Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Best of 1939: Judge Lynch Renders His Verdict on Crime Novels

For many years William C. Weber reviewed crime fiction for Saturday Review, under his clever handle "Judge Lynch."  Here is the Judge's selection of the Best Books of 1939 (the headline says six, but there are actually seven):

A Coffin for Dimitrios (in UK, The Mask of Dimitrios), Eric Ambler (Verdict: Masterpiece)

The Crying Sisters, Mabel Seeley (Verdict: Grand)

Strawstack, Dorothy Cameron Disney (reprinted as The Strawstack Murders) (Verdict: Brilliant)   I should note that Strawstack has been reviewed by a couple of my blogging confreres; see here and here.

Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh (Verdict: Unexcelled)

The Problem of the Green Capsule (in UK, The Black Spectacles), John Dickson Carr (Verdict: Super-baffler)

 The Footprints on the Ceiling, Clayton Rawson (Verdict: Immense!)

The Spider Strikes (in UK, Stop Press), Michael Innes (Verdict: Caviar--Best Grade)

I find this is an impressive list (I will be reviewing one of these books very soon, by the way).

No doubt people today might question some things about it, like the absence of anything technically "hard-boiled" (for example, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep was published in 1939).  I would say Eric Ambler's classic crime novel A Coffin for Dimitrios has affinities with the hard-boiled school, but, still, this best-of list does show that hard-boiled crime fiction before 1940 had not exactly swept all corners of mystery reading America, as some seem to think.

I'm sure people will notice that Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None did not make the cut, but it was not actually published in the United States until January 1940.  Also missing is Rex Stout's Some Buried Caesar, another one of my favorites.  Maybe we should pretend that these three novels rounded out the list, to make a full top ten!

Notably Absent: Caesar got buried

There are four men and three women on the list, somewhat challenging the currently ascendant notion in academia that male critics back then mostly were pronounced chauvinists.  Even more notably in this regard, two of the three women authors listed are associated with the HIBK (Had I But Known) school of so-called "feminine anxiety" mysteries, sometimes known as the Mary Roberts Rinehart school.

Male critics, we are often told today, invariably ridiculed these HIBK books.  To the contrary, however, both Mabel Seeley and Dorothy Cameron Disney got great reviews from male (and female) critics, and deservedly so.

Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes are on hand to represent British mystery.  Marsh's village mystery novel is considered one of the key British Crime Queen novel of manners texts, yet it is still an orthodox detective novel in form.  Innes' novel, on the other hand, is a surreal fantasia on mystery themes.

John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson represent the "impossible crime" or "miracle problem" tale at its best.

What do you think of this list?  Anything you would add?


  1. A Coffin for Dimitrios would be very hard to beat. Footprints on the Ceiling is terrific fun though.

  2. I've read a few of these. Good picks - especilly the Carr and Disney books. Superior detective novels. I own several Seeley books but I have yet to read any of them. Is she the one you're planning on reviewing? Howard Haycraft expected great things from her, but she seemed to fizzle and dry up. 1939 was the watershed year for movies, too and I can think of more movies from that year than mystery novels. But after a quick run through of my favorite writers and the books that were published in 1939 (in the US) I would definitely add these:

    REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier (how is not included?!)
    DEATH AND THE MAIDEN by Patrick Quentin
    and of course my all time favorite American mystery writer (and the always overlooked)...
    DANCE OF DEATH by Helen McCloy

  3. Dimitrios really did blow me away too, d.

    Those are good additions, John. Yes, it is the Seeley. I'm running behind, though, finishing this Mechem reprint introduction.