Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ritzing It Up with Murder: The Detective Story Club (1928-30?)

Here comes the judge!
Carolyn Wells
The Detective Story Club was formed in New York in August 1928, for the purpose of selecting and distributing detective fiction to readers.  The Club, which met at 11 East 44th Street, had a selection committee (Board of Selection) composed of mystery author Carolyn Wells; true crime writer Edmund Lester PearsonFrancis Lewis Wellman, a former Assistant District Attorney of New York and author of The Art of Cross-Examination; Robert Hobart Davis, a journalist and longtime editor of Munsey's Magazine; and William J. Flynn, former director of the Bureau of Investigation and editor of Flynn's Weekly Detective Fiction (Detective Fiction Weekly).

The Detective Fiction Club ran along similar principles to the Book-of-the-Month Club, which had been started a couple years earlier, in in 1926.  Every month the Club's selection committee's chosen mystery was mailed to subscribers, at retail price.  The Club also issued a monthly publication called "Secret Orders," wherein were found the individual vote tallies of the committee members and committee critiques; a list of recommended books; and an original general interest article written by a prominent lawyer, psychologist, criminologist, etc.

Robert Innes Center, a member of old New York society descended from the Livingstons who lived in a Manhattan row house, was elected President of the Club.  On November 1, 1928 he gave a dinner in the small ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the Club's Board of Selection (numbering only four members, since the death in October of Flynn).

Among the additional guests were various luminaries from the New York publishing world. Each guest received a copy of The Cobra Candlestick(1928), by Elsa Barker, which was the first Club Selection. Barker, who was also a prominent spiritualist, was present in spirit only, one might say. To the gathering she "sent a cablegram of greeting from her Winter home on the Riviera."

the Ritz-Carlton

Barker's book had not bested its competition without a fight, however. Three Club Board members voted for The Cobra Candlestick, but one voted for Herman Landon's Murder Mansion and another voted for Lynn Brock's The Slip-Carriage Mystery.

In December author and critic Fredric F. Van de Water was chosen to replaced the fallen Flynn.  Of detective stories Van de Water phlegmatically stated, "I'd rather read 'em than write 'em and rather fish than do either."

When the new Board voted for the Club's January 1929 selection, the winner was proclaimed Anthony Gilbert's The Mystery of the Open Window, though it was a very close race. Edmund Pearson and Robert Davis voted for Window, but Carolyn Wells and Van de Water voted for Anne Austin's The Avenging Parrot and Francis Wellman opted for Lee Thayer's They Tell No Tales (all the vote-getters were women authors, incidentally).  Francis A. Skelton, the detective fiction editor for The Bookman, was prevailed upon to cast the tie-breaking vote, which went to Window.

at the sign of the
Crime Club Gunman
Of course Doubleday, Doran's own Crime Club, started in April 1928, had a much greater long-term impact than the Detective Story Club. However, apparently Robert Innes Center, along with his friend Nancy Evans, a Doubleday, Doran employee, had played roles in the creation of the publisher's Crime Club imprint (see illustration at left, showing the famous Crime Club gunman logo).

There is a tragic footnote to this story, concerning Nancy Evans.  She married NBC executive Louis Titterton in 1929, leaving Doubleday, Doran. In 1936 she was brutally murdered, in one of New York's most notorious Thirties homicides.*

(*on another see my post about the murder of publisher Claude Kendall)

Articles on the murder of Nancy Evans Titterton noted that the slain woman had had a great fondness for detective fiction. It was stated that Nancy Evans Titterton "conceived the idea that murder mystery fans would richly reward a mystery-book-of-the-month-club. She developed the "Crime Club, Inc.," sold it to Robert Innes Center, who, in turn, sold it to Doubleday, Doran" (New York Post, 11 April 1936, 1).

Note: Above are linked pieces on Elsa Barker (by TomCat), Anne Austin (John Norris) and Anthony Gilbert (by me).  

On the Doubleday Crime Club, see Ellen Nehr's fascinating encyclopedia, Doubleday Crime Club Compendium, 1928-1991 (1992), discussed here by John Norris. Based on a 1970 speech by Ogden Nash, who worked at Doubleday for seven years (including briefly as a Crime Club editor), Nehr's introduction gives "full credit" for the inception of the Crime Club idea to Doubleday advertising manager Daniel Longwell. See also the Crime Club blog.


  1. Absolutely fascinating -- many thanks. I confess I had never even heard of The Detective Story Club.

  2. I hadn't either until recently! Glad you enjoyed, I thought it was an interesting story too.

  3. New on me (and I love the sound of a book entitld THE COBRA CANDLESTICK but have no idea if I'd have the stamina to track it down!)

    1. Sergio, shouldn't be too hard (as least in the US); looks like the Detective Story Club was responsible for a lot of extra copies!