Not long ago I reacquired the print and electronic rights to three Matthew Scudder novels that had gone out of print. With the capable assistance of my friends at Telemachus Press, I’ve brought them out as eBooks, and over the past several weeks they’ve received a heartening reception on Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. (Apple takes a little longer, but in a week or so you’ll find them there as well.)

And, in a matter of weeks, they’ll also be available as handsome trade paperbacks, similar in format to The Night and the Music. But this is not the time to ballyhoo those editions. I’ll do so relentlessly when the time comes, but now I want tell you instead about the persistent endurance of a noisome textual error.

aaaStabinDarkI spent all of today proofreading the PDF file of A Stab in the Dark, the fourth Scudder novel, the book that introduces Jan Keane, the book where Scudder is first faced with the notion that his drinking just might be problematic. Arbor House published it in 1981, and it has been reprinted in a slew of paperback editions by a batch of publishers.

Today was my third reading of the book in the past couple of months. I wrote it long before I had a computer, but it wasn’t necessary to have an OCR scan of the text, as I managed to obtain a digital file. That file, however, was of the UK version, with bits of dialogue surrounded by ‘ and ‘ rather than ” and “. This can be changed by means of a global-search-and-replace, but what you wind up with requires a good going-over, as there’s a lot that can go wrong. (You ain”t seen nothin” yet, folks.)

So I spent a day or two reading and correcting the word.doc file. Then, after it was formatted for Kindle, I read the whole thing through again, and found things I’d missed the first time, plus some new glitches that had arisen during the formatting process. When I was done, my changes were entered and the eBooks in their several formats were published, and now, today, I was reading a PDF of the book formatted in pages, exactly as it will appear in the printed book.

I did find a few typos I’d somehow missed. Well for wall, means for meant, a word or two left out. And then, remarkably, I found this paragraph:

I nodded. “And Lynn London’s been married and divorced,
and half the neighbors on Wyckoff Street have
moved somewhere or other. It’s as though every wind on
earth’s been busy blowing sand on top of her grave. I
know Americans lead mobile lives. I read somewhere
that every year twenty percent of the country changes its
place of residence. Even so, it’s as though every wind on
earth’s been busy blowing sand on top of her grave. It’s
like digging for Troy.”

That’s not a bad line, about the wind blowing the sand on top of the woman’s grave, but you wouldn’t think Matt would feel the need to say it more than once in a paragraph. I’d read the paragraph, and every other paragraph in the book, twice in the past couple of months, and I couldn’t believe I’d somehow swallowed all that sand without noticing a thing.

Could some gremlin had added it since my last reading? I checked the eBook version, and saw that I’d somehow failed to notice it in either of my two passes over the text. Well, eBooks can be fixed after the fact, and Claudia at Telemachus could make the correction even as she got the print version in proper shape.

Hang on. We’re just getting to the good part.

See, I studied the paragraph, and it seemed clear to me that the first wind-and-sand line was the one to cut. But why not make sure? So I went and hauled out my copy of the Arbor House hardcover first edition and checked.

And there was the full paragraph, just as I quoted it above, with both sentences about the wind blowing the sand on Barbara Ettinger’s grave. That, evidently, is how I wrote it over thirty years ago. And that’s how it’s been ever since, sailing past Jared Kieling, my editor at Arbor House, and their copy editor, and their proofreader, and everybody else who’s been involved with the book over the years.

How could that happen?

For that matter, how come I finally spotted it?

Never mind. I sent off my list of seven corrections, and the PDF will be amended accordingly before it goes to the printer. Then they’ll pull a proof copy of the book and send it to me, and I’ll read it one more time, and at this point it wouldn’t surprise me a great deal to find something else that’s wrong with it.