This is going to be a little cheeky, since as of time of writing I haven't finished the book I want to recommend to Bookhounds Keepers: Thieves of Book Row (New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring And The Man Who Stopped It), by Travis McDade. My copy's the 2013 Oxford Uni Press paperback.
OK, there are now two books and two books only I highly recommend if you want to run Bookhounds of London, and both are about the US book trade. Frustrating, I know. I work with what I've got.
The first is Ruth Brown Park's Book Stores and How to Run Them. The second is Travis McDade's Thieves.
I want to say right up front that this is an academic text. That means, as you might expect, the text is occasionally dry. However the subject's a kicker, and Travis McDade's a clear and clever writer. He's not going to pound you to death with polysyllables or bore you silly with academic trivia. These are thieves, bad guys, the villains of the piece.
They come off the page just as bad as you'd hope.
Sneaks with lists and capacious coats or bags, they drift from library to library looking for likely targets. Once stolen any identifying marks are cut away or, if they're prepared to take a little care, bleached right off the page. Then off they go to the booksellers, more or less witting conspirators in the trade, and sell their loot for a fraction of its value. It's a trade that continues to this day, though of course the methods have changed since the 1920s and 30s.
You will never look at libraries the same way again. Constantly under siege, they had to develop extraordinary protocols to keep their books safe - and even the most secure, like the NYPL, suffered losses. If ever there was a setting for a particular kind of heist movie, this is it.
I'm not going to go into the hows, whos or whats because, as hinted in the opening paragraph, I haven't finished the blasted thing yet. Just take it from me, if you like this setting you will find at least a dozen period story ideas in the first two or three chapters. Edwin White Gaillard's career alone is worth its weight in plot gold.
What I will do is steal a throwaway bit from the early chapters and give you a plot seed.
At the end of his work, Gaillard came to believe that at least three men were operating together as a sort of book theft team. One man did the initial investigating of the library, another did the stealing, and a third stole the books ...
Three Blind Mice
The London trade knows them as Percy, Blunt and Nash, though they have half a dozen different identities. Legend has it they met during the war when all three flew for the jolly old RFC, and later teamed up as thieves when civilian life turned out to be less than they'd hoped. Whether or not this is true they're closer than brothers, and just about the most efficient book thieves the characters know.
Percy always pretends to be clergy, and scouts out the job. He's the one who poses as almost blind, so he has an excuse to totter around and ask questions. Blunt, gifted with a face that remains perpetually young, is the one who actually steals the stuff. He pretends to be a fellow of Oxford, Cambridge or, in a pinch, Trinity. The stuff vanishes into his capacious carrying case, which is equipped with several hidden pockets. Nash is the dealer. To the outside world he's a Dilettante with occult leanings who 'inherited' his collection, parts of which he occasionally sells to fund other purchases. He has a rather nice house in Bloomsbury, where he hosts parties and generally bolsters his reputation as a well-heeled lover of literature.
There's not many places they won't go to make a score. On more than one occasion they've gone by boat and train to the Continent, but their knowledge of libraries private and public in the UK is prodigious.
Rumor has it the three are, if not falling out, certainly at risk of a rift. This makes everyone nervous. If one of them should peach to the authorities it won't just be the Blind Mice who suffer. Everyone they've sold a hooky first edition to - including the Hounds - might find themselves up before the beak for receiving stolen goods. Embarrassing, certainly - the sort of Downfall a shop might not recover from.
What upset the Three Blind Mice?
- A recent theft proved toxic, when one of the Mice read a section of the Cultes des Ghoules. Now they have an appetite for human flesh, and though they're trying to keep their impulses in check it isn't going well. The other two are trying to help but realize the consequences if they fail are severe, so they're simultaneously planning exit strategies. The two who aren't tainted won't say which one of them is.
- One of them has started dealing on the side to a prominent member of one of London's cults. It might be the Brotherhood of the Pharaoh, Keirecheires or some other organized group, but the key point is they're dangerous as hell and the Mouse didn't appreciate how dangerous until they were already in the trap. The other two are furious and looking for a way out, but they don't want to leave their pal in the soup if they can help it. Meanwhile the cult is aiming the Blind Mice at their most valuable prize to date, and the consequences if they fail are unthinkable. That said, the Hounds are just as interested in the prize as the cult is, and if they're clever about it they might be able to sneak off with the loot - so long as they don't mind leaving the Mice to rot.
- There are no Mice. There is one Mouse with three faces, that he (?) got through eating the other two's brains years ago. That worked fine for a long while, but nothing lasts forever. The Mouse is losing grip on at least one of its personalities, and wants to ditch its failing personas for younger models. Plausible, bookish models. After all, it doesn't do to abandon a con game it's been working for so many years. Perhaps some fresh faces can be found in the marketplace. One or more of the Hounds may find themselves targeted by the surviving Mouse, as potential replacements ...