When Elmore Leonard died last summer, most obits mentioned that he started his writing career as an author of Westerns, before moving on to the crime novels he will be best remembered for.
After his debut The Bounty Hunters in 1953, and 1954's The Law At Randado, the third of these Westerns – Leonard's third novel – was Escape From Five Shadows, a gritty tale of wrongful imprisonment and, well, escape, set in what this enthusiastic review calls a "stinking dead end part of Arizona". The reviewer goes on to praise the "remarkable picture of the old Arizona West that Leonard paints for the reader. The smells of horse, leather and dust get in your nostrils." Sounds great.
Leonard was around long enough, and had/has enough of a dedicated following, to have become a 'collected' writer. While even signed first edition copies of his later novels can be found for reasonable amounts, hardcover firsts of those early Westerns command serious figures. While they did most of their business as paperbacks, short runs of hardcovers were printed, mainly to go into libraries. As a result, most copies that have survived are ex-library, with all the stamps/pockets/missing endpapers that usually entails. Such are their rarity though, and so sky-high are the prices of unadulterated non-library copies, that ex-library copies are nevertheless collected, and even they go for several hundreds of dollars.
A Houghton Mifflin 1956 hardcover first edition of Escape From Five Shadows will currently set you back from $400 for an ex-library copy to $5,000 for a near fine copy with laid-in author signature (ie a signed bit of paper which has been added to the book to enhance value; it's not a book Leonard physically signed himself).
Even rarer than that US first edition is its UK equivalent, again printed in very, very small quantities (probably only a few hundred), mainly for libraries, by Robert Hale in 1957.
The only copy of the Hale edition for sale online anywhere as far as I can see is this one. It is in good shape, it's not ex-library, and it's signed to the title page. A superior copy then. The seller, Royal Books Inc of Boston describes it as:
"A very presentable copy of what is, in our experience, perhaps the author's rarest title, much more difficult than the already-scarce American edition published by Houghton Mifflin. Leonard's third novel, a Western, the only copy we have ever seen."
The asking price? A cool $6,500.
So, how to price the copy of this same edition which has recently arrived at Withnail Books? It was acquired from a collector (along with many other books of which more anon, including a little cache of early Leonard paperbacks, many signed), so it is not a 'charity shop find'. The collector had owned it long enough that he'd forgotten what he paid for it, and anyway, that price would be long out of date.
What's it worth today? Well, as always with 'modern firsts', condition is key. This copy is in what its author would probably describe as 'beat up' condition. It's ex-library. It has stamps, it's missing its front free endpaper (and possibly its half-title, if it had one; it's hard to tell) and the binding has cracked inside. But... it has a pretty much complete unclipped dust jacket (albeit with a library label on the spine and a bit of card reinforcing the back), and it 'displays well' as the bookseller lingo goes. Plus, it's very, very, very rare. This is currently your only choice if you're a Leonard completist without a spare $6,500.
Obviously, this copy is not worth anywhere near $6,500. But again I wonder, what is a fair asking price? At the end of the day, it's worth what somebody is prepared to pay for it. I have an idea of what that might be, but for the next couple of weeks... I'm open to offers. Drop me line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested, or would like a list of the other Leonard titles I have for sale, which, like this book, have not been listed anywhere yet. Below are a bunch of photos of the copy, and I have yet more angles should anybody wish to see them.
I should mention that the lighting used to take these photos made everything come out rather yellow: the whites are whiter and the reds redder in 'real life'.
To finish, any excuse to be able to reprint this (thanks to Mashable for the jpeg):