The Renaissance Era: Returns from the Bowels of Obscurity

"By a route obscure and lonely..."
- Edgar Allan Poe (Dreamland, 1844)
I've several ideas for blog-posts (read: filler-posts) on the back burner, such as my favorite impossible crimes from Case Closed or updating the best-of lists, which has actually been requested numerous times, but they require actually time and preparation ("show prep") - placing them at the back of my priority list. So I decided to finally start cleaning out the Augean stables.

You should not expect them to appear all at once over the next couple of weeks or months, because I plan to spread them out over the entirety of 2017. And that probably means that some won't get written and posted until 2018. However, I'll make a genuine effort to get around to as many of them as possible and particularly my best-of lists, but still haven't decided on whether I'll update the old posts or simply re-post them as new lists.

Anyway, we'll eventually see how long it will take for this ship to crash on the rocky shores of broken promises. But for now, I actually have something for you that came from the backseat of my priority list.

Back in December of 2014, I posted a blog-post about the revival of the traditional detective story, entitled "The Renaissance Era of Detective Fiction," which commented on the smash success of a reprint edition by J.J. Farjeon's obscure Mystery in White (1937) – becoming a runaway bestseller that sold over 60.000 copies! I said in my post how this change had been in the air for over a decade. When the advent of the internet reestablished a middle market where secondhand book dealers and small, independent publishers found a willing audience for the long-neglected detective stories of yore.

Since that post, we've been buried in an avalanche of reprints and thought the time was ripe to write an addendum to it, because there was another important side-effect to the internet opening up a new and open market place – namely making it easier for the casual readers to explore the never-ending rabbit hole that's our genre.

Before the internet, you could easily get your hands on such writers as Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout. They never really went out-of-print and their work saturated the secondhand book market, but going beyond the usual suspects required specialization, serendipitous luck and some money. Basically, you had to be a fan with the fanaticism of a true believer. Just look at the slew of new names and book titles regularly excavated by Curt Evans and John Norris. I'm not exactly a casual mystery reader and consider myself to be a fairly knowledgeable fan, but I never cease to amaze at what has been lost and how rich a history our genre has. So imagine how unlikely it must have been for a casual readers to get an easy opportunity to read Robin Forsythe, Kelley Roos and Joseph Commings in the pre-internet days. The changes were very, very slim.

I wanted to do a post looking at the authors who were (IMHO) most successful in riding the wave of this Renaissance Era and succeeded in either reclaiming their past glory or even proved to be more successful than they probably were in their own lifetime. And the first name might surprise you know.

Anthony Berkeley was, arguably, one of the most important British mystery writers of the 1930s and some of his work has definitely inspired some of Christie's most celebrated novels (c.f. The Silk Stockings Murders (1928) with The ABC Murders, 1936). His share to the first round-robin novel by the Detection Club is what made The Floating Admiral (1931) surprisingly successful, because he tied everything logically together in the final chapter. He also predicted the rise of the psychological thriller, but, by the 2000s, Berkeley had been all but forgotten. Until a publishing outfit, The House of Stratus, started to reprint his mystery novels.

I always got the impression from browsing the archives of the old GAD Yahoo Group that Berkeley found a whole new audience in the early 2000s. Many of the readers on that group, whose opinions and reviews were my guidebook through the genre, acquired there first Berkeley's through HoS and avid collectors were able to add or even complete the series. I believe the new editions of The Layton Court Mystery (1925) and Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) were welcomed with open arms.

The House of Stratus were very important with helping kick-start the Renaissance Era by bringing this historically important writer back in print, but they also brought back other, once big-name, writers: Michael Innes, Freeman Wills Crofts and Edgar Wallace. However, I think Berkeley is the big winner of the lot, because he was the first big name to make a return and his work may have been as instrumental in bringing this new era about as he was during the Golden. Hey, you know what they say: a classic never goes out of style.

On a side note, "JJ," from The Invisible Event, placed a crown on Berkeley's brow as one of the Crime Kings. The post is titled "The Kings of Crime – III: Anthony Berkeley, the King of Diamonds."

A second name I have pointed out before, but must noted, is that of the Empress of the Renaissance Era, the Great Gladys Mitchell. Down, JJ. Down! Allow me to explain. Nobody has made a return as big and thorough as Mitchell. She was one of the most obscure writers of the genre in the early 2000s. Most of her books were never reprinted as paperbacks and were mostly available to collectors who were willing to spend money to possess rare hardcover editions. One of the few titles that were relatively easy to get was a paperback edition of Watson's Choice (1950) and some Green penguins.

There were two names during that time who helped kept her work alive: Nick Fuller who now infrequently blogs at "Escape to Adventure" and the man behind "The Stone House, a Gladys Mitchell Tribute Site." They made a great case for Mitchell and were very honest about her flaws, but pleaded that she was an acquired taste who deserved a chance. Personally, I'm very glad I did, because Mrs. Bradley is one of my favorite detective characters and when her creator had a firm grasp of all her plot-threads the books were often excellent. She made a good impression when the now defunct Rue Morgue Press reissued such titles as Death at the Opera (1934) and When Last I Died (1941), which Crippen & Landru compiled a collection of all her short stories under the title Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005). Soon, Mitchell's rarest titles, such as Brazen Tongue (1940) and The Worsted Viper (1943), were reissued by the Minnow Press as hardcover editions and they apparently had a limited print run – because they went out-of-print within a blink of an eye. Eventually, she was picked up by Vintage/Penguin and they reissued all of her mystery novels. I think she has been more read in the past few years than during her own lifetime.

Let's continue with two more odd-ones-out: the first is the previously mentioned Farjeon, who was the least likely writer to reappear from obscurity, but Mystery in White came at the right time and was read more than during its original publication – ensuring further reprints. Farjeon is, like Mitchell, an acquired taste, but his comeback was amazing! Maurice Leblanc is the other odd name, one of the leading lights of the Rogue School, but I don't think his name was well-remembered outside of the Francophone world before the 2000s. But then Wildeside Press began to reissue translations, which consisted of the marvelous The Exploits of Arsène Lupin (1907) and 813 (1910). Leblanc is still not one of the most widely read names in the genre, but he probably would not even have been known about without these editions.

I already mentioned the Rue Morgue Press and their role in Mitchell's return, but they had an extensive catalog that included Nicholas Blake, Glyn Carr, Clyde B. Clason, Kelley Roos and Craig Rice. However, the one that seems to have really stuck around, after they closed down for business, is Stuart Palmer. The run of reprints by the RMP saw the return in print of the extremely scarce The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and a good swath of Palmer's mystery novels are still available as ebooks. So I found it interesting Palmer is the one who emerged as sort of a mainstay, because his competition included the great John Dickson Carr, Craig Rice and Delano Ames. But it is good that he's being read again.

Leo Bruce also deserves a mention as pretty much all of his mystery novels, featuring either Sgt. Beef or Carolus Deene, were brought back into circulation by Chicago Press, which included the much touted Case for Three Detectives (1936) and the obscure Case with Four Clowns (1939) – once considered as one of the scarcest books by a well-known Golden Age authors. Curt Evans also made him the subject of an essay, “The Man Who Was Leo Bruce.” A name who's (justly) well-regarded among connoisseurs of detective stories and glad to see his work is easy to get nowadays. Particularly, the Sgt. Beef series.

Lately, we have seen an outpouring of reprints from such publishers as the British Library Crime Classics-wing of the Poisoned Pen Press, The Detective Club from HarperCollins, Coachwhip Books, Ramble House and the Dean Street Press. A profusion of once well-known and completely obscure, long-forgotten writers were republished by them in the past few years, which makes it hard to say who will end up leaving a somewhat lasting impression, but there already some remarkable comebacks in this tsunami of reprints. 
E.R.Punshon is one of those familiar names from a bygone era and was highly regarded among both his readers and peers. Sayers once famously asked, "what is distinction," followed by holding up one of Punshon's mysteries and pointed to it, but he fell quickly from public memory after his death in the 1950s. 

Over the past few years, his work has been brought back into by print on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean by two different publishers – one of them printing paperback editions and the other ebooks. My regularly readers are well aware of my high opinion on Punshon and regard his return to our bookshelves as important as the rediscovery of Berkeley. I would have loved to know what "kindly Mr. Punshon" would have thought of the renewed interest in his work in that far-flung year of 2016.

Dean Street Press, who did digital end of Punshon's comeback, has also brought back a number of unjustly neglected woman mystery writers. Some who could have easily claimed the title of Crime Queen had they written more of some novels that currently found their way back into our hands. Ianthe Jerrold wrote the traditionally-styled classic Dead Man's Quarry (1930) and Harriet Rutland was the authoress of the delightful Bleeding Hooks (1940), but all of the books from their small body of work is well wroth a read and sincerely hope they will stand the test of time – because they could have been serious rivals to the other Crime Queens. But time will tell.

The British Library also did their fair share in bringing a host of long-forgotten mystery writers back in the limelight, but the most interesting reprints were Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (as Murder of a Lady, 1931) and Christopher St. Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935), because we all want to see more from these authors – as they are obscure and secondhand editions of Wynne come with a hefty price-tag. So, hopefully, they'll break through as well. But we're drifting away from the purpose of this overlong, rambling blog-post that begins to eerily begins to resemble sponsored content. Badly written sponsored content. But rest assured, I do this for free.

Wow, this "addendum" is really about the size of a Van Dinean footnote! Anyhow, let's get going.

One of the strangest appearance on the scene is a Golden Age-style writer who's still alive, namely Paul Halter, who was known in the early 2000s as the second coming of Carr, but John Pugmire had trouble finding a publisher for his translations – since nobody wanted to touch a live GAD writer. So he went into business for himself and founded Locked Room International, but we, as the thoroughly spoiled children that we are, began to pick like a child at the English editions. Going, "well, this is not what expected." And then to think we sacrificed children to get the translations.

However, we're all very grateful to finally get an opportunity to read his locked room novels. Pugmire is still diligently working on a catalog of impossible crime fiction from France, Sweden, England and Japan.

Japan gave us another peculiar, living specimen from Japan's neo-orthodox movement, Keigo Higashino. The first novel to be published, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), was chosen by the American Library Association as Best Mystery Novel of 2012. On the cover was affix "A Novel," but it was a mystery novel at heart. Even though that point was heavily debated. But some of the subsequent translation were more purer mystery novels and I think Higashino garnered the most mainstream recognition from all the writers mentioned thus far.

Well, I feel as if I lost the thread of this blog-post halfway through, because I wanted to write about the successes of some returns, but churned out a simple, drawn-out rundown. Not one that's even all that complete, but this one gone long enough. Well, I never claimed to have been anything more than your resident hack reviewer. I'll try to keep future blog-posts of this nature shorter and keep them on the intended course. Next blog-post will be regular review. So you can keep an eye out for that.


  1. Thanks for the helpful overview of recent releases. :) It has put Leo Bruce and Gladys Mitchell back on the radar for me. It's a pity that the re-releases of Bruce's novels in ebook format do not include 'Cold Blood' and 'Case of Ropes and Rings'. But I managed to source a copy of 'Cold Blood' and it's bobbing somewhere on the ocean towards me. I think I've only read one title by Mitchell - 'Death at the Opera' - and found it slightly strange. I'll probably pick up 'Groaning Spinney' next.

    Collins Crime Club has been republishing, at least in ebook format, some of the Golden Age mystery titles in catalogue, including some of Anthony Berkeley's novels - though, unfortunately, only the poorer ones ('Silk Stocking Murders' and 'Wychford Poisoning Case').

    1. Skimming through the post again and really hate how it turned out. I'm such a hack. At least, you found it useful.

      Mitchell wrote some weird ones and she's the very definition of an acquired taste, but she also wrote some good, straight-laced detective stories. St. Peter's Fingers is a good example. Personally, I always loved Come Away, Death, but it is one of her more imaginative flights of fancies.

      Cold Blood is a good one! It's the last one to star Sgt. Beef and Lionel Townsend, which is a real shame, but they went out on a high-note.

  2. Good round-up, dude. I actually think whoever is in charge of the Mitchell reprints has done an amazing job -- to bring back in her entirety someone who swas largely forgotten and had only had one short-lived and poorly-remembered TV series to her (books') name is a frankly excellent achievement. I don't enjoy the woman's writing -- I believe I've mentioned that -- but I can't deny the great job done by her rights managers.

    In the UK, possibly on the back of the British Library books and possibly not, we're now getting Freeman Wills Crofts reprints in shiny new covers, too. It's a very new things, they're coming out in greater numbers over the next few months, but again great to see someone taking the dive on an author who has contributed a lot to the genre.

    The Detective Club books seem a slightly odd set of titles -- many of them are already avialable, for one, making it seem a bit like an expired-rights pounce -- but there are also some very interesting titles in there that I'm looking forward to reading such as Philip MacDonald's The Maze. There's a lack of actual detective work in a few of the books, which makes me face-palm a little over the lack of awareness being shown about what qualifies for a Detective Club, but, well, they're trying.

    Now all we need is for someone to reprint Carr. I contacted his UK rights manager recently and was -- arguably -- fobbed off, however, so I'm not sure how soon anything is likely to happen in that direction.

    1. Yes, I've seen the covers of the new editions for Crofts! Not bad. Not bad at all. I hope they continue reprinting him, because, eventually, one of the publishers who are currently reprinting Crofts have to get to Sudden Death and The End of Andrew Harrison.

      Until then, I still have The Hog's Back Mystery, Antidote to Poison and some old Penguin paperbacks on the big pile.

      Philip MacDonald's The Maze looks like a title worthy of our attention. From what I gathered, the plot of the story is a pure, undiluted whodunit.

      One reason why I hate how this post turned out is that it should also have looked at the writers who, so far, missed the boat. Carr saw some of his work reprinted, but has not really profited from it. Most of readers still seem to get his work from the secondhand book market. D on Vintage Pop Fiction also pointed out that Christopher Bush is still completely ignored.

    2. I've obnly read the one Crofts to date -- The Hog's Back Mystery -- and, while I can see that it's not for everyone, I loved it. There are three more out from the BL, two of which I bought this weekend, and these other ones from Collins on the way...it's to be hoped those impossibilities follow soon upon (yeah, I'd already checked, too...). It seems Crofts' second wind may be upon us!

      And, hey, if you didn't get to look at those authors who have been thus far neglected, surely that;s just the subject of another post at some point -- problem solved...!

  3. I've only read one Crofts novel to date, and I enjoyed it - 'Hog's Back Mystery' was, come to think of it, the second title I read from the British Library Crime Classics series. It was definitely an improvement from the first one I read, which was John Bude's 'Cornish Coast Mystery'.