“At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery.”

If you are a book lover and ever find yourself in the vicinity of King’s Cross, London (assuming non-pandemic times), I urge you to drop into the British Library. The reading rooms and the knowledge you’re sharing space with every book ever published in the UK in the last few hundred years are enough, but there’s also the Treasures Room. Here you’ll find some truly remarkable literary gems including an original copy of the First Folio, the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and the only surviving copy of Beowulf. Surrounded by such magic, it’s easy to wonder what it would be like to own such rarities. For some people, however, this goes beyond a mere thought exercise.

John Gilkey is notorious among sellers of antiquarian books. A continual thief, he has used dud cheques and falsified credit card information to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of literature over several years. Allison Hoover Bartlett learns about him after finding herself in possession of a stolen four-hundred year old German book on botanical medicine, and developing an interest in the world of antiquarian book theft. Discovering that more books are stolen than any other kind of art, she gets in touch with Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” who has been working for years to return stolen books to their owners and get the thieves locked up. His particular obsession is Gilkey, whom Bartlett eventually meets and interviews, only to learn that he is not your usual bibliophile. Soon, she is drawn into a world of book lust and obsessive collecting that is insightful, tense, bizarre and entirely true.

While the collectors and sellers are all interesting people, it is Gilkey who really stands out as someone very unusual. He is absolutely unable to tell himself that what he’s doing is wrong, believing that it’s the sellers fault for pricing him out of the market. He acts as if it is his god-given right to own these books, and it doesn’t matter how he goes about doing it. He is working the system, and it’s all fair because he wants them. The gymnastics of logic he is performing are quite something. Allison Hoover Bartlett doesn’t portray him as a straight-up villain, and at times even seems to have some admiration for the sheer bravado of her subject, but I don’t think at any point she considers him doing the right thing. No one would, I’d wager. He’s a curiously beguiling man, though, with an obsession for collection but no apparent appreciation for anything he is collecting. I don’t recall at any point him mentioning a book he’s actually read – he just wants the status that comes with owning them. Little is made of his psychology, but I suspect there is some emotional instability here.

If anything, you realise that if you’re not somehow involved in the antiquarian book industry, you’re in a mug’s game. Although the chances of finding something truly rare are small, and you’re always at risk of people like Gilkey, the money involved here is absolutely staggering. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – only twenty-three years old at time of writing – can be worth around $30,000 as only five hundred were printed. Even a first edition of The Cat in the Hat is worth around $9,000, and if we go back further, an copy of the first trade edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be worth anywhere up to $100,000. Signed copies can swell prices even further, while the loss of a dust jacket can reduce the book’s worth to one tenth of its value. Staggering amounts in anyone’s book.

This truly is a world of people who love books, and I’m one of them, but quite sadly none of them ever seem to get read. They are collected as historical artefacts, and while I agree that books should be kept, preserved and treasured as they are links to previous eras, it is quite sad that they never get to live out their intended purpose. That’s beside the point though. This is an absolutely stunning work of non-fiction, fascinating and suspenseful, and anyone who loves books would get a kick out of it. Because haven’t we all wondered what we’d do if we found a Hemingway first edition at the flea market?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!