Devouring a Mystery by Vicki Doudera

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.

Not to bore you with the details, but the memory of those little insects just won’t die. Who knew that bookworms 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?

A tunnel in the pages of an Edgar Allen Poe paperback.

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.

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13 Responses to Devouring a Mystery by Vicki Doudera

  1. Nancy says:

    Great detective work Vicki!

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Wow! A whole mystery story right in the blog post.

    Having just this spring cleaned 35 boxes of books out of the garage at the Seafarer–and that’s just the garage, in prior purges we’ve taken perhaps triple that out of the basement and the first floor–(my husband and I believe we are the thin line between his mother and a featured role on Hoarders), I can attest that I have never, ever seen bookworms. Although I kind of like the idea that they exist–as along as I don’t have to see them.

  3. Gerry Boyle says:

    Great story! Lurid covers (I love 50s paperbacks) and books host to the larvae of none other than the death watch beetle. You can’t make this up, as they say.
    I know Bob Nelson, AKA Beetle Bob, professor of geology at Colby. You went to the right source. A meticulous scientist. And great sleuthing by the mystery writer!

  4. A postscript to the story… that Patricia Cornwell book from the sale was stamped with the bookstore where it was purchased. Name of the place? None other than THE BOOKWORM!

  5. Pj Schott says:

    Poor little worms. I hope someone led them to safety.

  6. Paul Doiron says:

    Great post, Vicki! I have to confess that I didn’t even know bookworms existed. I’ve seen my share of silverfish (silverfishes?), and I’ve lost some books and magazines to mice that wanted to make a nest from the paper. Now as we enter the digital age we have “worms” of a different sort that can destroy our eBooks —and our hard drives with them.

  7. That’s way too good not to use. I expect to see no less than five mysteries from Maine authors published in the next year or so wherein the heroes see “death watch beetles.”

  8. Marya Fleming-Daly says:

    Thanks Vicki! I now know where the phrase “book worm” originated!

  9. Timothy Hallinan says:

    GREAT post, Vicky. I’ve seen them, too, or at least a relative, in some books I left in my apartment in Phnom Penh for a couple of years, with no one going in to turn on the air-con or do anything except some cursory dusting and the occasional floor wash. The heat and humidity are apparently ideal for some kind of paper-boring worm. It was in half a dozen books, including (naturally) two of my own.

  10. Sarah Graves says:

    Maybe it’s just as well you didn’t get the beetle larvae, though. Because let’s say you did hatch them out…what then?

    I mean, unless you wanted to raise a colony of them. For some, uh, reason…


  11. Um, ick! The worst I’ve seen are silverfish, and I haven’t even seen any of them in years. Who knew?

  12. Robin Allen says:

    Count me among the ones who didn’t know about bookworms. And booklice? Never even heard the term before I read your post. And I’m kind of glad.

  13. Paul and Kathy — silverfish are almost worse than these little guys. The way they dart around really creeps me out. “My” worms just wriggled…
    Julia – you are right… death watch beetles are gonna be the new ladybugs…
    Marya, I expect you to tell all your friends in Massachusetts about this as well as our great blog!
    Tim — I think you should feel incredibly honored that bookworms chose YOUR book to devour. You are in the company of Daphne du Maurier and Edgar Allen Poe!
    Sarah — I could have a death watch beetle farm like those ant farms we had as kids!
    Robin — you are so right — LICE are way too creepy to contemplate, even booklice. YUCK.

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