Saturday, August 3, 2013

Buy American! Were British Mysteries "Unfair Competition"?




These were the tongue in cheek headlines in a newspaper of the British Empire, when it was reported in 1929 that a Californian had written one of his senators, Hiram Johnson, complaining that "there are some half-million or more writers[in the United States] starving to death because they cannot sell the products of their pens....They have absolutely no protection against the unfair competition of foreign writers."  It was reported that this individual "is particularly the popularity of made-in England thrillers."

California senator Hiram Johnson was begged to put a stop to "unfair" British crime tales

At this time English crime writers like J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935), E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) were quite popular in the United States as well as Britain (Fletcher was, I think, more popular in the United States than he was in Britain).  And this is not to mention the young up-and-comers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers!

Shocker!  Was Edgar Wallace
plotting to destroy American crime fiction?!
Of course, the United States had S. S. Van Dine, who published his bestselling The Bishop Murder Case in 1929, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Earl Derr Biggers; and writers like Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, Rufus King and Mignon Eberhart would rise fast.

So it's not exactly like there was no homegrown stuff to consume!

Nevertheless, our agitated California friend called for the imposition of a two cents per word duty "on all unpublished foreign fiction entering the United States." Down with baronets bludgeoned in the studies of their country houses!  Make my murders American!!

I personally find British mysteries quite enticing, but I like the Americans too. What about you?  Do you prefer British or American mysteries?  And why do you prefer what you prefer?  Pure aesthetics--or patriotic fervor?


  1. I love this newspaper discovery! I began reading mysteries with the Brits (like most people I think) and only because of their popularity and their books were still in print or easily available. Yet even in my early reading I was mixing it up. Queen, Stout and Van Dine were the first American mystery writers I read while still in high school. I found a slew of new American writers when I subscribed to EQMM and especially looked forward to any of Edward D. Hoch's stories. I eventually found Carr thanks to the guidance of a friend and her mother who owned a vast and a varied collection of paperback mystery novels that included writers from US and UK as well popular still-in-print international writers like Marsh, Simenon, Upfield, and Wahlöö & Sjöwall. I also read all the mystery authors who were available in my local library in Ridgefield, CT where I grew up. Thankfully it was a very old Connecticut library that loved to keep their very old books. That's how I managed to read nearly all the Philo Vance books at such an early age while all the other kids were reading Stephen King, V.C. Andrews and John Saul.

    Right now, I'm very much a promoter of the unsung American writers but I tend to be drawn to crime fiction (rather than detective novels) of the late 40s into the mid 60s. More and more I'm drawn to the women writers who never really got the kind of bestseller status they deserved: Helen McCloy, Helen Nielsen, Dorothy Salisbury Davis are a few that spring to mind instantly. Among the overlooked male American writers I think are especially good are Rufus King, Herman Petersen, Patrick Quentin (and all those other pseudonyms), Richard Sale, Geoffrey Homes, and the hugely neglected A.B. Cunningham.

    Once it was the puzzle I craved, now it tends to be character and insight, plus personal voice and writing style. The story are also important to me, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a whodunit anymore. Imaginative writing is what really attracts me in any fiction these days.

  2. Delightful, if a bit naively jingoistic. My own sense is that I read American and British authors for reasons connected with their skills, not their nationality. But as a Canadian I can say that I've read a lot of second-rate writing for patriotic reasons (not much -- there are lots of excellent Canadian writers, honest!).

    Considering the relative populations of each country, though, I think I have a slight preference for British mysteries. But if you take that principle to its logical conclusion -- apparently I'm crazy about Icelandic mysteries!