Devouring a Mystery

On Saturday, I blew off my seven a.m. bike group and instead went yardsailing in Camden and Rockport with my mom and daughter Lexi.

(For those of you “from away,” yardsailing is alot like real sailing, except you don’t need any wind, nor do you need a boat.  Just lots of singles, the yard sale section of the newspaper, and a sense of adventure. And maybe a strong stomach, as you will see.)

We went to several fairly decent sales before hitting the motherlode at our last stop, a ramshackle farmhouse in a section of West Rockport called Rockville. We walked down a gravel driveway past piles of vintage fabric, discarded Tonka trucks, ruby glass desert dishes and antique tools toward a huge barn, scattered around which were close to fifty cardboard boxes overflowing with books.

We dove in. Quickly we ascertained that the owner of all of these books (now deceased) was an avid mystery reader. Sue Grafton, Robert Parker, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell — this reader had the big names, and she didn’t just have one or two, either. I picked up sixteen Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks — mainly because I adore the lurid covers — and my mother found Patricia Cornwell’s very first Kay Scarpetta, Post Mortem.

I came across an old paperback of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and asked Lexi if she’d read it. As she told me about seeing Hitchcock’s version of the movie, I flipped aimlessly through the pages, remembering Manderley, Maxim de Winter, and the awful Mrs. Danvers.

Then I recoiled in horror.

Three thumbnail-sized worms, nestled in little tunnels in the pages, were starting to wriggle awake.

Quickly I called my mother to come see. The three of us looked on amazed — and disgusted — as the insects writhed in surprise at the sudden shock of daylight. I tossed down the book, listened to Lexi announce that she was going to be sick, and paid one dollar for my bag of Erles.

Bookworms! Who knew that they really did exist?

On Monday, I told my friend Paul Joy about seeing the worms. Paul owns Stone Soup, a great little used bookstore in downtown Camden. He remarked that he’s encountered bookworms only once. Now this is a guy who’s schlepped old books around every single day for thirty years, and he’s only seen them once? I was starting to wish that I’d taken a picture.

It turns out that true bookworms are pretty rare. Wikipedia kind of pooh-poohs the very concept, saying that insects found inside books are most likely silverfish, cockroaches, or moths. No way! Not on my watch.

Unsatisfied with my online research, I contacted Bob Nelson from the Maine Entomological Society. (I have to say, you know you’ve got the right guy when his email address is “BeetleBob.”) Based on my excellent descriptions of the specimens, their tunnels, and their location within Rebecca (just before the costume ball) Bob was able to rule out several possible suspects. He agreed with me that the very idea of cockroaches and moths was ludicrous.  “What you have are definitely larvae,” he said. Bob noted that since this was an estate sale in Rockport, the materials weren’t coming in from outside — a.k.a. south of York — which conveniently eliminated termites. “Though you likely would have seen more than just three of them, and the pages would have been more riddled.” He squashed the idea of booklice as well. “Booklice and silverfish feed mainly on the glue in the bindings, not the paper.”

So what did I see? Bob believes I spotted the larvae of the death-watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum. He suggested that if I really wanted to be sure, I could put the specimens (and Rebecca) in a container and let them “hatch out.”

Ugh!  Can it get any better than this?

I actually went back to the scene of the sale late yesterday to see if I could find Rebecca and her hungry friends. I suppose you could say that the idea of continuing the experiment had gotten under my skin.  Unfortunately, the farmhouse was shuttered, quiet as a tomb.
A tomb where death-watch beetles are keeping a vigil.

An Edgar Allen Poe paperback shows bookworm tunneling.


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