Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Best of 1938: Judge Lynch Renders His Verdict on Crime Novels

Earlier this year I posted Saturday Review mystery critic Judge Lynch's list of the best novels of 1939.  Here, without further ado, is the sequel, his list for 1938:

The Fashion in Shrouds (Doubleday, Doran), Margery Allingham

Albert Campion at his shrewdest as a sleuth, glittering background of London gown-shops and gaudy restaurants, galaxy of interesting characters and first-calls writing.

Fast Company (Dodd, Mead), Marco Page

Tough goings-on in the rare-book biz, a detective--and his wife--who can deduce and wisecrack at top-speed, dialogue that crackles and an A-1 puzzle.

The Crooked Hinge (Harpers), John Dickson Carr

Aura of supernatural around quite mundane but mystifying murder of claimant to old English estate adds triple zest to marvelously well-spun puzzle for adipose Dr. Fell.

Murder on Safari (Harpers), Elspeth Huxley

Complete education in big-game hunting (African); delightful obnoxious tycoons--American and English; robbery, murder, and a jungleful of excitement.

Lament for a Maker (Dodd, Mead), Michael Innes

Eerie Scottish castle houses eccentric laird who goes boomp over battlements.  Continuously creepy chapters lead to totally unexpected ending and all is braw--but for the tale-bearing rats.

Death from a Top Hat (Putnam), Clayton Rawson

Ex-Magicker Merlini manipulates coins while solving strange deaths of occultist and card-trickster. Huge amounts of fascinating facts on magicians, much humor, and a hurricane finish.

A Puzzle in Poison (Doubleday, Doran), Anthony Berkeley

Death--by arsenic--of retired English engineer brings numerous nice people under suspicion. Detectives clear them all but an amateur comes to conclusion that leaves reader agasp.

The Wall (Farrar & Rinehart), Mary Roberts Rinehart

Divorcee, lurking round ex-husband's seaside home, slain with gold club.  Other deaths, and romance, follow--all satisfactorily solved in spite of clues left hanging.

Warrant for X (Doubleday, Doran), Philip Macdonald

American playwright on London holiday overhears plot, almost gets bumped off before Anthony Gethryn, in class A comeback, nails plotters.

I have read all of these, but the Marco Page novel, which in its day was very popular and also successfully filmed.  I will be writing about one next week (I think you can guess which).

How many have you read?  What do you think of the judge's list?  I think it stands up pretty well, though there are some notable omissions.  No Agatha Christie (Appointment with Death, Hercule Poirot's Christmas), most obviously, and no Rex Stout (Too Many Cooks); they wouldn't make it in 1939 either.

On the other hand, Innes, Carr and Rawson made it both years.  Men predominate, accounting for six of nine titles, while Brits outnumber Americans 5-4.  Only one of the novels really has any affinity with the hard-boiled school (or maybe two, come to think of it, the Page and the Macdonald; the latter man had been living for some time in the United States, where he had moved to work on Hollywood screenplays).

Overall, my impression from this list is that 1938 was a very good year in crime!


  1. Oooo!! I love Margery Allingham and Fashion in Shrouds is one of my favorites!! And I just picked up the ebook version of The Wall from Amazon on Cyber Monday!!

  2. I've read four and one fourth of LAMENT FOR A MAKER. Tried twice and never made it past page 100 of that one. For my tastes nothing really happens in the first 80 or so pages and the Scottish dialect was way too much for me to endure. I have all of Huxley's mysteries and hope to read them all this year. Still have yet to read a single book by Allingham.

    Marco Page's book is more in line with the screwball husband/wife amateur sleuth books than hardboiled school if you ask me. Harry Kurnitz (Page's real name) practically invented the way everyone now thinks of Nick and Nora Charles when he became a screenwriter for that series. The married couple in FAST COMPANY can esily be seen as the prototypes of his reinvention of Hammett's couple.

  3. John, Elizabeth, seems like I've been doing a lot of Allingham here lately! That's very interesting about Kurnitz's role in the Nick and Nora mythology. I suppose even The Thin Man, which some Hammett fans see as something of a sell-out, was still more hard-boiled than most of the wisecracking, cocktail-quaffing sleuthing couple books that followed.

  4. John, I like Elspeth Huxley quite a bit. Great atmosphere and genuine clueing. I like some of Innes but, I agree, the Scots dialect is a wee bit challenging! Some of those Innes books are incredibly long and involved (some might say convoluted) for the period.

  5. Let smugness be almost unconfined as I've read all of these except the Berkeley! I was planning to review the Kurnitz quite soon but shall delay my plans ...

    1. The Berkeley's a good 'un, Sergio. But yeah, all but one is is admirable. You should review the Page.

  6. Haven't read any of these - GASP! But I liked your list so much that I posted it on my Facebook page. I'll now have some catching up to do. The Fashion in Shrouds and Fast Company look most like my kind of thing.

    1. I want to read Fast Company too. Thanks for listing on FB, Yvette!

  7. I would not dare to say which books someone should pick for their "best of" list for any year, but to leave Agatha Christie and Rex Stout off, I would never do that. Allingham is a favorite, and I love that one of the favorites for 1938 (Fast Company) has the same name as a business magazine in 2013. Lovely post, Curt.

  8. Thanks, Tracy! I still need to read Fast Company.