Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Anthony Boucher's Dozen Best Mystery Novels of 1950

How did the influential American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher see the state of things in the world of mystery as the twentieth century hit its halfway mark?  Well, let's look at his choices for the best mystery novels of the year:

note at bottom Christie tribute blurbs
from  Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr
A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie (among her best)

Blues for the Prince, by Bart Spicer (rich and moving picture of the world of jazz music, in semi-tough manner)

Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey (high straight-novel characterization combined with solid detection)

Frightened Amazon, by Aaron Marc Stein (vivid study of unusual folkways)

Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong (psychologically valid and purely terrifying)

The Bride of Newgate, by John Dickson Carr (the familiar--and incomparable--Carr virtues in the new form of a historical romance)

The Case of the Negligent Nymph, by Erle Stanley Gardner (there were only three Gardners this year; this is the best)

before Macdonald was merely "Ross"
The Drowning Pool, by John Ross Macdonald (hard-boiled detective story vivified by compassion and literary skill)

The Motive, by Evelyn Piper (best of the "best," as novel, as puzzle, as pioneer in a new type of mystery story)

The Rim of Terror, by Hildegarde Teilhet (best of the year's spy-pursuit thrillers)

The Wind Blows Death, by Cyril Hare (When the Wind Blows) (wittily literate British import)

Through a Glass Darkly, by Helen McCloy (impeccable plotting, eerie writing)

An interesting list.  The first thing that strikes me is that seven of the novel are in print, or have been in print within the last quarter century.

Probably almost completely forgotten is the Aaron Marc Stein book. The relatively forgotten ones are the novels by Evelyn Piper, Hildegarde Teilhet and Helen McCloy, though these writers are not forgotten by collectors.  Piper does have one book in print that I know of, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957), likely on the strength of the well-received film adaptation from the 1960s, which starred Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Piper definitely was considered a notable American psychological suspense writer.

Six of the writers are women, six men (did Boucher do that deliberately?), but only three, I believe, are English.  Classical detection at its purest is represented by Christie and Hare and, I imagine, the Gardner, which I have not read.

not on the list
Carr somewhat adulterated his detective novel, in the eyes of the puzzle purist, with period atmosphere, laid on with zest, and McCloy hers with psychology and eerie suspense. (for others this was a good trade-off!) Psychology also is prominent in the Tey and, clearly, the Piper, though I have not read the latter. The Armstrong is a psychological suspense classic.

The Stein, which I also have not read, probably is purer detection, but it sounds like the main reason Boucher liked it was local color (Boucher was a great fan of local color). Then with Teilhet we have spies and with Macdonald and Spicer hard-boiled.  Hard-boiled arguably is underrepresented--or an American list, anyway--but no way was Boucher picking a Spillane! That was not. going. to. happen. in a Boucher column in 1950.


  1. I don't know if it was you or Boucher who wrote "there were only three Gardners this year", but the word "only" made me chuckle.
    The Cyril Hare book is wryly funny and well-written, as usual, but the central clue is based on ... let's call it an in-depth knowledge of classical music. Not quite fair, I've always felt.

    1. That was Boucher, being wry himself. All the parenthetical comments after the books are by Boucher. The Hare book had a much more dignified original title I thought: When the Wind Blows. "The Wind Blows Death" is pretty phony (not to mention corny and cheesy)--as a fictional character who was about to appear at this time, Holden Caulfield, would have said.

  2. McCloy adulterated her book with psychology and eerie suspense? Surely those are not bad things to have in a book.

    1. Ron. that can certainly make a good book! I wrote adulterated the "detective novel," as in taking focus away from the detection with other elements, thus weakening it, but perhaps that gives a misleading impression, I was just thinking that from the Van Dine puzzle purist standpoint, say, it was adulteration.

    2. Here's the slight revision in the text, hope this makes my point clearer:

      "Carr somewhat adulterated his detective novel, in the eyes of the puzzle purist, with period atmosphere, laid on with zest, and McCloy hers with psychology and eerie suspense. (for others this was a good trade-off!) "

  3. I wouldn't exactly call Bart Spicer hardboiled though he is a private eye novelist. The books are very different from what people think of as a typical private eye novel. I've written about Bart Spicer's creation Carney Wilde on my blog. The first two books in the series (THE DARK LIGHT and BLUES FOR A PRINCE) were reviewed last year. Spicer was one of the leading private eye writers adding social commentary to the crime novel and did so without proselytizing or making speeches. His mystery plots are well constructed with unusual settings and backgrounds and have some of the best detection in a subgenre known more for sex and violence than puzzles.

    I'm interested in reading Piper's book based solely on Boucher's blurb. I always thought she was more of a suspense writer. I've always liked the movie version of BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

    1. John, Spicer is referred to by Boucher as "semi-tough," so that sounds like your estimation. I'll be sure to link to your review. I bought three Spicer books based on Boucher's praise, but yours make his books yet more desirable. The expert Bill Crider has praised him too.

      I liked Bunny Lake Is Missing, the film and the book. It might be interesting to compare differences. Piper also wrote The Nanny, which was also filmed, with Bette Davis. She wrote a trio of suspense novels in 1949-51 that got a lot of attention as the emphasis moved away from pure detection to psychological suspense.

  4. After reading your fine review, I want to run out and find a copy of FRIGHTENED AMAZON by Aaron Marc Stein!

    1. George, let me know what you think! I've never read that one.