The first quarter of the 21st century has been something of a renaissance, thanks to publishers like Dean Street Press, the British Library Crime Classics, Locked Room International, Coachwhip Books, Ramble House, and the Mysterious Press, to name but a few, and the hard work and dedication of scholars and bloggers like Curt Evans, Martin Edwards, Tony Medawar, and Steve Barge.
I’m in week four of a lockdown; with plenty of time, I got to thinking: What detective stories should be reprinted?
For a start, it would be wonderful to have the complete works of John Rhode / Miles Burton (fingers crossed!), G.D.H. and M. Cole, H.C. Bailey, Margaret Erskine, Mary Fitt, C. Daly King, E.C.R. Lorac, and Isabel Ostrander. (It would be nice, too, to read The Night of the Fog or Crime Wave at Little Cornford.)
But some very obscure authors might well merit reprinting…
Curt Evans included Murder Backstairs (1930) in his list of 30 notable American Golden Age mysteries.
Wrote nine American fair-play puzzle plot detective stories, featuring Lieutenant Peter D. Quint (1935–1949). In Murder in Triplicate (1936), three murders are committed in three hours – each victim’s nose was cut off, and each one was murdered to the accompaniment of running water. Torquemada (The Observer) said he had “the incommunicable Agatha Christie gift of turning us all into bumpkins”. Murder of a Matriarch (1937) concerns the shooting of horrible Gr’aunty Farcourt; Torquemada considered it “one of the best mystery stories which have come from America for a long time”.
See also Curt Evans.
Wrote two detective stories, both admired by Barzun and Taylor. Murder Most Familiar (1953) is a “topnotch story of family dissension and murder in an English politician’s family”. Murder amid Proofs (1955) is not quite as good, but “still an outstanding story to keep and reread”.
Murder at Buckingham Palace (1981) would be ideal for British Library Crime Classics. Barzun & Taylor raved about the novel: “This tale is so devilish clever in tone and detail that more than one bookseller has listed it as true crime. The routines at the palace, the various officers, the lords and ladies in waiting all sound and act so natural that through a third of the book one is sure it all happened. The titled names give the show away, as well as the fact that some characterisations would be libellous and that a vast cover-up is successfully engineered. The crime is adroitly done, described, and detected, and it keep the reader curious, for it is a housemaid who is despatched in a library. The why gets more and more puzzling as the intrigues and tensions are disclosed, and one ends the book thinking: ‘Absolutely topnotch.’”
J.F. Norris called Davis “a promising talent of the bizarre and outré styled fantastic detective novel”. Wrote three detective stories: The Crowing Hen (1936), Nine Days’ Panic (1937), and Twelve Midnight Street (1938). Torquemada praised Hen: “He has established a new and very pleasant method of presenting a murder mystery. It might be called the tight-rope method, in which each feigned slip is a challenge to the reader. Mr. Davis seems to delight in the danger of almost debagging the cat every dozen pages or so, and then dextrously retiring it again, after only the unidentifiable whiskers have been exposed. Does he realise, I wonder, that he heavily handicaps himself against the reflective reader by one of his chapter headings? The tale has wit, insight, and plenty of scholarly gruesomeness.”
LILLIAN DAY & NORBERT LEDERER
This American duo wrote two detective stories: Murder in Time (1935) and Death Comes on Friday (1936). In the first, “the murdered persons and the murderer are chosen with tact, and the characters are drawn with a warm sympathy for man and his humours” (Torquemada). The critic “confidently recommended” the second; it was “impeccable … terse and most entertaining”.
EDWIN DE CAIRE
Death Among the Writers (1952) is “a masterpiece of the art”, Barzun & Taylor proclaimed. The only copy on ABE sells for $750 US. “East Nettlefold is unusual in having several writers, one literary agent, and a number of beekeepers in close proximity and friendship. When the literary agent dies and one of the other writers turns out to be two persons hiding in fact and in name, the problem of the undoubted murder becomes taxing for Insp. Bootle and Sgt. Swift. Their discoveries keep the reader in steady suspense, while he is also entertained by the first-rate treatment of the literary life. Except for one curious lapse in usage and two in grammar, the writing is splendid and these specks are made up for by the highly original motive and an excellent piece of differentiation between the effects of KCN and HCN.”
A Gentleman Hangs (1940) was, Barzun & Taylor said, “one of those single shots that prove long practice not always necessary to success. After an entertaining jury scene, in which an intelligent young man tries to guide his fellows to a decision compatible with the judge’s charge, we follow him and his girl to Tregeagle House, where she has a flat. There, on a hook behind the bathroom door, they find a dead man hanging from his own braces. In the next 23 short and vivid chapters, we are taken into the lives of the other residents and unwind a plot full of ingenious turns. Details are abundant, picturesque, and organic, as is also the subject of the jury trial. The detection is shared among our hero and two policemen, also intelligent, and capable of lively conversation like the rest of the cast—all in all an extremely deft example of the best work of its period.”
G.V. GALWEY (1912–1996)
The Lift and the Drop (1948) is a murder in a lift in a publishing house (so like Carr and Rhode’s Fatal Descent?). Barzun and Taylor said political overtones and detection were expertly handled. It’s also a favourite of Cooper & Pike.
NEWTON GAYLE (pseudonym of Muna Lee and Maurice Guinness)
Of these American writers’ five detective stories, Murder at 28:10 (1936) seems to be the best: the suspects are trapped by a hurricane in the West Indies, with a murderer among them. Torquemada called it “thriller-writing raised to the power of literature”, while Will Cuppy was impressed.
Judge Robinson Murdered (1936) is a murder in the Middle West, connecting the death of a jurist to a religious racket. “The fast roadsters, the pretty niece, the bright young newspaperman, the dirty deals have rarely been better worked into a murder story,” thought Barzun & Taylor. “The red herrings are tolerable and the ending is most effective.”
Ellen Wilkinson’s Division Bell Mystery (1932) was a success for the British Library series; here are two more political mysteries. Barzun & Taylor and Curt Evans raved about Murder of an M.P.! (1927). It is, Curt said, “a damn good detective novel”, with “all the ingredients, masterfully blended, of classic English mysteries from the High Golden Age”.
Barzun & Taylor called Murder in the House of Commons “a gripping affair from start to finish”. Life Sentence (1935) is “a long and serious novel” in which two lovers try to assassinate the foreign secretary. Barzun & Taylor wrote: “Complications ensue—quite numerous—but they are disentangled with skill and plausibility.”
Half-a-dozen Silver Age (1945–55) detective stories, most set in the Congo where Head was on US government service. Anthony Boucher considered his début, The Smell of Money (1943), “one of the half dozen best mysteries in [his] reviewing experience”. With The Devil in the Bush (1945), he proclaimed Head “the American Simenon … for his psychology, his economy, and his bite”. “It presents living, confused, fascinating people in a finely woven mesh of semi-civilised emotions against a background of vivid primitive atmosphere”. Barzun and Taylor also liked The Devil in the Bush (1945) – murder in a native revolt, excellent tricks and characters – and The Congo Venus (1945) – first-class humour and a good puzzle.
Four detective stories written by a Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor, apparently in the Edmund Crispin vein, and much praised by Barzun & Taylor. (The Elizabethan playwright wrote The Spanish Tragedy and the original Hamlet.) Blood is a Beggar (1946) is “beyond cavil … a memorable performance”; and Blood on the Bosom Devine (1948) shows “equal mastery of humour and detection”.
Death Behind the Door (1933) was MacClure’s best and simplest, Barzun & Taylor thought; it had an original and plausible modus operandi, and good characters. TomCat thought this methodical detective story ranked with John Rhode. Death on the Set (1935) is set in a film studio. Torquemada said the solution was an unusually plausible variant of a solution many mystery writers discarded as unforgivable, “so fairly and yet so deftly flourished in his face that the reader cannot at all complain, and is left with the satisfactory feeling of having shared in a most enjoyable murder”. Barzun & Taylor recommended it “to all those who think the thirties out of date”. Torquemada thought MacClure’s best book was Hi-Spy-Kick-the-Can (1936); he gave the victim – a pseudo-intellectual lecher, and author of such nauseating whimsies about young children as “Googie Dan” and “Mau’wiss the Mice” – the 1936 prize for murderability. “I suppose it is the architect in Mr. MacClure who provides the uncompromising structural detail which keeps his reader’s attention at full stretch, the artist in him who catches the light and shade of character so neatly, and the Scotsman in him who is responsible for the round, comfortable, scholarly English.”
Curt Evans discusses MacClure here.
The Pit (1945) does not concern a mysterious capsule found in a bomb hole and startling revelations about the ancestry of man; instead, it takes place down t’ pit, in old mining country. Barzun & Taylor regretted that the author never wrote another. “Though the final clearing up comes through a confession, this story holds the attention from the outset and provides along the way all the necessary details to keep up suspense and give the feeling that inquiry is genuine and progressive.”
Curt Evans recommended The Copper Bottle (1929) as “a strong example of a Golden Age British rural detective novel”, set in Wales.
Murder Goes Rolling Along concerns a murder at Fort Bragg; Anthony Boucher called it “a sprightly, pleasing yarn, in spite of military snobbery and a stained solution”. He was less enthusiastic about Death at 7:10 (1943): the killer is trapped “through clairvoyance rather than logic… Interesting device presented in unconvincing language”. But Barzun and Taylor enjoyed it: “The characterisation is slight, but the drama is sustained and the work far superior to its predecessor”.
“Mr. Philmore is unique among detective writers in this, that he makes the reader, or at least one reader, feel that he is living beyond his intellectual means, or that at least he is living among characters the average of whom are above him in an ordered perception of modern thought, though never, be it said, above themselves.” – Torq.
Gollancz proclaimed that Philmore’s first detective story, Journey Downstairs, was an event; L.A.G. Strong called it “the best detective story [he had] read for a long time”. (J.F. Norris wrote a glowing review.) In Riot Act (1935), a political candidate is murdered on the night of an election in a provincial town the poll. “The murder is a mechanical one, a kind always fascinating when engineered plausibly as it is here, and the double bluff of motive works extraordinarily well,” Torquemada thought; he also praised the author’s sound political diagnosis and original characterisation. He also admired The Good Books (1936).
Five crime stories, apparently in the Iles / Innes line. The Ingenious Mr. Stone (1945); The Homicidal Colonel (1970); Oh! Where Are Bloody Mary’s Earrings? (1972); Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs (1975); and The Month of the Mangled Models (1977).
Dead and Not Buried (1938) was Prescott’s only detective story; William F. Deeck thought this “a great pity… Her talent was considerable.” (Some critics, incidentally, think The Man on the Donkey the finest historical novel ever written.)
We’ll give the floor to Curt Evans again. The Tin Tree (1930) is “an excellent mystery novel” that ought to be reprinted; it contains, he says, imposture, insanity, a really gruesome murder, a designing Spaniard, copious love interest, and a double twist ending, “told, on the whole, with easy charm and emotional restraint”. Casual Slaughters (1935) is one of his favourite 1930s mysteries; Martin Edwards also believes it “deserves to be rescued from literary oblivion”.
The General Goes Too Far (1935) in West Africa – an Ilesian story praised by Torquemada. “Mr. Robinson has that unusual gift, a sardonic humour which really amuses. Not one of his figures descends to the fictional standard of unadulterated, one had almost said, unadulterous, niceness, and that is why the “snaps” of character are so clear and the studio portrait of General Sangye so satisfying. We see the General commit one murder, and have to follow closely to see how far he goes in the matter of two other violent deaths, until he goes too far to be recalled. Mr. Robinson has an unusual story to tell, and tells it without a mistake.”
Barzun & Taylor thought her only book, Rôles and Relations (1956), was well worth reading. “A tale based on the ever-engaging situation of a convention of psychiatrists in a country house, whose deliberations are interrupted by murder.”
The Dead Past (1961) takes place in Tanganyika; a ne’er-do-well is murdered, and the District Commissioner investigates. Barzun & Taylor found it “more enjoyable than most of what comes nowadays from well-known hands”.
A more modern writer; his two detective stories listed in Barzun & Taylor are academic mysteries. Killing No Murder (1972) is set in a prep school, Death of a Don (1981) in Oxford.
British writer of five detective stories. Barzun & Taylor thought Dead of a Physician (1961, aka But the Patient Died) “one of the best stories of murder in hospital” – but were less keen on Sinclair’s other books.
Three detective stories praised by Torquemada and Barzun & Taylor. With his first book, Murder at Markendon Court (1936), Stanners “stepped well forward into the second rank of detective story writers”, Torquemada wrote; it was “one of the most teasing and ultimately one of the most satisfying crime books of the year”. At the Tenth Clue (1937) was better written and characterised, but Torquemada was less happy with the plot. “Mr. Stanners has originality and can baffle his readers with the best of his contemporaries; but the motive in this case is not quite satisfactory, and the false clue which dominates the detection seems to me unconvincing as an impromptu.” In The Crowning Murder (1938), Sir Jabez is pushed into a quarry. Torquemada didn’t review it, but Barzun and Taylor thought it was “first-rate”.
You might have seen The Honey Pot (1967), a murder mystery set in Venice, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Rex Harrison and Maggie Smith, among others; Roger Ebert compared it to John Dickson Carr. This is the novel. Barzun & Taylor called it “a brilliant modernization of Ben Jonson’s Volpone in novel form”.
W. STANLEY SYKES
The Missing Money Lender (1931) is witty if transparent and anti-Semitic, according to Barzun & Taylor; The Harness of Death (1932) is an inverted novel. “The second murder, which involves the use of actual herrings—fresh, not red—is genuine drama and so is the dénouement.”
Murder in the Flagship; in the Game Reserve (1937); in the Suez Canal (1937); and in the Taj Mahal (1938)! “You will find that you are given an exciting run for your money – and the answer, when it is finally worked out, is severely logical” (Torquemada).
TomCat reviewed Murder in the Suez Canal: “A well-written novel with a genuinely intriguing premise and a plot that was not devoid of merit – even though the solution was … underwhelming”.
Whaley’s first novel, Reduction of Staff (1936), concerns the double murder of two masters at a minor public school. Barzun & Taylor called it an “attractive tale”: “The two murders are sensibly accounted for, and the apparent alibi of the otherwise obvious suspect rather cleverly managed. Excellent clueing and writing.” Whaley continued the educational theme with Trouble in College (1937); Torquemada called him “a born master of criminal engineering”, although B&T were disappointed. Challenge to Murder (1937) is an Ilesian novel about three nephews who each try to murder an uncle; Torquemada thought it was “a brilliant book”, although B&T were less enthusiastic. Six more detective stories followed, the last in 1941.
“Mr. Woodthorpe is one of the very few detective writers in the course of whose work the reader can forget that a crime has been committed and imagine himself in the middle of an entrancing novel of murders,” Torquemada exclaimed. “Mr. Woodthorpe must be a godsend to those die-hards who dare not be discovered reading anything that is not literature, and who yet like a detective story.”
Like Whaley, Woodthorpe began his eight detective stories with an academic murder. The Public School Murder (1932) was, Barzun & Taylor thought, “excellently contrived, fun throughout, and the double twist satisfying”. Nicholas Blake enjoyed A Dagger in Fleet Street (a journalism murder) and Silence of a Purple Shirt (an anti-Fascist mystery), both 1934.
Death in a Little Town (1935) introduces his spinster detective, Miss Perks. The Times Literary Supplement considered it “both good comedy and good detective fiction”; the story was admirably managed, and the writing excellent. Across the Atlantic, The Boston Transcript was delighted by its “insights into the involutions of the life in Chesworth” and enjoyed to the fullest “the interesting and amazing characters”. Barzun & Taylor were less impressed.
The Shadow on the Downs (1935) is another village murder, possibly involving diabolism. Torquemada thought it “the most maturely humorous of Mr. Woodthorpe’s detective stories”; the TLS said its merits were considerable “as a collection of interesting characters”; and the New York Times and Saturday Review of Literature both enjoyed its insight and humour.
Isaac Anderson (NY Times) said there was “real enjoyment in store for the reader of” The Necessary Corpse (1939); and Will Cuppy (Books) called it an ideal mystery for the hot spell. It seems to have been more liked in the US than in the UK. While the New Yorker thought its “really humourous writing disguises a pretty wild plot”, E.R. Punshon deemed it “an odd and somewhat disconcerting mixture of farce and melodrama”.
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic enjoyed Rope for a Convict (1939), with charming, delightful people. Barzun & Taylor wrote: “Though the murder is incidental, there is detection, emotional concern, and narrative suspense.”