Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fiction Bestsellers of 1939

Between August 21 and September 18, 1939 the U. S. fiction bestsellers were, according to the book wholesalers Baker & Taylor (mysteries/thrillers highlighted):

Mignon Eberhart was one of the few
mystery writers to routinely make
American bestseller lists in the 1930s
1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
2. Children of God, by Valerie Fisher
3. Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato
4. Watch for the Dawn. by Stuart Cloete
5. White Magic, by Faith Baldwin
6. The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanley Gardner
7. Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household
8. Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden
9. The Chiffon Scarf, by Mignon Eberhart
10. Charley Manning, by Elizabeth Corbett
11. She Knew Three Brothers, by Magaret Widdemer
12. Red Gardenias, by Jonathan Latimer
13. The Brandons, by Angela Thirkell
14. The Ownley Inn, by Joseph C. and Freeman Lincoln
15. Ararat, by Elgin Groseclose
source: Baker & Taylor

Among the non-genre books I have to admit I have read only #1, The Grapes of Wrath, though I've seen the wonderful film version of Black Narcissus (which is rather a psychological thriller). Quite a few I had never heard of previously. I have always meant to read something by Angela Thirkell after finding that Todd Downing was a great fan of her novels.

As for the mysteries and thrillers, I was not surprised to see Erle Gardner or Mignon Eberhart, two of the most successful American mystery writers of the 1930s, without a doubt (Gardner of course remains one of the most successful of all time). 

Concerning Jonathan Latimer's Red Gardenias, three of his novels had recently been filmed, and he could be seen as something of a then-successor to the hard-boiled crown of the abdicated Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler's first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, was published earlier that year, but hadn't made quite the splash Chandler had wanted. Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male made the lone English genre stand on the list.

A more in-depth of analysis of American crime fiction bestsellers, 1937-1939, is coming here soon.


  1. What a fascinating list Curt - such a combination of books that have survived and those that haven't. I have read four of these, know of the authors of another four or so, and have never heard of either author or book in the other cases. I wonder which of 2014's bestsellers will have disappeared so thoroughly. Is this is an American list? I'm surprised to see Angela Thirkell so popular - so very English!

    1. Yes, it was American--I should have mentioned at the beginning!

      This list reminds me that a lot of mainstream bestselling fiction gets forgotten--with notable exceptions of course. The bestselling mysteries are more likely to have stuck around, it seems.

  2. I have read some books of a few of these writers but only GRAPES OF WRATH from this list. My husband read ROGUE MALE last year and I have been meaning to pick it up.

    1. Yes, I read Grapes in college. I think I've read four novels by Steinbeck.

  3. Yay for Angela Thirkell!! Thanks to The Captive Reader, I have read and loved several of Thirkell's books. The Brandons is excellent. I like Rumor Godden too, but I've never read Black Narcissus. By the way, 1939 was also an outstanding year for films.

    1. I love the film Black Narcissus but have never read the book. Someday will have to take a look at Thirkell! Todd Downing owned almost every one of her books when he died in 1974.