Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Anthony Boucher's Dozen Best Mystery Novels of 1950

How did the influential American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher see the state of things in the world of mystery as the twentieth century hit its halfway mark?  Well, let's look at his choices for the best mystery novels of the year:

note at bottom Christie tribute blurbs
from  Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr
A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie (among her best)

Blues for the Prince, by Bart Spicer (rich and moving picture of the world of jazz music, in semi-tough manner)

Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey (high straight-novel characterization combined with solid detection)

Frightened Amazon, by Aaron Marc Stein (vivid study of unusual folkways)

Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong (psychologically valid and purely terrifying)

The Bride of Newgate, by John Dickson Carr (the familiar--and incomparable--Carr virtues in the new form of a historical romance)

The Case of the Negligent Nymph, by Erle Stanley Gardner (there were only three Gardners this year; this is the best)

before Macdonald was merely "Ross"
The Drowning Pool, by John Ross Macdonald (hard-boiled detective story vivified by compassion and literary skill)

The Motive, by Evelyn Piper (best of the "best," as novel, as puzzle, as pioneer in a new type of mystery story)

The Rim of Terror, by Hildegarde Teilhet (best of the year's spy-pursuit thrillers)

The Wind Blows Death, by Cyril Hare (When the Wind Blows) (wittily literate British import)

Through a Glass Darkly, by Helen McCloy (impeccable plotting, eerie writing)

An interesting list.  The first thing that strikes me is that seven of the novel are in print, or have been in print within the last quarter century.

Probably almost completely forgotten is the Aaron Marc Stein book. The relatively forgotten ones are the novels by Evelyn Piper, Hildegarde Teilhet and Helen McCloy, though these writers are not forgotten by collectors.  Piper does have one book in print that I know of, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957), likely on the strength of the well-received film adaptation from the 1960s, which starred Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Piper definitely was considered a notable American psychological suspense writer.

Six of the writers are women, six men (did Boucher do that deliberately?), but only three, I believe, are English.  Classical detection at its purest is represented by Christie and Hare and, I imagine, the Gardner, which I have not read.

not on the list
Carr somewhat adulterated his detective novel, in the eyes of the puzzle purist, with period atmosphere, laid on with zest, and McCloy hers with psychology and eerie suspense. (for others this was a good trade-off!) Psychology also is prominent in the Tey and, clearly, the Piper, though I have not read the latter. The Armstrong is a psychological suspense classic.

The Stein, which I also have not read, probably is purer detection, but it sounds like the main reason Boucher liked it was local color (Boucher was a great fan of local color). Then with Teilhet we have spies and with Macdonald and Spicer hard-boiled.  Hard-boiled arguably is underrepresented--or an American list, anyway--but no way was Boucher picking a Spillane! That was not. going. to. happen. in a Boucher column in 1950.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crying All the Way to the Morgue: Two Little Rich Girls (1971), by Mignon Eberhart

The English edition of Two Little Rich Girls
Eberhart was a Collins Crime Club staple
for over half a century
(the only thing I don't understand is how
Budweiser and Colt 45 beer cans ever got
into Diana and Doug Ward's refrigerator
--at least according to this jacket)
Suddenly Diana let go of that big, now-lifeless body and leaned back on her heels.  "Why did I ever go out with him!"

"But they have found the gun."
"Sandy!  Where--!"
"You're not going to like it.  It was in the refrigerator....way back behind some celery and carrots and stuff...."


--Two Little Rich Girls (1971)

For this month's crime fiction of the year challenge--the year 1971--I turn to one of the twentieth century's old reliables of crime fiction, Mignon Eberhart. I have reviewed a couple of Eberharts here before, Man Missing and Unidentified Woman, so this title will make a trio. Obviously I like this writer or I wouldn't keep reading her, especially with the breathless romance she was prone to employ in her books.

Despite my occasional qualms with obtrusive romance in her mysteries I think Eberhart was one of the most able mystery suspensers in the history of genre and also quite important in that she played a major role in bringing emotions back into the detective novel at a time when theorists of detective fiction were arguing that emotions had no place in what they deemed, in contrast with the "thriller" and the Victorian sensation novel, a strictly ratiocinative and austere art form. Think not feel was the motto.

By the time Two Little Rich Girls appeared in 1971. Mignon Eberhart had been producing mystery novels for over forty years.  She had already published 45 of them, and a dozen more would follow Two Little Rich Girls.

In the 1970s newspaper reviews of her books increasingly would refer to Eberhart's books, which always seemed to focus on the rich and privileged, as out-of-date and hackneyed. Some of this represented the tenor of the times, which were rather hostile to things deemed "traditional" in mystery, but it's only to be expected that a writer in her seventies who had been churning out a book of year for decades might lose some of her plotting oomph. Happily Two Little Rich Girls maintained the Eberhart brand standard and is in fact one of the better novels by her that I have read.

Two Little Rich Girls tells the story of the lovely Van Seidem sisters, Emmy and Diana, New York heiresses to a great family fortune, continuously referred to in the book as the "Van Seidem millions." On a visit to her older sister Emmy first finds a strange man in the house, recently shot rather unpleasantly dead.

But wait!  It's not a strange man, it's Gil Sangford, dilettante architect and man-about-town (there were still men-about-town in these years in Eberhart's world).  A handsome bachelor, Sangford had a habit of squiring at society functions various attractive rich women, including of late Diana, whose writer husband, Doug Ward, has been busy getting his first play produced on Broadway.

Diana insists that she didn't shoot Gil and has no idea who did, but after her initial hysteria she becomes rather jaded about the whole thing.  Diana had always been more of a Type A personality compared to her demure sister, and rather headstrong and self-centered at that (see quotation at top of blog).

Rounding out the list of major characters are Sandy Putnam, a young Van Seidem estate lawyer who has more than a passing interest in Emmy; Corrine Harris, the lead actress in Doug's play, who was engaged to Gil; Emmy's and Diana's charming, sponging stepfather, Justin; their imperious Aunt Medora; a bit player in Doug's play, a young actor named Thomas, who first appears sporting long hair and love beads, to help remind us that it's 1971 and not 1941; and Agnes, Emmy's outspoken housekeeper, a Van Seidem "family treasure" (though a peppery one).

Agnes brings to mind the other major indication that it's 1971 in Two Little Rich Girls: the servant problems rich people have. Diana complains about how hard it is to get help and even in the case of Emmy, it's pretty much a matter of anonymous cleaning ladies and old Agnes, who vexingly is always off visiting her niece.

Eberhart paints her usual evocative picture of place, in this case chic New York locales for the most part, though Emmy in the middle of the novel does take a trip to the Riviera, the whole murder thing having proven rather stressful on the nerves (naturally there's another murder while she's on the Riviera).

I found it a relief that for once the heroine was not suspected of the murder--though Emmy's sister, Diana, definitely is a prime suspect, what with the fatal gun, which shows up in her refrigerator among the carrots and celery (see illustration above), being hers and having her fingerprints on it as well.

I also liked how Eberhart allows quite a bit of humor into this story. Justin and Aunt Medora are quite funny with their eccentric ways, as is even, at times, Diana.  Additionally, I thought Two Little Rich Girls was, unlike, some of the Eberharts  I have read, fairly and even creatively clued. Eberhart, the old virtuoso, may have been at this game for many, many years in 1971, but she still pulled off a good performance here, not unlike Agatha Christie with her Miss Marple mystery Nemesis, published the same year.  I guess they didn't call Eberhart "American's Agatha Christie" for nothing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Crime Raves: U. S. Mystery Bestsellers, 1937-1939


Who done it? Atlanta burns in the
film version of Gone with the Wind
In the U. S. the fiction market in 1937 was dominated by, not altogether surprisingly, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which had been published on June 30 of the previous year.  It stayed at number one until July 1937.

Also big that year were Walter D. Edmonds' Drums along the MohawkSomerset Maugham's TheatreJohn Steinbeck's Of Mice and MenJames Hilton's We Are Not AloneVaughan Wilkins' And So--Victoria and A. J. Cronin's The Citadel. Popping up briefly were Virginia Woolf's The Years and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

In crime fiction, the following books made it to the bestsellers lists in 1937:


January
#8 The Dumb Gods Speak, E. Phllips Oppenheim
#9 The D. A. Calls It Murder, Erle Stanley Gardner

February
#6 Cards on the Table, Agatha Christie
#9 Black Land, White Land, by H. C. Bailey



March
#6 Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

May
#4 Crimefile No. 2, File on Rufus Ray, Helen Reilly

June
#4 Ask Miss Mott, E. Phillips Oppenheim
#5 The Pattern, by Mignon Eberhart



December
#7 Serenade, by James M. Cain

1938 saw Sinclair Lewis briefly hit the top of the list with The Prodigal Parents, followed by Marjorie K. Rawlings with The Yearling.  By the end of the year Gone with the Wind was on top again, spurred on by film hype, no doubt.

Also big were The Mortal Storm by Phyllis Bottome, The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, The Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck, Hope of Heaven by John O'Hara, My Son, My Son! by Howard Spring and All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field.  A brief appearance was made by Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

The mystery/thriller bestsellers of 1938 were:

January
#15 Serenade, James M. Cain



February
#11 Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie

April
#8 The Case of the Substitute Face, Erle Stanley Gardner
#11 Fast Company, Marco Page
#14 Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees, E. Phillips Oppenheim

May
#11 The Cairo Garter Murders, by Van Wyck Mason



June
#7 Hasty Wedding, by Mignon Eberhart

July
#6 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart



August
#3 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#11 Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

September
#9 The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe, Erle Stanley Gardner
#13 Too Many Cooks, by Rex Stout
#14 Appointment with Death, by Agatha Christie

October
#1 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier



November
#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#10 The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine
#15 The Glass Slipper, by Mignon Eberhart

December
#2 Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
#10 The D. A. Holds a Candle, by Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1939 Pearl S. Buck's The Patriot briefly took the #1 spot, before being swamped by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the biggest fiction hit in the U. S. since Gone with the Wind.

Other notable successes that year were The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe, Next to Valour by John Jennings, The Brandons by Angela Thirkell, Captain Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester, Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato and The Nazarene by Sholem Asch.  Also popping up were William Fauklner's The Wild Palms, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, and Nevil Shute's Ordeal.

In the world of crime and mystery in 1939 bestsellerdom we see:


January
#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

February
#2 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#15 Murder for Christmas, Agatha Christie (for some reason this was released in the US six weeks after Christmas)




March
#5 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#9 The Case of the Perjured Parrot, Erle Stanley Gardner

May
#11 Sir Adam Disappeared, E. Phillips Oppenheim



June
#7 The Footprints on the Ceiling, Clayton Rawson
#8 Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh
#10 Canceled in Red, Hugh Pentecost
#11 The Singapore Exile Murders, Van Wyck Mason
#12 The Problem of the Green Capsule, John Dickson Carr
#13 The Happy Highwayman, Leslie Charteris



July
#10 All Concerned Notified, Helen Reilly

September
#6 The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanly Gardner
#7 Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household
#9 The Chiffon Scarf, Mignon Eberhart
#12 Red Gardenias, Jonathan Latimer

Transcendent?
Daphne du Maurier
(1907-1989)
Of 375 spaces listed for this three-year period, mysteries occupied 45, or 12%. Only four mysteries racked the top five: Oppenheim's Ask Miss Mott, Eberhart's The Pattern, Rinehart's The Wall and du Maurier's Rebecca.

Only the latter two novels, plus James M. Cain's Serenade, were on the bestseller lists for more than a month, The Wall and Serenade for two, Rebecca for six.

As I've mentioned before, a lot of readers in those days simply did not buy hardcover mysteries ($2 a pop!), but rather rented them for a few cents a day from lending libraries. So when a mystery made the bestseller lists, it was a particular special accomplishment.

Rebecca is the most anomalous book of the mystery bestsellers, one that, as they say, "transcended the genre."  Yet what was Rebecca but a brilliant updating of those once tremendously popular Gothic novels?

22 mystery writers are represented, below ranked in terms of number of times they appear on the lists:

Daphne du Maurier 6 (one book)
Erle Stanley Gardner 6 (six books)
Agatha Christie 4 (4 book)
Mignon Eberhart 4 (4 books)
E. Phillips Oppenheim 4 (4 books)
James M. Cain 2 (1 book)
Van Wyck Mason 2 (2 books)
Helen Reilly 2 (2 books)
Mary Roberts Rinehart 2 (1 book)
H. C. Bailey 1
John Dickson Carr 1
Leslie Charteris 1
Geoffrey Household 1
Jonathan Latimer 1
Ngaio Marsh 1
Marco Page 1
Hugh Pentecost 1
Clayton Rawson 1
Dorothy L. Sayers 1
Rex Stout 1
S. S. Van Dine 1
Patricia Wentworth 1

Fourteen men and eight women, Thirteen American and nine British (including NZ).  Five of the women are British, but only four of the men.  We see the development of the idea of the Crime Queens, with Christie, Sayers and Marsh, though there is no Allingham and Christie was yet to attain #1 bestsellerdom.

Prince of Storytellers
E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946)
Du Maurier, Rinehart and Eberhart represent more of the the Gothic mystery tradition and there is some stuff more in the nature of hard-boiled (Latimer, Cain, Pentecost, Page) the modern thriller (Household) and the police procedural (Reilly, including one of the popular Crimefiles dossiers), but many are classic detection and thrillers, including, most surprisingly to me, a miracle problem mystery by Clayton Rawson, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who also shows up once (June 1939 seems to have been a great month for crime fiction).

Fittingly, we even have a final appearance by S. S. Van Dine, the great American mystery bestseller from the 1920s--albeit with a rather bad book! I imagine the popularity of Gracie Allen and the release of the film of the same title helped.

So, who in the late 1930s were the most popular American mystery writers, the prolific producers regularly hitting the bestseller lists? We have Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Mignon Eberhart (often dubbed "American's Agatha Christie") and E. Phillips Oppenheim, a English thriller writer who had been churning 'em out since the Victorian era.  Not for nothing, evidently, was he dubbed the Prince of Storytellers!  "Oppy" had a long reign.

Source: Baker & Taylor Company

Fiction Bestsellers of 1939

Between August 21 and September 18, 1939 the U. S. fiction bestsellers were, according to the book wholesalers Baker & Taylor (mysteries/thrillers highlighted):

Mignon Eberhart was one of the few
mystery writers to routinely make
American bestseller lists in the 1930s
1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
2. Children of God, by Valerie Fisher
3. Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato
4. Watch for the Dawn. by Stuart Cloete
5. White Magic, by Faith Baldwin
6. The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanley Gardner
7. Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household
8. Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden
9. The Chiffon Scarf, by Mignon Eberhart
10. Charley Manning, by Elizabeth Corbett
11. She Knew Three Brothers, by Magaret Widdemer
12. Red Gardenias, by Jonathan Latimer
13. The Brandons, by Angela Thirkell
14. The Ownley Inn, by Joseph C. and Freeman Lincoln
15. Ararat, by Elgin Groseclose
source: Baker & Taylor

Among the non-genre books I have to admit I have read only #1, The Grapes of Wrath, though I've seen the wonderful film version of Black Narcissus (which is rather a psychological thriller). Quite a few I had never heard of previously. I have always meant to read something by Angela Thirkell after finding that Todd Downing was a great fan of her novels.

As for the mysteries and thrillers, I was not surprised to see Erle Gardner or Mignon Eberhart, two of the most successful American mystery writers of the 1930s, without a doubt (Gardner of course remains one of the most successful of all time). 

Concerning Jonathan Latimer's Red Gardenias, three of his novels had recently been filmed, and he could be seen as something of a then-successor to the hard-boiled crown of the abdicated Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler's first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, was published earlier that year, but hadn't made quite the splash Chandler had wanted. Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male made the lone English genre stand on the list.

A more in-depth of analysis of American crime fiction bestsellers, 1937-1939, is coming here soon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mignon Eberhart in Valentine, Nebraska, c. 1928-1930

Mignon Eberhart
Mignonette Good Eberhart, known to the world as the mystery writer Mignon Eberhart, was born in Nebraska on July 6, 1899 and died in Connecticut on October 8, 1996, age 97, making her surely one of the last Golden Age mystery writers to expire. In 1923, she married Alanson Clyde Eberhart, a civil engineer, and the couple moved to Chicago, where they lived for two years.  The Eberharts then returned to Nebraska, eventually buying a house in Valentine, a town of under 2000 souls located near the South Dakota border, in the Nebraska sandhills region.

Eberhart published her first mystery story, a novelette titled "The Dark Corridor" in Flynn's Detective Weekly in 1925, but her first mystery novel, The Patient in Room 18, only appeared four years later, in 1929.  Room 18 and her next two mystery novels all were written in Valentine.

In the Spring of 1930, Eva Mahoney, an Omaha newspaper journalist best known for an interview with Willa Cather that she had conducted nearly a decade earlier, interviewed Eberhart at "her pleasant little home in Valentine" and found that the young mystery writer had chosen a Nebraska sandhills "hunting lodge for the setting" of her next novel (to be titled The Mystery at Hunting's End).  Explained Eberhart:

That gives me a legitimate right to get my characters off into an isolated region where just anything may happen. (shades of P. D. James!)

The author expounded on the atmospheric advantages of her new mystery setting:

The lodge owner collects antique pewter lanterns as a hobby.  He uses them for illuminating the lodge.  Naturally they don't give much light so I can employ darkened corners and shadows to heighten the horror.

plans of the lodge in
The Mystery at Hunting's End 
Yet Eberhart worried whether the interior design she envisioned for the lodge would allow the characters to do all the things they needed to do in a murder mystery:

I'm having difficulty with that hunting lodge in my new book....It must have a mezzanine or balcony floor.  I don't know how I'm going to have it architecturally correct and still be able to obstruct the view from that balcony.  My husband has promised to come to my aid with a set of blueprints.

Those blueprints apparently helped, because Eberhart's novel appeared later that year.  It's one of my favorite Eberharts, incidentally.

Eberhart claimed that it took her "three months to complete a mystery novel."  During this period every day she would be at her desk promptly at 7:00 a.m. and type until noon or thereabouts.  Before she started the actual writing of a novel she would assemble the characters, block out the plot and make a general synopsis.

Eberhart's first novel was a tremendous success generally, but it went over especially big in Valentine and its environs, Eva Mahoney reported:

Word went round that a citizen of Cherry County had written a thriller. Only one copy had reached the cattle country as yet.  That was owned by the author.  One of the cattle kings asked to borrow it. After he had finished reading it, his 20 cowboys asked the same privilege.  They solved the question of reading priority by shaking dice.

main street in Valentine
the Yeast hardware store was, I believe, located in the stone front building to the right

There's more of interest in this interview, but I will save the rest for later.  What I want to mention here in closing is that I found this fascinating newspaper article in an old clipping tipped into a copy of The Mystery of Hunting's End by a former owner, Helen Bachelor Yeast (1894-1972), wife of Harold Proctor Yeast (1890-1977), owner of a hardware business on Valentine's main street. (the picture of Eberhart shown above comes from this newspaper article)

Helen Yeast also added the following note:

Mrs. Eberhart had used a hunting lodge on lakes south of Valentine, Nebraska, as her locale.  Her publishers asked her to change it, so she substituted Michigan dunes.  See page 13. Mrs. Eberhart lived in Valentine for several years, in an old square house a few doors north of the old Haley house. 

More detail to come.  Mrs. Yeast obviously found quite interesting this article about her one-time Nebraska neighbor turned world famous mystery writer.  I agree with her.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Saw it with My Own Two Eyes: Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil

Henry Cecil Leon (1902-1976) was an English judge who in 1951 started, under the name Henry Cecil, a series of two dozen novels, very often humorous, dealing with foibles of English law.

How many of these legitimately can be called mysteries or crime novels, I don't know, though I suppose the case be made for calling them all crime novels, because some form of crime invariably seems to crop up in them, I believe.  The first book I read by Cecil, A Woman Named Anne (1967), seems to me indisputably a mystery, and a very good one, although the puzzle presented is not one of murder, but rather whether the male party to a divorce action was having it off with the dazzling Anne of the title.

Independent Witness, the Cecil novel under review here today, is more a suspense novel.  The story opens with a car driver who, after properly stopping at a "halt" to a crossroads in the town of Needham, by the pub the Blue Goose, begins crossing, only to collide with a speeding motorcyclist coming round a sharp bend.

Although the motorcyclist has been injured--we later learn he makes a full recovery, though has no memory of the accident--the driver leaves the scene of the accident, much to the anger of the eight or so eyewitnesses who have gathered there. A few days later, Michael Barnes, an MP, turns himself in as the culpable driver, and, after appearing before the Magistrates' Court, is committed to trial (Michael explains, by the way, that he was in a hurry to get to his wife, who was having a difficult pregnancy and, he believed at the time he was driving, might be going imminently into labor; but he insists nevertheless that he did stop at the halt.)

Michael gets a brilliant attorney named Olliphant to mount his defense.  The two men have the following exchange about the subject of so-called independent witnesses:

"But why should the jury believe me and not the witnesses against me?  They're all independent.  They've nothing against me...."

"Nothing against you?" said Olliphant. "Haven't they?  First of all, you came off best.  You weren't hurt.  The motorcyclist was.  When an accident happens, it's human nature to take the part of the under-dog if you haven't seen what happened."


"But they'll say they did."

"Of course they'll say they did, but the chances are they didn't....None of them is going to tell deliberate lies, but they won't think they are lies....within seconds after your departure I bet most or all of those witnesses, talking about it together before the police arrived, created a picture for themselves of you dashing across the 'halt' line.  By the time the police arrived, you'd charged across the line without even slowing down."


A Blue Goose native to Scotland not England

Olliphant's task is to expose the independent witnesses as captives to their own preconceptions.  What follows is a tremendously interesting and entertaining courtroom fight, where we learn a good deal about the personal backgrounds--some humorous, some sad, many very odd indeed--of these men and women.

The funniest of the witnesses is a recurring character in Cecil's books, one Colonel Brain, who has a great enthusiasm for testifying in court.  Barzun and Taylor grumpily pronounced Colonel Brain "egregious" and in fact he is; but quite delightfully egregious, in my view, if you will permit paradox. In this novel the good colonel gives one of his classic performances:

"Colonel Brain, in what vicinity were you at about 12.30 p.m. on the 12th December last?"

"Vicinity?" queried the colonel.  "How big is that?"


"Were you anywhere near the Blue Goose?"

"Definitely," said the colonel.  "The bitter's excellent."

"Colonel Brain," said the chairman, "we are today concerned with an accident, not with the quality of the beer you drink."


"Really sir!" said the colonel, "I have sworn to tell the whole truth."

When I read Henry Cecil's fiction, I invariably find it delightful and instructive about some fascinating point of English law.  I think Cecil was one of the finest writers of twentieth-century English crime fiction, if we can call what he wrote all such.  Happily, I believe all his novels are currently available from the House of Stratus.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Golden Age in Modern Memory: Historians of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

"A crime novel, however ingenious and exciting the plot, can only succeed if we care primarily about the people."

                               --P. D. James, Introduction to The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

I quoted the above line from the late P. D. James in an essay I recently wrote for the January 2015 issue of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, wherein I discuss the introductions to editions of Willie Collins's classic Victorian sensation novel The Moonstone that were written over the years by four detective novelists: Dorothy L. Sayers, the couple G. D. H. and Margaret Cole and P. D. James.

Douglas G. Greene
Both Sayers and James deemed The Moonstone a true detective novel, but a superior one that, unlike purely puzzle-oriented detective novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction (usually delimited as the period between the two world wars), attained the status of True Literature (the Coles, incidentally, did not see The Moonstone as a true detective novel; see the essay).

Up until very recently in mystery genre histories we have typically seen the Golden Age of detective fiction relatively dismissed as the period when "mere puzzles" reigned, in contrast with the modern age of the "crime novel," which, so the argument often runs, harkens back to the literary values and emotions of nineteenth-century novels like The Moonstone and has much greater artistic depth than its bright but spiritually shallow Golden Age predecessor, the puzzle-oriented detective story.

Some prominent critics for decades cast doubt on this claim. The late Jacques Barzun--author, with Wendell Hertig Taylor, of the mammoth tome A Catalogue of Crime--apotheosized the Golden Age and argued that the modern crime novel had foolishly shed its essence, entertainment, in a futile pursuit of higher literary values, while Douglas G. Greene, in a series of works, including his much-lauded biography of the great Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr, has repeatedly and persuasively made the case for the admirable artistic integrity of the Golden Age puzzle mystery.

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Yet most often this view was embraced in genre studies, not only by professional critics but by crime writers themselves.  In his 2010 interview with P. D. James for Spinetingler Magazine, Jim Napier aptly summarized the prevailing attitude with this paean to the woman who up until her death last week was commonly regarded as one of the two modern queens of the English crime novel (the other being Ruth Rendell):

By moving crime fiction from traditional plot-driven tales with ingenious but often far-fetched puzzles at their heart to character-driven stories, about three-dimensional people with believable lives full of conflicting emotions and contradictory actions, you raised the genre of crime fiction to the level of serious and mainstream literature.

The previous year P. D. James herself had drawn this distinction in her short--a little over 40,000 words, I estimate--mystery genre history, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009), wherein she repeatedly downplayed "ingenuity"--apparently a somewhat tarnished Golden Age aesthetic value in her eyes--in favor of "credibility." On this matter James opined: "It is apparent that publishers and readers are continuing to look for well-written mysteries which can afford the expected satisfaction of a credible plot but can legitimately be enjoyed as serious novels."

James pronounced that "realism and credibility have supplanted ingenuity," adding that the latter value, ingenuity, is "one which we [modern crime writers] have largely outgrown."  Continuing to speak on behalf of modern crime writers, James avowed, "We feel entitled to be judged as novelists, not as mere fabricators of mystery."

P. D. James (1920-2014)
no mere fabricator of mystery
There is a bit of an eat-your-vegetables mindset at work here, it seems to me. You may get just a bit  of the sweet, a smidgen of rice pudding say, in the form of a strictly "credible" mystery, but don't expect any decadently rich ingenuity on your plate. Forget astonishment, you're going to get improvement!

Of course there is nothing wrong with crime novels that aim primarily at divining not the puzzle of murder but the riddle of life's higher meaning; yet surely the avid mystery reader occasionally wants simply to get a taste of the luscious meringue of ingenuity.

It certainly would not be fair to single out P. D. James for this view, however, for she merely provided one of the most recent iterations of it.  In popular genre histories this attitude goes back over forty years now, to the early-Seventies genre studies of two crime writers of James's generation, Julian Symons (1912-1994) (Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, 1972) and Colin Watson (1920-1983) (Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience, 1971).

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
Watson is credited with coining the term "Mayhem Parva," which he used to describe the highly socially stratified villages where most English Golden Age mysteries supposedly took place. Symons, though he rather less grudgingly than James admitted to genuine enjoyment of the ingenious Golden Age puzzles of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dine and others (he was not as enthusiastic about Dorothy L. Sayers), argued in Bloody Murder that the Golden Age detective novel was an entertaining but ultimately frivolous and dead-ending bypath that diverged from the main literary highway of the serious crime novel.

This view was echoed by academic scholars who in the 1970s had begun serious study of the crime novel.  The English Golden Age, or "classical," detective novel largely was contrasted unfavorably on literary grounds with the American hard-boiled detective novel (American "classical" detective novels from the period received little academic notice).

In the last twenty years or so, academic scholars like Alison Light, Gill Plain and Merja Makinen began treating the novels of the Golden Age Crime Queens--including not just Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh but even Christie--with increasing respect. In popular mystery genre histories there similarly has been greater receptiveness to the idea that Sayers at least was a serious literary writer, even while these studies have remained somewhat disparaging of the Golden Age as a whole.

In her 2013 book A Very British Murder: The Story of a National ObsessionLucy Worsley, not an academic but a PhD popular historian and BBC presenter, does not indicate broad familiarity or interest on her part with works of Golden Age mystery and does not take us much beyond Symons and Watson, on whom she often relies, but, unlike Symons, she heaped praise on Sayers's lengthy detective novel Gaudy Night (1935), which she considers one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Lucy Worsley

P. D. James similarly prized Gaudy Night, which she first read as a teenager in the 1930s, probably a year after it was originally published. In Talking about Detective Fiction, James wrote quite favorably not only of Sayers, but of Allingham and Marsh, tellingly declaring of the latter pair: "both women are novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles" (James makes clear she believes this to be true of Sayers as well).

In my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about three Golden Age English detective novelists dubbed "Humdrums" by Julian Symons on account of their focus on the puzzle aspect of the mystery, I mounted a defense of the puzzle-oriented detective novel associated with the Golden Age of detective fiction (Masters was co-dedicated to Jacques Barzun and Doug Greene, as well as the great American crime writer and critic Bill Pronzini; see Mystery Scene review by Jon L. Breen here, review by Rich Westwood here and review by Martin Edwards here). But I also pointed out that already well underway in the 1930s was a substantial revolt against the strictures of the classical detective novel, a revolt that extended beyond the American hard-boiled school and the British "manners mysteries" of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.

Earlier in 2011 I had already looked at this Thirties revolt in Was Corinne's Murder Clued: The Detection Club and Fair Play (see Jon L. Breen's review here and Martin Edwards's review here).  I also discussed the matter in Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013), concerning an American Choctaw mystery writer and critic of the 1930s and 1940s whose books I was instrumental in helping to get reprinted (see Jon L. Breen review here).

Martin Edwards
There are bloggers around the net who are doing a lot of new thinking about the Golden Age (many of them linked at The Passing Tramp), both in praise of the traditional detective novel but also to point out that there was more going on in the supposedly artistically static Golden Age than often is appreciated. One of these bloggers is the English crime writer Martin Edwards, a contributor to a recently published book I edited, Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014).

Martin has his own study, The Golden Age of Murder, coming out next year.  It is, as understand it, about the writers who were members of England's prestigious Detection Club--including those Humdrums--and how they "invented the modern English detective story."

I haven't seen the manuscript, but I suspect that Martin will seriously revise the long regnant Symons-Watson thesis and produce the best study of the genre in its Golden Age by a crime writer since Julian Symons's own Bloody Murder.  Bloody good show, I say! Concerning this matter it's time that the critical tide turned. For a look at more evidence that this may be happening, check in again with this blog later this week.