Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Final Count: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1....

The list so far:

#20 The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade
#19 The Hanging Woman (1931), John Rhode
#18 Death of a Star (1932), Margaret Cole 
#17 Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil
#16 Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk
#15 The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince
#14 The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
#13 To Love and Be Wise (1950), by Josephine Tey
#12 Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth
#11 Tell Death to Wait (1939), by Anita Boutell
#10 The Farm at Paranao (1935), by Laurence Kirk
#9 Dancing Death (1931), by Christopher Bush
#8 Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell
#7 The Slype (1927), by Russell Thorndike
#6 The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey

And now the Final Five:

#5 Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970), by Margaret Millar (reviewed 14 March)

Do people get tired of my praising Margaret Millar so much? For me, she's about the perfect crime writer, combining the deftness of clueing of Christie with the compulsive suspense of Highsmith (actually, I have always found Millar more of a pure page-tuner than Highsmith, and her books more genuinely relevant to the real world--at least the world I know). Millar's Monsters came after a six-year gap in her crime writing, during which time the fame of her hard-boiled writer husband, Ross Macdonald, eclipsed her own; but Millar's tremendous talent remained gloriously undiminished.

Monsters, about a hearing to have a wife's vanished California rancher husband declared legally dead, has all Millar's writing virtues: a clever fairly-clued mystery plot, incisive observation and characterization--here much of it having to do with Mexican immigrant labor--and the classic Millar twist-in-the-tail.  A superb book from a Canadian-American Crime Queen.

#4 The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946), by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (reviewed 24 August)

This year I meant to review Holding's The Blank Wall, widely, and probably justly, considered her masterpiece (I haven't read all of Holding's novels but it is hard to imagine anyone doing better than The Blank Wall); but Mrs. Duff is most impressive in its own right.  Raymond Chandler found this novel fascinating and tried to adapt it to film.  It's not hard to see why Chandler was drawn to Mrs. Duff: the novel must be one of the finest portraits of a mean, miserable, self-destructive drunk ever put to paper.

Chandler, to be sure, himself was a confirmed alcoholic and frequently a real sourpuss; yet he had his moments of genuine charm and of course was one of the major talents in the business--not only one of the crime genre's finest writers, but, I'm convinced, one of the great letter-writers of the twentieth century.

In contrast, Holding's Jacob Duff is unrelievedly loathsome, one of the most repellent fictional characters I have encountered: a selfish, indolent, petty and spiteful drunk, who eventually finds his whisky-sodden thoughts moving in the direction of murder, as he gradually determines that the root cause of his myriad dissatisfactions with life is his "common"--his word-- wife, "Reggie," a former photographer's model. What will he do about it?

This is the sort of book that critics with a myopic view of crime fiction say "transcends" crime fiction--but don't hold that against it! It's a great study of a drunk, but it's also a supremely suspenseful story.

#3 Black Alibi (1942), by Cornell Woolrich (reviewed 5 May)

I have a tremendous fondness for Cornell Woolrich, although I acknowledge that he wrote too much and produced some inferior work. Black Alibi, however, is one of the very good ones, though it doesn't get mentioned as much as some others, like I Married a Dead Man and The Bride Wore Black.  For me the novel is a triumph, not so much of characterization (painted efficiently but lightly), but of atmosphere and suspense. A tale of a series of killings in a South American city, supposedly by a jaguar run amok (but is it?), the novel essentially is a group of virtuoso set pieces of nail-biting suspense. As such, it's one of the best in the history of the genre.

No one ever conveyed the lonely menace of the night, whether in North or South America, better than Cornell Woolrich.

#2 The Accomplice (1947), by Matthew Head (reviewed 5 January)

Crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s so often is written of dismissively by retrospective critics, who build up today's "psychologically complex" crime fiction at the expense of the "mere puzzles" of the past.  But Matthew Head's The Accomplice strikingly presaged the highly-acclaimed psychological crime fiction of Patricia HighsmithRuth Rendell, among others. Read Rendell's The Bridesmaid and then Head's The Accomplice and tell me what you think!

A tale of morbid--extremely morbid--psychology and sexual depravity, The Accomplice should be required reading for those who think our grandparents didn't know, or at least never wrote about, really unsavory aspects of life.  What happens when Hank Bewley, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, meets pretty Corrie Waters and her breathtakingly beautiful boyfriend, Lex Abbott?  If you're like me, you will simply have to keep reading to find out. There's an ending you won't forget.

And, finally....

#1 And Be a Villain (1948), by Rex Stout (reviewed 1 June)

After all the darkness of #'s 2-4 on this list it's pleasant to find secure shelter in the cozy confines of Nero Wolfe's wondrous brownstone principality!  If one is looking for mystery fiction that provides sheer delight, plus some pleasing mental stimulation, one can't top Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries at their best--and Stout's And Be a Villain surely is one of his best Nero Wolfe mysteries.

What makes a great Nero Wolfe mystery?  I would suggest a good mystery problem, but, most importantly, a great Nero Wolfe "situation."  Here in And Be a Villain we happily have both.  Wolfe is pitted not just against a clever killer, but the menace of Forties commercially sponsored radio and the purveyors of such junk food and drink as "Sweeties" and "Hi-Spot."  As a disgusted Wolfe memorably puts it: "Those things she calls Sweeties!  Pfui!"

And Be a Villain is a crime novel I could enjoy reading every year and I am pleased to choose it is as the Best Book Blogged by me in 2014.

Didn't I tell you there would be more Americans on the list?

Happy New Year!  I wish you all great mystery reading in 2015.


  1. What a great list, Curtis! It never ceases to amaze me how a title that I've never seen before pops into my hands at a booksale or one of the few remaining used bookstores and I put it on my TBR stack...and then it shows up on your (or John's or Sergio's) blog. This time it's The Black Alibi by Woolrich. It's waiting in the wings for next year's Vintage Mystery Bingo....

  2. Marvellous stuff Curtis - thanks for all the sharing and looking forward to much more - and I really will have to get hold of "The Accomplice" one way or another. Have a great 2015 chum.

  3. This was the kind of Best of List we've come to expect from you, Curt. Thanks for replenishing my already bloated wishlist. Your review of The Tin Tree was very compelling. And Be a Villain can only be fully appreciated, if you listened to some old-time radio (mysteries) first ("Petri Wine brings you...").

    Anyhow, I wish you all the best, including the best from the obscurest of mystery novels, for 2015.

  4. Thanks Curt. I was looking forward to this. I want to read them all but where does one find them?

  5. A good new year to you all! Neer, maybe I will do a blog post on the availability of the books.

  6. The only one of these I've read is BLACK ALIBI, and I agree that while it's not among Woolrich's very best, it's certainly worthwhile.