Murder in Retrospect: The Worst Mysteries Read in 2013

"You know, I'm glad this is over, but I feel like everyone is gonna wish they knew who was really last on the list."
- Kyle (South Park, The List) 
"I cannot live without brain-work"
There are up-and down sides to wading through piles of obscure, all-but-forgotten mystery novels, more often than not from writers whose headstone epitaphs are probably read by more people than their literary legacy, but, if you're interested in the history of the genre, it's stimulating to map the emergence of ideas and trends within the detective story. This is why I avoid non-fiction writing on the genre, because they tend to openly discuss solutions and I prefer to discover them on my own.

Anyhow, there are also the disadvantages, such as availability and the price tags, but the greatest one is finding out there was a pretty good reason why a particular book or author slipped from our collective consciousness. I do encounter them from time to time, but this is the first year I suffered through enough of them to compile a modest worst-of list to precede my annual best-of list.

Interestingly, five of the seven titles listed here were published during the twilight years/transitional period of the Golden Age and only two from the 1920-and 30s, but hey, I have always been up front about my predilection for the classics. So lets cast the first stone in alphabetical order of surnames!

The Cursing Stones Murder (1954) by George Bellairs

Arguably, one of the worst mysteries I have ever read and its only, vague claim to be called a detective is the subtitle the cover should have carried, The Cursing Stones Murder, Or, The Case for Book Burning, because everything of remote interest becomes a part of the passing and dreary scenery – as Inspector Littlejohn tramps up and down the Isle of Man. To rehash one of my remarks from the original review, it's like a Gladys Mitchell tale that got its soul ripped out of it.

The Purple Parrot (1937) by Clyde B. Clason

The best of the worst on this list and had to be put on here due to the plots resolution, which turned an intelligently written detective story into an ineffective parody of a shilling shocker. Clason is still one of my favorite mystery writers and he usually delivers, only to fall short in sight of the finish in this instance. Oh, well, you can't win them all.

Death Draws the Line (1949) by Jack Iams

A waste of a detective story with a nifty, unique gimmick surrounding a batch of missing comic strips and they're included in the book, but by the time you got to them, they tell the story you probably already deduced or guessed. The book is further marred by fuzzy, unclear plotting and incompetent police work.

Murder One (1948) by Eleazar Lipsky

The author of this piece was a lawyer and prosecutor himself, which gave the book its only redeeming quality: a keyhole in time for the reader to peek through and observe the machination behind the closed doors of a District Attorney's office in the late 1940s. However, the story's more-than-usual realism is hampered by the lack of even a ghost of a plot, psychological torture (a.k.a. "The Fourth Degree") and an under whelming conclusion after a pair of surprise witnesses were pulled from thin air.

The Red Cavalier (1922) by G.E. Locke

A gaudy collection of shopworn, but propitious, tropes such as a haunted castle and a mysterious murder in the past, however, Locke failed to apply as much as a lick of originality on even a single one of them – prettied up instead with colonial attitudes and casual racism. Even if you think your suffering is over, there's still a fifty-page counting explanation and surprise twist to look forward to. Yay...

Death of a Nurse (1955) by Ed McBain

Granted, not the worst book on the list, but I had to include it to be fair and I was severely disappointed after reading two excellent 87th Precinct novels previously – which Death of a Nurse was not a part of. It's a standalone set on a U.S. Navy destroyer as Lt. Chuck Masters becomes entangled with the death of the titular woman in the radar shack and poses as a traditional whodunit before disintegrating in the second half. Reading back my review, I see I was surprised at the breathtaking stupidity in how some of the characters approached and agitated the murderer, almost begging to be killed next, which makes me now suspect McBain writing it as a lark. Well, not every punch line hits home.

The Benevent Treasure (1954) by Patricia Wentworth

A tiresome story in the "Had-I-But-Known" tradition and in spite of a promising opening, evocative setting and more than enough plot threads to weave a carpet, they only bogged down the story as it processed – if you can speak of progression with a pace like that. It's books like these that give genuine talented HIBK writers like Dorothy Cameron Disney a bad name. I just want to blot the book from my mind. 

Note that the reviews of these books are poorly written, because a bad read usually translates itself in a shoddily written review. The reader has been warned. 


  1. I hate end of the year lists. Except this one! Thanks for saving us all some time. ;-)

  2. DEATH OF A NURSE was first published as a paperback original under as MURDER IN THE NAVY and under the pseudonym "Richard Marston," a year after THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and a year before the first 87th Precinct novel was published. It was his ninth published book. Much of Hunter's early work was just that -- early work.

    1. I was aware of the psuedonym and even used a quote from the Death of a Nurse to open the review, but attributed it to Richard Marston's Murder in the Navy. An early work seems a fair assesment of the book, but still felt disappointed after reading Killer's Wedge.