark, musty bookstore on the Westside. I tossed my sample case on the floor near an old metal desk that had seen its better days. I settled into a comfortable chair because I had been told by a pal named Bruno that the guy who owned the joint was always late for appointments. I lit up a Camel.

  I thought I’d make use of the time and do some reading. I spotted a Life Magazine and an old Collier’s. Instead, I picked up an odd-looking little pamphlet called the Utne Reader. While flipping through it, I couldn’t find one single picture of a scantily clad dame. In fact, it was pretty much all words and no pictures, but I figured that maybe I could learn something while I cooled my heels.

 I noticed a good-looking brunette with long shapely legs sitting at her desk across the room, but she never even bothered to give me a nod. Just my luck these days.

Douglas Dutton was the owner of the bookstore in Brentwood.

 No sooner had I settled in with my Utne, when the door opened wide and Dutton walked in looking as if he had enjoyed a long night on the town. He went by “Douglas,” but I had my suspicions that he had been in another racket. Some guy told me that he played piano in a shadowy downtown club called the “Colburn” to help pay the rent on the store. But it wasn’t really any of my business what he did with his spare time.

We exchanged pleasantries and I asked if he had a wife and kids. He acted as if we were old pals and said, “Everybody’s okay. How about your family?” I snapped back, “That’s sort of private, but if you must know, I don’t have a wife or kids. In fact, I live in a seedy eight-by-twelve rundown office just off Sunset Boulevard that has bad lighting and heating, and I sleep on the couch.”

 Judging by the look on his face, I think I may have given him a little more information that he wanted.

 We chewed the fat for several minutes before breaking out the book catalog I wanted to palm off on him. I wasted no time in showing him the first book, “The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” He laughed out loud and slapped me on the back. “What else you got in that satchel?” I told him that it might have a fancy-schmancy title but assured him that it read like a dime-store novel.”

 The session went downhill from there. I reached into my coat pocket for my trusty flask and took a big swig of cheap whiskey a friend named Benny had pawned off on me after I’d done a favor for him down in San Pedro. I handed it to Dutton, and after tasting the vile booze, he shot me a harsh look. “I shoulda warned you,” I said apologetically.

 I ended up selling him a few upcoming books that I had read-up on and was surprised that he took my suggestions. Most of my pitches to him were little more than hunches, but in time, I would come to find out the whole rotten business was based on nothing but hunches.

 I knew deep down that I was just an old fashioned “Palooka” who probably should have stuck to being a gum-shoe and chasing shylocks. But I’d had some fun with this new gig, and decided I might just give it another few weeks and see if I could learn the game. Besides, my boss Consolino told me that even though the pay was lousy, I’d get all the free books I wanted.

 I stood up and took a good stretch. “Want some lunch? I haven’t eaten a square meal in days.” Dutton shot back, “Yea, there’s a cozy little spot nearby called The Red Door Café that serves a silky-smooth sarsaparilla, but I’ve got one question before we go. Do you ever take that fedora off your head, or do you sleep in it?”


 Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisades resident whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Waco Tribune-Herald. You can read more of his columns on his website:

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5 Responses to This Bookselling Caper Stirs Echoes of Philip Marlowe

  1. howard yonet says:

    great fun to read and that’s what I need nowadays

  2. Thomas M Meade says:

    Seems like a credible job runnin’ titles on
    Seventh St. downtown in L.A. Got another
    toke in that thing?

    Take him downtown.

  3. K says:

    Made my morning read!

  4. Laurie Sale says:


  5. M says:

    You do have a way with words, Bob….Thank you, great fun ALWAYS reading your articles. M

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