Friday, May 23, 2014

The Top Ten Mystery Writers of 1941?

the winner--with her mystery muse?
In 1941 Columbia University Press surveyed the mystery reading habits of the "literary world," via the Press' weekly newsletter.  I'm somewhat dubious that the entire "literary world" actually read this newsletter, but, however broad this sample was, herewith are its ten most popular mystery writers:

1. Dorothy L. Sayers ("by a wide margin")
2. Agatha Christie
3. Arthur Conan Doyle
4. Ngaio Marsh
5. Erle Stanley Gardner
6. Rex Stout
7. Ellery Queen
8. Margery Allingham
9. Dashiell Hammett
10. Georges Simenon

It's fascinating how this group of writers was to maintain its popularity for decades (within the last forty years, however, Queen and Gardner have faded).

In the British contingent we see an early sign of the coalescing of the four Crime Queens (the late Arthur Conan Doyle was the only British male writer included), while the Americans are a pretty traditional lot, with only Dashiell Hammett representing what would be the rapidly rising hard-boiled movement.

Of course it's important to remember this would have been a more highbrow sample than the norm (hence the appearance of Simenon).  Perhaps most striking to me is not the absence of Raymond Chandler, who was new on the novel scene, but that of bestselling mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Had the "literary world" begun to see her and the so-called HIBK ("Had I But Known") gang as old hat?  Or was she, perhaps, a few rungs behind, somewhere in the top twenty?

For more on the "upholstered" mystery reading habits of early-forties readers see this post from earlier this month.


  1. In my heart I am quietly sobbing for the omission of John Dichson Carr ... Fascinating stuff Curt, thanks!

    1. This is the problem when we only get the top 10. I bet Carr was in the top 20 anyway! I can only wonder what the list for 1931 would have looked like.