The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton was first published in 1956, the first of eight Sally and Johnny Heldar mysteries. The first thing that struck me was the title: shouldn’t “ghost” be plural?
As it turns out, no. The “Two Hundred” refers to an address, 200 Charing Cross Road in London. In the 1950s, Charing Cross was the domain of a slew of bookstores – Foyle’s, used book shops, antiquarian bookstores, and more. It was a book lover’s paradise. Even today, 70 years later, it still boasts of a considerable number of shops.
The “Two Hundred” of the title is the address of Heldar’s Antiquarian Bookstore, one of the venerable book businesses of London. Johnny Heldar is one of several Heldar family members working there, continuing the family’s long-time involvement in the business. Sally Merton (before she becomes Sally Heldar) works in the front shop, deftly handling customers and directing them to the appropriate person. Members of the firm are keeping a wary eye out; a number of thefts of valuable rare books have been reported up and down the street.
A few staff members have reported seeing a ghost on the upper floors, a white figure who appears and then vanishes. The ghost talk is discouraged, until a particularly unliked staff member (with the appropriate last name of Butcher) is found in his office, stabbed to death. The police believe the murderer is inside the firm, and suspicion falls upon one of the family members. Johnny and Sally, however, know the police are wrong, and they work quietly together to investigate the case on their own. What they learn is that there’s a possible tie-in to the book thefts.
A mystery involving rare and antiquarian books became Hamilton’s theme for the remaining seven novels in the series, and Sally and Johnny Heldar (they eventually marry) were popular sleuthing couple in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Henrietta Hamilton was the pseudonym for Hester Dunne Shepherd (1920-1995). A native of Dundee, she earned an honors degree in Modern Languages at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. She served in the Wrens in World War II, and after the war worked at a bookstore in London, where she learned the antiquarian book trade. She also wrote nine other novels, none of which were published.
The Two Hundred Ghost would definitely be classified as a “cozy” mystery today. The violence is safely off-stage, and the solution depends upon a twist at the end. But it’s a fun, intriguing story, with a little bit of romance and a lot of interesting information about the rare book trade.
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