Saturday, October 4, 2014

Robert Innes Center and The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929), by Milton M. Propper

I have blogged before about the Golden Age American detective novelist Milton M. Propper (1906-1962).  However, I recently came across a fascinating contemporary review of his first detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929), that I wanted to share here.

Milton M. Propper
Propper has been out of print for over eighty years, I believe, but remains notable in American mystery genre history as a once well-regarded follower of the British crime writer Freeman Wills Crofts.

Indeed Propper may have been history's most loyal disciple of Crofts, not only in the US, but anywhere in the world.

In his 1970s essay on Propper (the source of most of the information on him), Francis Nevins does not take note of the tremendous similarities between the two authors, but please believe Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (on Crofts, as well as John Street and J. J. Connington): the similarities are there, and they are tremendous.

Although Propper was not nearly as notable a "classical" American crime writer as Ellery Queen or even Rufus King, say, he gave traditionalists what they wanted: puzzle-focused plots, with lots of material clues and scrupulous investigative detail.

These things may have gone out of fashion with many in the modern crime fiction world (hence the term "humdrum"), but at the time Milton Propper wrote his mysteries, such books still enjoyed a large and enthusiastic following.

Certainly Robert Innes Center, who reviewed Milton Propper's The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young in 1929 was an enthusiast when it came to Propper's debut detective novel:

murder at the amusement park
Of all the detective stories I have read recently (over one hundred and twenty-five of them), this book stands out as one of the very finest....Never for a minute does it relax, and this swiftness is sustained to the very last page.

Even though this is a first detective story, Mr. Propper shows a remarkable adaptability for this type of fiction.  He displays due regard for the rules of detective fiction and only violates them when absolutely necessary or to obtain a required effect.  He knows how to create suspense, atmosphere and ingenious situations....

The characters in the story are all drawn with a deft hand and there is more keen characterization than usually appears in a detective story.  However, this characterization does not interfere with the working out of the plot and does not intrude itself too much.

If Mr. Propper continues writing books of the same caliber he will certainly become an excellent addition to the highest ranks of writers in the fields of detective fiction.

This is an interesting glimpse into the mind of a contemporary fan of Golden Age crime fiction (and what a fan he must have been, having read 125 detective novels "recently"). Center did care about "the rules of detective fiction," though in his mind it might be acceptable to break them on occasion.

Also Center was happy to have "keen characterization"--as long as it "does not intrude itself too much" on the puzzle plot. Today there may be more crime fiction readers who are happy to have a keen puzzle plot, as long as it does not intrude itself too much on the characterization!

Robert Innes Center (1903-1981) graduated from Columbia University in 1925 and in 1928 was one of the founders the Detective Story Club, of which he was elected President. Center was a prominent New York literary agent and was involved in the creation of Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club, one of the most important twentieth-century mystery fiction publishing imprints.

But wait! you may be saying.  What the deuce is the Detective Story Club?  I'll have more on this organization this weekend, and more next week on Milton Propper.

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