Saturday, October 8, 2022

Paperback Novelties: The Dell Great Mystery Library, 1957 to 1968 (?)

The Dell Great Mystery Library was an early attempt to "codify" great mystery fiction.  When it was launched in 1957 it was described as "an exciting new venture in softcover publishing, bringing you the world's most distinguished mystery fiction as determined by:


author, editor and critic, recognized as America's foremost mystery authority


Academy Award-winning actor, and star of such motion picture mystery successes as 
The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Desperate Hours


poet, biographer, essayist, anthologist and mystery fan

design by William Teason

Well, Anthony Boucher, natch, he was like the Otto Penzler or Martin Edwards of his day in the U. S., in terms of dominating the mystery criticism and reprint field, but the weird thing about this is that Humphrey Bogart died at the age of 57 on January 14, 1957--the same month in which the first three books in the Dell series were published!

It is a little hard to believe that the deeply terminally ill Bogart was spending his time selecting books for Dell's great mystery series, but this is what the publisher tells us.  His photo continued to appear on the back covers of the books in Dell series at least through number 7, six months after his death, with Dell assuring its readers that the late actor was still helping Boucher and Untermeyer to select the books!  

By numbers 9 and 10, however, Bogie's pic had been replaced with a new judge:

Boris Karloff

star of stage and screen. master of the spine-tingling art, whose hits include Frankenstein and Arsenic and Old Lace

Red menace Louis Untermeyer insidiously 
subverting quiz show What's My Line?
As for Louis Untermeyer, he was a prominent Jewish public intellectual who had been blacklisted from television for having had Communist associations back in the Thirties.  Gasp!

In 1950 Untermeyer had been fired, due to pressure from right-wing organizations like the Catholic Veterans, from the popular TV quiz show What's My Line? and replaced with Bennett Cerf

Doubtlessly this made America vastly safer from the looming specter of the Red Menace.  (Cause Untermeyer's "line" was Communism, see?!)  So I suppose it was daring having him on the Dell panel of judges.  Anthony Boucher was a noted liberal and likely was sympathetic to his fellow essayist's plight.

Does anyone, by the by, really think it was anyone other than Anthony Boucher who was making all the selections?  This is yet another example of Boucher's great influence in the world of crime fiction in the Fifties and Sixties, as least in the U. S.

Cornell George Hopley Woolrich scores 
two titles in the top ten

Anyway, the first ten books in the series were all published in 1957.  These were, in order:

#1 The Bride Wore Black, by Cornell Woolrich (January)

#2 Trial by Fury, by Craig Rice (January)

#3 Laura, by Vera Caspary (January)

#4 A Puzzle for Fools, by Patrick Quentin (March)

#5 Warrant for X, by Philip Macdonald (April)

Vera Caspary gets a bigger font
#6 Headed for a Hearse, by Jonathan Latimer (May)

#7 The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (June)

#8 A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler (July)

#9  The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers (September)

#10 Phantom Lady, by William Irish (October)

A good list, I think, though with a distinctly American bias.  Macdonald, Ambler and Patrick Quentin are the only British authors, although the Quentin book is set in the States and the two men behind Patrick Quentin lived together in the States when the book was originally published,.  

Just three women made it onto the list (Craig Rice being a woman of course), but then this was the Fifties and the panelists were all men, so maybe this was not such a bad showing under the circumstances.  Still, you might have thought they would have stuck one woman on the panel, even if it was just for show.

The next ten books in the series were:

#11 Before the Fact, Francis Iles

#12 Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

#13 Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout

#14 Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

#15 The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake

#16 The Bellamy Trial, by Frances Noyes Hart

#17 Death of a Ghost, by Margery Allingham

#18 Background to Danger, by Eric Ambler

#19 The Mystery of the Dead Police (X v. Rex), by Philip Macdonald

#20 The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

Which went a good way toward redressing the imbalance between American and British writers and a bit of the sex imbalance too.  As for other books in the series, at some point Dell stopped numbering them but here are the "twenties" titles:

#21 A Hole in the Ground, by Andrew Garve

#22 A Gentle Murderer, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

#23 One More Unfortunate, by Edgar Lustgarten

#24 The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle

#25 The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne

#26 The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar

#27 Journey into Fear, by Eric Ambler

#28 Bedelia, by Vera Caspary

#29 The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr

Did Dell number up to 30?  I do not know.  I am surprised it took Carr so long to make the cut, especially with Boucher being such a great Carr admirer and pal.  Of the first 29, then, we ended up with 15 books authored by English writers to 14 American/Canadian, as even a split as could be, and 11 books authored by women writers to 18 men.  

Authors with multiple titles are Eric Ambler (3), Cornell Woolrich/William Irish (2), Vera Caspary (2), Philip Macdonald (2).  More feminine domestic suspense than masculine hardboiled by far, even while the British Crime Queens are underrepresented (Christie, Allingham, Tey).  A couple of chestnut titles by the late oldsters Mary Roberts Rinehart and Arthur Conan Doyle, actually three if we count A. A. Milne's mystery or even four if we add The Bellamy Trial.

Some later, unnumbered ones are:

Evvie, by Vera Caspary

The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin

The Second Man, by Edward Grierson

The Bad Seed, by William March

Someone Like You, by Roald Dahl

Kiss, Kiss, by Roald Dahl

Evelyn Piper, The Motive

The Promise of Murder (Melora), by Mignon Eberhart

Trial and Error, by Anthony Berkeley

The Hours before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin

How Like an Angel, by Margaret Millar

The Fiend, by Margaret Millar

No Next of Kin, by Dorothy Cameron Disney

Before I Die, Helen McCloy

The Pavilion, by Hilda Lawrence 

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Sleep Long, My Love, by Hillary Waugh

Case Pending, by Dell Shannon

Nightmare, by Cornell Woolrich

This takes us up to forty-eight books.  Were there more?  Probably!

Vera Caspary makes it up to 3 titles, along with Margaret Millar and Cornell Woolrich, while Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles scores 2.  That puts them at the top with Eric Ambler (3) and Philip Macdonald (2). Another chestnut is The Lodger and there are a couple of police procedurals in Sleep Long, My Love and Case Pending.  And lots of domestic suspense!  At this point Dell seemed to be overwhelmingly concentrating on books from more recent years, from the Sixties and Fifties.

After the first ten, Dell evidently decided the uniform cover design, by brilliant modernists Push Pin Studios, was too plain, so they hired more traditional illustrative artists.  

The beautiful Bedelia cover was done by William Teason, perhaps Dell's top paperback "gun" at the time.  The pics of the panel of judges disappeared from the back covers at some point, but I bet brainy Boucher was still in back of it all, pulling strings....

One tip-off to this being all Boucher is there is not a single Philo Vance mystery by S. S. Van Dine--Boucher definitely thought that was one series which served a good kick in the pance!


  1. An interesting list. The ones I know justify their places and I'll look for the others. Presumably the availabilty of copyright permission for reprints by Dell also affected the selection.
    Was Louis Untermeyer selected by Boucher? In his own novels Boucher derided blacklisting, so he may have been sympathetic to him. Untermeyer is probably best-known now as a poetry anthologist. The main fault with his anthologies is the predictability of his selection, but they may be predictable now because of their influence on later anthologists!

    1. Wouldn't be surprised about Boucher! Untermeyer got a raw deal from "Line" but they were forced by the sponsor, who was worried about boycotts.

  2. I agree, the Bedelia cover (mostly in red) is outstanding. I presume that's Bedelia in the contrasting black dress. Her expression and pose seem to have a beseeching quality. I like those "modernist" covers too, and I'm surprised that Dell had the chutzpa to avoid the tabloid sensationalist "in your face" style that many mystery paperback covers exhibited.

    1. Yes, that is some little black dress too! Pic really captures character. One of Teason's best.
      I give Dell cred for going with those covers, but they dropped them after the first twenty. They also included fewer real "milestone" books and started publishing much more recent books, from the Fifties and Sixties, for the most part.