Saturday, January 12, 2013

Error in Judgment? Anthony Boucher, Patricia Highsmith and the Edgars

not among the very best of 1955?
Edgar nominations will soon be out and the winners will be announced in May.  Nearly fifty-seven years ago, back on May 6, 1956, New York Times critic Anthony Boucher too a look at the Edgar winners that year in his "Criminals at Large" column.

Of the top prize Boucher wrote:

The Edgar for best mystery novel of the year went to Margaret Millar's "Beast in View"--an award with which this department heartily concurs, though I confess to being puzzled by the runners-up (which received scrolls).  Patrica Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the Gordons' "The Case of the Talking Bug" are good books, but hard to envision in the year's best class.

best in show?
 Did Boucher miss the boat?

To be sure, Margaret Millar is greatly admired by many mystery fans well-versed in older works (I heartily include myself in this company; I think Millar is brilliant).

Yet Millar's work is, I believe, almost entirely out of print today (most unjustly), while Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley surely is one of the best-known and most praised works of twentieth-century crime fiction.  Do you think Boucher (who did like much of Highsmith's work, it  must be conceded) underestimated Mr. Ripley's talent?

And what about The Case of the Talking Bug?  I've never even heard of this one, let alone read it!


  1. I agree. It's interesting that some award winners and shortlisted books stand the test of time - like Millar's and Highsmith's - while others don't. Maybe the Talking Bug is an example of the latter, or perhaps the title in itself was enough to mean its success was short-lived.

  2. I would probably rate Beast in View as the better book, even though it has been mimicked to death. Ripley is a good book, but it is a darker book with possibly gay characters.

    From a "political" standpoint, Highsmith had a bad reputation and many awards were denied her because of that reputation.

    I sincerely wish that Millar was more well known today. It's sad that she doesn't get the recognition she deserves.

  3. Martin,

    I think the Talking Bug had to do with wiretapping, hence the odd title.


    I think Boucher probably liked the Millar book better because of the brilliant clueing in it. She's so rare in being able to combine suspense with Christie-like clueing. But I'm surprised Boucher didn't think Ripley was, if not the best, even one of the best books of 1955.

  4. True, Margaret Millar is almost entirely out of print, but as regular readers of The Passing Tramp know, this sad status doesn't speak to quality. It was Ms Highsmith's misfortune, that The Talented Mr. Ripley was forced to do battle with Beast in View. Had it been published the following year, I imagine it would've triumphed easily over Charlotte Armstrong's A Dram of Poison (the winner) and Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly (the lonely nominee).

    That said, Anthony Boucher's puzzlement puzzles me. Whether 1956 or any other year, The Talented Mr. Ripley is certainly in the "best class."

    I'm pleased to see that Orion has brought Beast in View back in print - while being irritated that it's only available in the UK. Hats off to Stark House, which has reissued An Air that Kills, my favourite Millar, along with Do Evil in Return (which I've not yet read).

    1. Boucher really loved Dram of Poison, I don't know! He does seem to have missed the boat though a bit on Highsmith. Interestingly, Boucher liked Patricia Moyes better than PD James (another blog subject!).

      Just as a matter of personal taste I prefer Margaret Millar to Patricia Highsmith, though I do like some of the Highsmiths too. I'm not a Ripley groupie, lol, but I do respect the first one highly and its recognize place in genre history.

  5. Curt, or anybody, do we know in general who the runners up were for the Edgar awards in the 1950s, or is Boucher's remark here an anomaly? As for Boucher's taste, it seems to me reading Jeff's book that he was a clubman first and foremost, and if you were a member of the MWA and a good guy, even if a mediocre writer, AB was apt to let you off the hook. Probably the same applies to all professional organizations?

    1. Kevin, the runners-up can be found through the Edgars Database.

    2. Yeah, Patricia Highsmith wasn't exactly part of the Group, I would say! I read in one of her bios, however, that she kept the scroll all her life and in fact inscribed the name Tom Ripley next to hers on it (she felt he deserved co-credit!).

      I was interested to see Celia Fremlin's Hours Before Dawn beat out Philip Macdonald's List of Adrian Messenger. It might have been nice to see Macdonald have one last hurrah by winning, he went all the way back to 1924 with The Rasp.