Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Crime Raves: U. S. Mystery Bestsellers, 1937-1939

Who done it? Atlanta burns in the
film version of Gone with the Wind
In the U. S. the fiction market in 1937 was dominated by, not altogether surprisingly, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which had been published on June 30 of the previous year.  It stayed at number one until July 1937.

Also big that year were Walter D. Edmonds' Drums along the MohawkSomerset Maugham's TheatreJohn Steinbeck's Of Mice and MenJames Hilton's We Are Not AloneVaughan Wilkins' And So--Victoria and A. J. Cronin's The Citadel. Popping up briefly were Virginia Woolf's The Years and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

In crime fiction, the following books made it to the bestsellers lists in 1937:

#8 The Dumb Gods Speak, E. Phllips Oppenheim
#9 The D. A. Calls It Murder, Erle Stanley Gardner

#6 Cards on the Table, Agatha Christie
#9 Black Land, White Land, by H. C. Bailey

#6 Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

#4 Crimefile No. 2, File on Rufus Ray, Helen Reilly

#4 Ask Miss Mott, E. Phillips Oppenheim
#5 The Pattern, by Mignon Eberhart

#7 Serenade, by James M. Cain

1938 saw Sinclair Lewis briefly hit the top of the list with The Prodigal Parents, followed by Marjorie K. Rawlings with The Yearling.  By the end of the year Gone with the Wind was on top again, spurred on by film hype, no doubt.

Also big were The Mortal Storm by Phyllis Bottome, The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, The Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck, Hope of Heaven by John O'Hara, My Son, My Son! by Howard Spring and All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field.  A brief appearance was made by Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

The mystery/thriller bestsellers of 1938 were:

#15 Serenade, James M. Cain

#11 Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie

#8 The Case of the Substitute Face, Erle Stanley Gardner
#11 Fast Company, Marco Page
#14 Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees, E. Phillips Oppenheim

#11 The Cairo Garter Murders, by Van Wyck Mason

#7 Hasty Wedding, by Mignon Eberhart

#6 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

#3 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#11 Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

#9 The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe, Erle Stanley Gardner
#13 Too Many Cooks, by Rex Stout
#14 Appointment with Death, by Agatha Christie

#1 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#10 The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine
#15 The Glass Slipper, by Mignon Eberhart

#2 Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
#10 The D. A. Holds a Candle, by Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1939 Pearl S. Buck's The Patriot briefly took the #1 spot, before being swamped by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the biggest fiction hit in the U. S. since Gone with the Wind.

Other notable successes that year were The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe, Next to Valour by John Jennings, The Brandons by Angela Thirkell, Captain Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester, Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato and The Nazarene by Sholem Asch.  Also popping up were William Fauklner's The Wild Palms, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, and Nevil Shute's Ordeal.

In the world of crime and mystery in 1939 bestsellerdom we see:

#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

#2 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#15 Murder for Christmas, Agatha Christie (for some reason this was released in the US six weeks after Christmas)

#5 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#9 The Case of the Perjured Parrot, Erle Stanley Gardner

#11 Sir Adam Disappeared, E. Phillips Oppenheim

#7 The Footprints on the Ceiling, Clayton Rawson
#8 Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh
#10 Canceled in Red, Hugh Pentecost
#11 The Singapore Exile Murders, Van Wyck Mason
#12 The Problem of the Green Capsule, John Dickson Carr
#13 The Happy Highwayman, Leslie Charteris

#10 All Concerned Notified, Helen Reilly

#6 The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanly Gardner
#7 Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household
#9 The Chiffon Scarf, Mignon Eberhart
#12 Red Gardenias, Jonathan Latimer

Daphne du Maurier
Of 375 spaces listed for this three-year period, mysteries occupied 45, or 12%. Only four mysteries racked the top five: Oppenheim's Ask Miss Mott, Eberhart's The Pattern, Rinehart's The Wall and du Maurier's Rebecca.

Only the latter two novels, plus James M. Cain's Serenade, were on the bestseller lists for more than a month, The Wall and Serenade for two, Rebecca for six.

As I've mentioned before, a lot of readers in those days simply did not buy hardcover mysteries ($2 a pop!), but rather rented them for a few cents a day from lending libraries. So when a mystery made the bestseller lists, it was a particular special accomplishment.

Rebecca is the most anomalous book of the mystery bestsellers, one that, as they say, "transcended the genre."  Yet what was Rebecca but a brilliant updating of those once tremendously popular Gothic novels?

22 mystery writers are represented, below ranked in terms of number of times they appear on the lists:

Daphne du Maurier 6 (one book)
Erle Stanley Gardner 6 (six books)
Agatha Christie 4 (4 book)
Mignon Eberhart 4 (4 books)
E. Phillips Oppenheim 4 (4 books)
James M. Cain 2 (1 book)
Van Wyck Mason 2 (2 books)
Helen Reilly 2 (2 books)
Mary Roberts Rinehart 2 (1 book)
H. C. Bailey 1
John Dickson Carr 1
Leslie Charteris 1
Geoffrey Household 1
Jonathan Latimer 1
Ngaio Marsh 1
Marco Page 1
Hugh Pentecost 1
Clayton Rawson 1
Dorothy L. Sayers 1
Rex Stout 1
S. S. Van Dine 1
Patricia Wentworth 1

Fourteen men and eight women, Thirteen American and nine British (including NZ).  Five of the women are British, but only four of the men.  We see the development of the idea of the Crime Queens, with Christie, Sayers and Marsh, though there is no Allingham and Christie was yet to attain #1 bestsellerdom.

Prince of Storytellers
E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946)
Du Maurier, Rinehart and Eberhart represent more of the the Gothic mystery tradition and there is some stuff more in the nature of hard-boiled (Latimer, Cain, Pentecost, Page) the modern thriller (Household) and the police procedural (Reilly, including one of the popular Crimefiles dossiers), but many are classic detection and thrillers, including, most surprisingly to me, a miracle problem mystery by Clayton Rawson, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who also shows up once (June 1939 seems to have been a great month for crime fiction).

Fittingly, we even have a final appearance by S. S. Van Dine, the great American mystery bestseller from the 1920s--albeit with a rather bad book! I imagine the popularity of Gracie Allen and the release of the film of the same title helped.

So, who in the late 1930s were the most popular American mystery writers, the prolific producers regularly hitting the bestseller lists? We have Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Mignon Eberhart (often dubbed "American's Agatha Christie") and E. Phillips Oppenheim, a English thriller writer who had been churning 'em out since the Victorian era.  Not for nothing, evidently, was he dubbed the Prince of Storytellers!  "Oppy" had a long reign.

Source: Baker & Taylor Company


  1. I never would've thought that Page's book made the bestseller list. Lighthearted with lots of wisecracks it has a bibliomystery theme. It was turned into a movie in 1938 the same year it was published. Plus, it was one of the earliest Red Badge Prize winners from Dodd Mead. I can imagine both those points were used in the advertising campaign to help increase sales. Interestingly Cancelled in Red was also a Red Badge Prize Winner. That book is about stamp collecting and murder. Can you imagine a book about stamp collecting being a bestseller these days? The movies probably had a powerful influence on the book buying public during these two years. As only one example of the writers you cite -- Eberhart had three movies in theaters released in 1938, but all based on other books than those listed as bestsellers above.

    1. Yes, I think that's a great point about the prizes (you'll notice that on the Dodd, Mead jacket flaps there's a lot of promotion for Fast Company) and the films. I think with Eberhart, Rinehart and Christie the serializations in the slicks were huge too.

  2. A.J. Cronin and Nevil Shute are two of my favourite authors and I continue to read and reread their books as and when I find them, which isn't easy in my neck of the woods. As a teenager I remember being in awe of Cronin's writing style in BEYOND THIS PLACE.

    1. Yeah, I like Shute too, was pleased to see him pop up. Smart writer who doesn't sacrifice storytelling.

  3. Fascinating stuff 9and wonderful covers too) - thanks Curtis. Rather enjoyed seeing SS Van Dione there actually, if if it is for his worst book!

    1. Looks like they couldn't keep Vance down no matter how many kicks in the pance they gave him!

  4. I read 'Ask Miss Mott' about three months ago, and at the time assumed it had been written sometime in the twenties. Never would have guessed it was from '37.

    1. How did you like it, by the way? Yes, he was still writing when World War Two broke out. In fact in 1945 he was planning to write a novel dealing with WW2, but he got sick and passed away. I don't know whether there was anything started.

    2. Well, I liked it as a period piece. Plucky heroine, uncle at Scotland Yard and a villainous hero (or perhaps that should be heroic villain?)

  5. A really fascinating compilation -- many thanks! Interesting to see there was already a good mixture of the hardboiled and the classic/cozy (not to mention the neogothic, ec.).