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Blog > Book Review: The Documents in the Case

Hey guys, Ana here — maybe some of you have noticed that there’s a new person around in Postcrossing? Nicky (aka shanaqui) joined us a few months ago, helping us reply to your emails, moderating addresses and also writing some posts for the blog. They’re an avid book reader too, though the word “avid” doesn’t quite describe it… Nicky breathes books is more like it! 😊 With thousands of books on their bookshelves, we thought there might be a few there featuring letters, postcards or other mail-related topics… so we invited Nicky to write about those here on the blog. This is the first post of what will hopefully become a recurrent series, with regular suggestions for your own book queue or upcoming library visits. Enjoy! – Ana

Since we came up with this idea for a series of posts, I’ve been ransacking my shelves for books about the mail and also for epistolary novels—and stacking up my massive to-read pile with a few more, of course…

A view of just part of my book collection.
A view of just part of my book collection…

So what did I pick as the first book to talk about? Well… People who’ve heard of Dorothy L. Sayers usually know her as a mystery writer who created the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, and most of her mystery books revolve around Lord Peter. Fewer have heard of her epistolary mystery, The Documents in the Case!

Cover of The Documents in the Case

I wasn’t sure how exciting a mystery which almost entirely consists of collected letters and written documents could be. Confession letters are pretty common (in mystery fiction, at least!)… but it’s hard to see how that could make an impressive mystery. Writing lacks the immediacy of a room full of suspects! I didn’t really expect much, to be honest.

I’m a big fan of Lord Peter, though, and in those books there are some letters from a fantastic character (Miss Climpson). If you’re a fan of mysteries, I recommend those books as well! For the ones where Miss Climpson sends her gossipy, character-packed letters, try Unnatural Death and Strong Poison. In any case, that should’ve been a clue to me…

In The Documents in the Case, there’s just a bit of a frame narrative to explain the collection: the letters and documents (they’re not quite all letters) have been gathered together to show evidence for the crime. Almost all the evidence in the story consists of letters, and though nobody writes a confession as such, every single letter is a confession in its own way, laying bare the prejudices, beliefs and foibles of the characters. Here’s an example:

“Dear Olive: I have been much surprised and deeply hurt by Ronnie’s letter to me, which I enclose for you to see. I cannot believe that he would have written in that spirit of his own accord. I can only suppose that you and Tom have been prejudicing him against me. Of course, he is your child and not mine, but it is quite a mistake to imagine that, merely because of the physical accident of parenthood, you are, for that reason, divinely qualified to deal with a sensitive temperament like Ronnie’s.”

It goes on like that! Miss Agatha Milsom is quite a character, as you can tell.

If you think about it, our own letters are pretty revealing: I know I put something of myself even into my short postcards, chatting about what I’m reading and the area where I live. Sayers just takes it to extremes in The Documents in the Case, and reading it is a bit of a voyeuristic thrill. She said what?! He did what?! Doesn’t she realise…

It’s not all like that, though: there are also some rather sweet and funny letters. Sayers seems to take joy in portraying true companionship and joy, as well as the darker and more ridiculous sides of people. One of the characters, Jack Munting, writes several exuberant letters to his fiancée, and the murder victim writes a couple of letters to his son, all full of understated affection. Honestly, those personal letters might be my favourite part of the whole thing.

Cover of 84 Charing Cross Road

The mystery itself actually hangs on outside evidence, which is a little disappointing after the promise of all those letters… but it’s still very clever, the character studies are great, and I ended up enjoying every minute! It’s not the #1 mystery novel I’d recommend, but I think it’s worth a look.

To help me research for future posts, we’d love to hear more about the books you love which feature letters or anything mail-related! We’re hoping my next reviews for this blog will be Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, and I’m also planning to refresh my memory on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and a couple of other classics… but what else would you recommend, postcrossers?

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59 comments so far

Geminiscp, Portugal
Welcome, Nicky! :)

I LOVE books too but never heard about The Documents in the case, it's on my wishlist now!

About letters, I loved the book from Frederik Backman "My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry". I prefer to read classic books but this one was offered and it was a nice surprise!
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wifetoalineman, United States of America
I am a bookworm myself and books is one of my favorite theme to receive. I haven't read that yet. I will check it out.
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sakura_san, Germany
hi nicky - a very nice topic you choose!
the epistolary novel that immediately comes to my mind is the classic "dangerous liaisons" (les liaisons dangereuses) by the french pierre choderlos de laclos first published in 1782.
enjoy reading!
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melilot, France
A brilliant and totally subjective essay about postcards, but I'm not sure it's translated : Théorie de la carte postale, by Sébastien Lapaque, who is a writer and a journalist at Le Figaro.
Really interesting and you feel all the time the same thoughts any postcrosser had one day, although the author doesn't even know about postcrossing, I'm almost sure.

About letters: I can think of letters written by Madame de Sévigné, mainly to her daughter. This is a classic here. There is a "Festival de la Correspondance" in the south each year, since 25 years in Grignan, where she lived.
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Indreni, United States of America
Love epistolary novels and adding this one to my list!! Griffin and Sabine series is my recommendation, of course! And Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society....
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picketfence4, United States of America
What a wonderful PC Topic! Thank you, Nicky.

I have not read this Dorothy Sayers book, but I have read Gaudy Night. She was a peer to Agatha Christie, writing in the late 1800s forward. They are certainly two different mystery writers, but both fantastic. I'm trying to think of a Christie novel with this topic...hmmm.....

The books are all going on my Books to Read list! Thank you everyone!
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ezredax, United States of America
HI,

Here is a book by Beverly Lewis where the Postcard helps solve a mystery.
The Postcard .
A chance discovery by Philip of a postcard written in illegible Pennsylvania Dutch in the dresser of his room sets off a series of events that leads him into the heart of the Amish life and to the bedside of a mysterious woman known as "The Storyteller."

A small glimpse of Amish life.

Enjoy the day and stay safe,
Demaris
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-Cool-, Philippines
The Screwtape Letters, a novel by C. S. Lewis!!!!
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Shashidar, India
Hi
I just love this blog and appreciate the hard work put in this.
I would like you to make a blog about the howlers and postage by owl in the series 'HARRY POTTER' Because lets face it guys we would all love a owl to deliver our postcards and imagine if a owl like hedgewig delivers our mail .
Happy Postcrossing and praying you remain safe
Regards
B Shashidar Pai
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PtiSchti, Netherlands
Hoi hoi,

I recommend you the book with the letters of Vincent van Gogh.
The letters testify in a compelling style of his eventful short life,
of his close relationship with his brother and confidant Theo,
his desire to become a Gospel servant
and his difficult progress to grow into a modern artist.

The letters also contain many sketches with preliminary studies of his famous paintings.

Enjoy reading all the beautiful recommended bboks everybody!
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Jacob, India
I would like to recommend "Letters from a Father to his daughter " by Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a collection of letters written by him during his term in prison to his daughter, describing his views on India and fatherly love😍😍.
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HarryVedge, United Kingdom
Hello
It's been a while since I read it but isn't Dracula written as a series of letters?
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bigred398, Canada
Looking forward to see what is exciting and new with different kinds of books. I love reading so will be interesting to hear about other people’s choices. Never read any of Dorothy Sayers books,so I am now on the hunt. Thanks!
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RutterFamily, United States of America
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is an epistalory time travel novella. Two time traveling agents from different sides of a time war leave each other letters encoded into different elements of their environment. The fun part is El-Mohtar wrote one of the characters and Gladstone wrote the other! (It's even nominated for a Hugo Award this year.)
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Ineminemutte, Belgium
Welcome Nicky, nice book review! Some book ideas which feature (mysterious) mail:
- (I am) the messenger by Markus Zusak
- The coming of Joachim Stiller by Hubert Lampo
- The letter for the king by Tonke Dragt
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WriScri, United States of America
I just ordered these books from the library!
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Verona10, United Kingdom
Welcome Nicky,
I recently read: "60 Postcards" by Rachael Chadwick
It's the heartfelt and uplifting story of how a project to scatter 60 Postcards in memory of her mother helped a young girl come to terms with her loss.
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RalfH, Germany
The epistolary novel "Address unknown" by Katherine Kressmann Taylor would also be a candidate for this topic, I think.
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Gen24, United States of America
So awesome! Look forward to more of these!
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DarCal, United States of America
Welcome Nicky! Wonderful idea.

That's funny, only two days ago I posted on my IG account about "84, Charing Cross Road" (https://www.instagram.com/p/CCURkc3HYna)! 😄 That book is a little treasure.
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ctr, Germany
Recently I read the book "I too have lived!" with letters of the penfriends Astrid Lindgren and Louise Hartung. It is a document in the beginning of the career of Pippi Longstocking's author and of the post-war period in Europe. I loved to read it!
Unfortunately it is only available in Swedish and German.
https://www.astridlindgren.com/en/book/i-too-have-lived
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buckwriter, Italy
Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock, Had a good time by Butler
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buckwriter, Italy
If you search for a book reviewer I would be glad to collaborate with you! ❤️
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Brigi, Hungary
Oh my goodness, Dorothy L. Sayers is one of my absolute favourite writers, so it's been such a pleasure reading your post!

Another epistolary novel I love is "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Schaffer. The film adaptation is lovely as well. :)
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roryswife, Canada
Looking forward to more! Great idea.
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Mosshumla, Sweden
Greetings from one "bokslukare" (devorer of books) to another!
I love Dorothy Sayer's Wimsey-books, so I was a bit disappointed when finding out that "The Documents in the Case" doesn't feature Lord Peter, and I've only read it once. Should maybe give it a second read?
I'm looking forward to your reviews of Helene Hanff’s "84 Charing Cross Road" and Terry Pratchett’s "Going Postal". I've read both books (several times) and absolutely love them.
Another book I like, which is written entirely in letters is Jean Webster's "Daddy Longlegs".
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Demmi, Romania
Welcome, Nicky aka shanaqui

I L ❤️ VE books too, I am a booklover!
Thanks for the above recommendation "The Documents in the case", it's on my raedinglist now!

Stay safe & healthy!
Happy Postcrossing & Happy Readings!
O :D
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Tera_Ecau, Germany
Thanks you very much for this interesting blog post! I love to read! :)

When it comes to epistolary books, I am not well-read. Though, the novel "Anne of Windy Poplars" by L. M. Montgomery straigtly comes to my mind. This novel is part of the "Anne of Green Gables" series. In this novel Anne writes letters to her intended Gilbert Blythe & telling him about her life & teaching at the high school in Summerside, Prince Edward Island (CA).

As of childrens books,there are the books about the rabbit Felix, that actually is cuddly toy. His owner Sophie regularly loses Felix when she is outside. During this time Felix travels and sends Sophie letters in which he tells her about his experiences.
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Melissa987, United States of America
You should read "On Agate Hill" by American writer Lee Smith. The book is told solely through documents, including a child's diary, letters, a school teacher's notes, court testimony, and an old woman's journal. The audiobook version of the book is well done too.
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Melissa987, United States of America
Also, the nonfiction memoir "I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" by Caitlin Alifirenky, Liz Welch, and Martin Ganda (about a penpalship between an American girl and a Zimbabwean boy). It's not told through the letters, though you get to hear some of them, but it definitely is a testament to the power of connecting across the world through postal mail.
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tumbleweed, Germany
I would like to add "Postcards" by E. Annie Proulx. It is, however, not a book with happy endings.
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josephvm, India
Thanks a lot for sharing. Added this book to my Goodreads list. :)
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Heepy, United States of America
I would like to recommend "Postcards from the Boys" by Ringo Starr. Now, there's a collector's edition, signed by Ringo and worth thousands that comes with a replica of a red metal British post office box, but they also sell regular copies in the places where you buy books.
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k8cre8, United States of America
I am looking forward to reading these! I love books, too. There's a book called "Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards"
by Robert Olen Butler. It's a collection of short stories inspired by old postcards. I admit, I think I liked the postcards *better* before I read the stories. There's also "13 Little Blue Envelopes," which is a series of letters bequeathed, but, not mailed. I enjoyed that one (it's light summer/travel rom/com stuff). There's one that was a sequel to this, but, it was forgettable. There's also "Postcards From the Edge" by Carrie Fisher, and while there are bits of correspondence between the main character and others, there is sadly, a lack of postcards. It's really a book about overcoming addiction in Hollywood, may not be for everyone.
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k8cre8, United States of America
Oh! There's "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" which is a mystery and it launches a series for young Flavia de Luce. The mystery involves stamp collecting (and there's a skewered Penny Red on the cover) By Alan Bradley
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LKarnof, United States of America
I just read "Sam's Letters to Jennifer" by James Patterson. It is a love story. I am an avid reader of many genres and I have an unending supply of books - I own a used book store!! Happy reading and thanks for sharing.
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Phibatola, Greece
The guernsey literary and potato peel pie society is all in the form of letters. I loved it
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Talal90Ahmed, Iraq
جميل
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beesknees, United States of America
The Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock are great - specifically highlighting postcards, and the artwork is very cool.
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AlixW, United States of America
I am a middle-school librarian and I recommend From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks for anyone about 10+. I am reading it out loud to a group of 11-12 year olds this summer. It's not exactly a mystery, but the story is partly told through a series of letters that Zoe writes to her birth father, who is in prison for a crime that he says he's innocent of. Zoe decides to find out the truth. Very timely and also just a good book!
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triplightly, United States of America
Very enjoyable post and I have my copy of "documents" on order. Another amazing book about letters is "Letters Of Note" by Shawn Usher. It contains letters from present day to some over 1000 years old! A real page turner.
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Cathygg, United States of America
Greetings! What a great idea and I love all the new book ideas. Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of "60 Postcards"
I do not know if these books would fit this description you are asking for:
The Phantom of the Post Office - 43 Old Cemetery Road
Author: Kate Klise (childrens book) and The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright. I have read the previous two books but not The Wedding Letters by Jason F Wright.
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reiselustig, Germany
Very impressive is the novel "Address unknown" by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. In letters it describes the comunication between two friends and business partners between 1932 and 1934.. They are both Germans and have a business in the US - after one of them returns to Germany (where the novel starts), they write letters to each other - more and more it becomes obvious, that he develops to be a Nazi (his friend who stayed in USA is jewish...) - it is a really impressive although quite short novel!
Rather "light" to read on holiday is the book "Die Liebesbriefe von Montmarte" by Nicolas Barreau (I think in English: Love letters from Paris). Julien is depressed becaus his wife died, but he made him promise to write a letter each year to her after her death and deposit them in her gravestone...someday they are vanished... And then there is the book "The last letter from your lover" by Jojo Moyes. If you like the way she tells her stories, you will like this book as well!
Have fun while reading!
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Luziaceleste, Brazil
Nice to read Nicky's tips and all these suggestions from postcrossers.
More! More!
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Florallle, United Kingdom
I adore the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, so was mystified as to why this wasn't familiar. It turns out, I've never looked beyond Lord Peter. Will search this one out....And will look through the other tips later. I'm going to enjoy this. 😊
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noranora, Latvia
Victoria Hislop Cartes Postales from Greece
Week after week, the postcards arrive, addressed to someone Ellie does not know, signed with A.
Ellie goes to Greece and travels the country
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blossom61, United States of America
Lawrence Block has a series featuring "KELLER" who is a hit man and....a stamp collector. So, many times in those KELLER books (short stories and novels) Keller will go to a stamp show and buy stamps, talk to dealers, work on his stamp albums, etc...all while also working on his career as a hit man. (the people he is after are typically bad people).
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surfclub66, United States of America
Back in the 80s, I developed my love of sending and receiving mail from the middle grade novel called Tough Luck Karen, in which Karen has pen pals that she writes and her teacher helps her to translate her love of writing letters to better understanding her schoolwork. It was a great read and I started writing pen pals after that.
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doryfera, Canada
OMG! Someone else who loves Miss Climpson! She is honestly the most wonderful creation of Dorothy L. Sayers - and so savvy and brave, despite her scattered-sounding demeanour. Of course, maybe she was emulating Lord Peter in that ;) Protective colouration, what ho!

I'm not a big fan of the epistolary format when the novel is made entirely of letters, so it has to be immediately immersive. I adored "Lady Susan" (such a deliciously wicked heroine!) and was thrilled when it was adapted as "Love and Friendship" - although I'm still upset about the title change! It should have stayed "Lady Susan"! Young Jane Austen really let her love of absurdity go to town in that one.

One of my fave novels is "Red Shift" by Alan Garner. It's considered a YA novel, but it's actually very demanding (a lot of the dialogue is unattributed so you have to pay close attention to the back-and-forth of conversation, and in many cases infer what's happening - such as a sex scene that happens between two lines of dialogue!). I mention this novel here because it ends with a letter that's written in cipher (IIRC it's the de Vigenère cipher), from one main character to the other. Nowadays you can just look up the decoded version on the Internet, easy-peasy; but I think the author meant the reader to be motivated enough to do the hard work of decoding it on their own (he provides the decode phrase en passant in the novel and it's really not that hard). In fact, the first phrase of the letter is, "If you can read this, you must care" - very meta! I remember the thrill I felt when I decoded it (thank you, Encyclopedia Brittanica), and the second thrill I felt when I realized how the contents of the letter changed the ending of the book.
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cspt, United States of America
I also really enjoyedthe nonfiction memoir "I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" by Caitlin Alifirenky, Liz Welch, and Martin Ganda
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mudwasp, Canada
Any and all of the Griffin & Sabine series. It is a great series and one of the most creatively written books I have ever read. Absolutely loved them. I thought it would be difficult to read, but the unusual nature of the books was integral to the enjoyment of the experiential story.
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AC_2020, India
I loved your blog, Nicky. I am a voracious reader too.One of my favourite was "Dear Enemy" by Jean Webster, when i was a kid. "Meet me at the museum" by Anne Youngson is also nice.
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Isab, Germany
Hello Nicky,
if you love books, you will love "The city of dreaming books" from walter moers! It is a fantasy book and a declaration of love to all books!
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R_PostX, United States of America
"84, Charing Cross Road" is one of my favorites! Another book that Postcrossers might enjoy is “Dear Data” by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, who are information designers. They mailed weekly postcards to each other for a year, compiling and presenting curious personal data.

I also recommend “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed, a compilation of letters to an advice columnist, along with incredible replies. I thoroughly enjoyed “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger and Hope” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, which details Barack Obama’s practice of reading ten constituent letters each day, and the Office of Presidential Correspondence, which supported the process.

Also: “Meet Me at the Museum” by Anne Youngson, and “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” by Simon Garfield.
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tj4heels, United States of America
Love this post and reading everyone's suggestions! I've added them all to my "books to read" list.
Two favorites for me: "On Agate Hill" by Lee Smith, and "Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind' Letters" byRichard Harwell.
Happy reading everyone!
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marybeergarden, United States of America
"Post Office" by Charles Bukowski
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reiselustig, Germany
I don't know, if you are still reading the comments - but this week I got "Du wirst an dem Tag erwachsen, an dem du deinen Eltern verzeihst by Girard Salem" into my fingers and read it on one day.. I don't know if there is an english translation, the french original title is "Tu deviens adulte le jour ou tu pardonnes a te parents" - it is completely written in letters and shows the strength of handwritten letters to change the attitudes and patterns of conflict within a family. It really got me! Very different from what I know.
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LC-Canada, Canada
A few people have mentioned Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine series (7 books) but no one has really described them. These books first got me interested in writing letters & postcards to other people.

These 7 books are a correspondence between Griffin & Sabine over 25 years. The author is an amazing visual artist & graphic designer who made fascinating & gorgeous actual letters, postcards & envelopes, written from all over the world, that are on each page of the books & must be opened to be read.

Reading them is like coming across a pack of saved letters from 2 people written at different places & times in their lives & you are listening in on their conversations.

All of these books, in English only sadly, are still available from online sellers & his later books are often amazing too with mysteries, puzzles & amazing art. Enjoy!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Griffin_and_Sabine_Saga

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/griffin-and-sabine-creator-nick-bantock-on-the-end-of-an-epic-correspondence/article29391999/
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maxcat1, United States of America
Thank you for expanding my book list!

I have two recommendations:
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore -- a captivating view of ordinary life in 1700 Colonial America as compiled through letters written to/from Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce -- a real life crime story which documents how the United States' Postal Inspection Service tracked postage stamps and letters in order to break up a major mafia ring.

Cheers!
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