If you're a casual mystery reader who looked at our little niche corner on the internet, you might get the impression that the prevailing belief is that locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction is the pinnacle of the genre – a final form if you will. That's not true. It's only a small faction of the fandom riding their favorite hobby horse into the ground. I'm perhaps more guilty of riding that hobby horse to pieces than most, but I love a good, old-fashioned or classically-styled detective story and a body in a hermetically sealed room is not a necessity. Even though you don't always get impression from this blog. So let's put the spot light on some classic, non-impossible Golden Age mysteries.
In 2015, Dean Street Press began what seemed, at the time, to be the Herculean task of filling the immense, gaping hole that the still sorely missed Rue Morgue Press left behind. But they have tackled that task head on in an almost industrial way. Not content with simply reprinting one or two titles from a specific writer, DSP turned them out in badges of five or ten at a time. Sometimes even more than that. So in less than a decade, DSP has republished nearly five-hundred Golden Age mystery novels that include the complete works of once obscure or long out-of-print writers like Christopher Bush, E.R. Punshon and Patricia Wentworth. They're currently working on the doing the same for Brian Flynn with Glyn Carr possibly being next in line to go through a round of reprints. But what are some of the best titles DSP brought back from obscurity?
wanted to do one of these publisher-themed five-to-tries or top 10
lists and initially planned doing a top 10 favorite translations from
Locked Room International, but
the intention of this post is to take a break from those damned
locked room puzzles. So that left me only with Dean Street Press as
enough of their reprints have been discussed on this blog to compile
a top 10
best favorite reprints. That was easier
said than done and had to give my favorite writers a handicap by
limiting the list to one entry per author. So no desperate attempts
to convince you Christopher Bush's Cut
Throat (1932) is not shit, if only you tried to make it
through to the end without getting despondent. It appears to have
Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press (in chronological order):
The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn
The ongoing run of Brian Flynn reprints has left me spoiled for choice, but decided to go with the obvious suspect and the 2019 Reprint of the Year Award winner. A case with Flynn's typical Doylean touches as Bathurst investigates a murder involving Royal blackmail and a magnificent, blue-shaded titular emerald. While that might sound like a typical, dated 1920s mystery novel, Flynn provided a solution shining with all the brilliance of the coming decade that makes The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye a classic of the '20s.
The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton
This pick is perhaps a little out of season to bring up now, on the tail-end of March, but The Night of Fear is one of the earliest and best country house mysteries at Christmas from this era – in addition to being Dalton's most accomplished detective novel. A well-spun drama that begins during a Christmas party concluding with a game of hide-and-seek in the dark and the discovery of a body, which the police try to pin on the blind Hugh Darrow. But how to prove his innocence? A must read for the December holidays.
Murder at Monk's Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye
“Cecil Waye” was the third, previously unsuspected penname of John Street, better known as “John Rhode” and “Miles Burton,” who wrote four once extremely obscure novels under that name. Three of the four are so-called metropolitan thrillers, but Murder at Monk's Barn is, plot-wise, in the traditional style of his Rhode and Burton mysteries. Where the book differs is the tone and characters. The detectives are a brother-and-sister team, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who were a hold over of the 1920s Young Adventures like Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. So while the mysterious shooting of an electrical engineer comes with all plot-technical expertise and ingenuity expected from Street, Murder at Monk's Barn is no humdrum affair as the two Bright Young Things livened up the whole story.
The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934) by Basil Thomson
A predecessor of the contemporary police procedural and ultimately a very simple, uncomplicated and straightforwardly told story of a crime, which nonetheless succeeded in creating complex and intricate plot-patterns. A plot that excelled with simplistic beauty. More importantly, I remember The Case of Naomi Clynes as a surprisingly warm, human crime story with some decidedly original touches to the ending.
The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937) by Christopher Bush
It has been observed that Christopher Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what John Dickson Carr was to the impossible crime, which makes The Case of the Missing Minutes his version of The Three Coffins (1935). Regardless of what the book title suggests, The Case of the Missing Minutes is not some dry time table or math puzzle. It can actually be counted among Bush's best written, most well-rounded and certainly bleakest of his earlier detective novels with a meticulously put together plot that runs like a Swiss timepiece.
Murder on Paradise Island (1937) by Robin Forsythe
Some of you probably expected a title from Forsythe's short-lived Algernon Vereker series, like The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) or The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936), which took an interesting approach to plotting a detective story – spinning a great deal of complexity out the circumstances in which the bodies were found. Murder on Paradise Island is a standalone mystery and has a much lighter touch to the plot, but the backdrop and circumstances the characters find themselves makes it his most memorable contribution to the genre. A cross between Anthony Berkeley's Mr. Pidgeon's Island (1934) and a Robinsonade as a group of survivors of a ship disaster get washed up on the pearly beaches of a desert island in the middle of the Pacific.
Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland
Arguably, the best and most deserving title to have been reprinted by DSP as well as my personal favorite of the lot. A pure, Golden Age whodunit set in a Welsh fishing village with an inn catering to fly fishing holidaymakers, but the Fisherman's Rest becomes the scene of murder when the vulgar Mrs. Mumby is found dead with a salmon fly deeply embedded in her hand. The doctor concludes she died of combination of poor health and shock from the wound, but the detective-on-holiday, Mr. Winkley, suspects foul play. There's a neat little twist in the tail. John Norris called the book “something of a little masterpiece.” I agree!
There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon
The return of E.R. Punshon's Bobby Owen series to print also posed a difficulty in picking a favorite, because Punshon allowed his Bobby Owen to age and evolve as a character. And tended to try something different every now and then. So there are differing periods in the series that feel distinct from one another, but decided to go with strongest, most intricately-plotted detective novels. A complex detective story concerning a murdered paranormal investigator in a haunted house, vanishing bloodstains and a long-lost masterpiece by Vermeer. A great demonstration of Punshon's ability to erect and navigate labyrinthine-like plot without getting tied-up in all the numerous, intertwined plot-threads.
The Threefold Cord (1947) by Francis Vivian
So far, The Threefold Cord still stands as the best written, most ingeniously plotted of Francis Vivian's detective novels I've read to date. Inspector Knollis is dispatched to the village of Bowland to investigate wholesale pet murder at the home of a local and unpopular furniture magnate, Fred Manchester. Someone twisted the necks of the two family pets, a budgerigar and cat, before placing a silken cord loosely around their broken necks – which proved to be a prelude to a gruesome ax murder. Vivian expertly tied the present-day murder to the story of a public hangman who died under mysterious circumstances before the war. Every piece of the puzzle fitted beautifully together to form an inevitable conclusion.
The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. and M.A. Radford
Edwin and Mona Radford, a mystery writing husband-and-wife team, who specialized in forensic detective stories in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke series occasionally peppered with challenges to the reader (e.g. Murder Isn't Cricket, 1946). Their often tightly-plotted detective stories somehow were all but forgotten until DSP reprinted half a dozen of them in 2019 and 2020. The Heel of Achilles is an inverted mystery with the first-half following the murderer as he executes, what he thinks, is the perfect crime. The second-half brings their detective, Dr. Manson, to the scene who begins to laboriously poke holes into the killer's supposedly watertight plot. A cold, impersonal examination of a crime that meshed very well with the intimate and personal opening half depicting the murderer and his crime. A genuine classic of the inverted mystery.
Thank you for an interesting top ten. It is so sad that with Rupert's death the publishing activities of Dean Street Press are apt to be coming to an end. I had been wondering where to start to try to sample some of the authors that DSP published that I hadn't yet got around to, and this post will be a good starting point.ReplyDelete
Dean Street Press sent out an email after Rupert's passing that pretty much implied nothing new would be forthcoming, unless the five Moray Daltons appear as scheduled next month. I suppose at least the ebooks have a shot of still getting published.Delete
Sadly, I compiled this post some time ago and had it queued to go up today, when Curt broke the sad news earlier this month. I considered rewriting it, but decided to let it stand as intended.
Those ten authors are a testament to the brilliant creation of Rupert Heath . A sad loss indeed for his family ,friends and the increasing numbers of GAD readers who benefit from so many exciting republished works. So much choice ,that everyone could list the same writers with totally different titles probably many times over .ReplyDelete
Yes! I easily could have expanded the list into a top 20 with two titles from each author and it would look as varied as it does now. Rupert Heath and Dean Street Press succeeded in finding that balance between quality, quantity and variate.Delete
Thank you TC for this. Best of all, I haven't read any of these so there is a lot in store for me.ReplyDelete
Hope you enjoy this small selection!Delete
Thanks for this fabulous list! A lot of authors are represented that I, personally, tended to avoid because they seemed like they'd be out of my wheelhouse personally. E. R. Punshon got praise from Dorothy L. Sayers for "elevating the genre above puzzles" or something to that effect and that kind of stuff always makes me worry I'm in store for pretentious literary fiction in mystery form.ReplyDelete
Specifically, E. R. Punshon, Francis Vivian, and Harriet Rutland were three authors I never had good feelings about, so thanks for bringing them to my attention!
Punshon is the opposite of pretentious. He can be a bit verbose and sometimes the labyrinthine-like plots can become cluttered, but, when he was at the top of his game, Punshon wrote some rich, wonderfully imaginative mysteries. If you want to destroy all your preconceptions of Punshon, you should begin with Diabolic Candelabra.Delete
Rutland's Bleeding Hooks really is an overlooked gem.
On your expert recommendation, I have addedDelete
DEATH COMES TO CAMBERS
and BLEEDING HOOKS
to my reading list. Will read immediately after my Hoodwink reread and my first read through of the first RIDDLES OF HILDEGARDE WITHERS short story collection. I loved the inverted mystery with the parrot
Oh, but actually, depending on when my new book comes in, DIABOLIC CANDELABRA might have to move down on category. I bought a new Japanese children's mystery novel called 人狼サバイバル, or "Werewolf Survival", in which a group of six elementary schoolers and their two camp counselors are forced to play a deadly game of Werewolf (a social deduction game) in order to survive.Delete
One of my favorite types of story is one in which the conflict is a unique heavily rules-guided competition of some sort, and so obviously I am deeply fascinated by the possibilities of using a social deduction game in a murder mystery setting. Ngaio Marsh tried (and failed) to do it in A MAN LAY DEAD, and sometimes a "murder game" is a footnote in a mystery story, but I really need something that bakes the format of "a game" into a murder mystery on an intimate level, with murders happening in relation to established rules and limitations within the setting. Such fun, but I can't think of any decent examples in western detection. 人狼サバイバル is an obvious priority, then. :P
A game format baked into a murder mystery plot? The only examples that come to mind are Kazuki Sakuraba's Gosick: The Novel and some of the stories from Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning (the bomb race comes to mind), but nothing from the West. Unless you count the observational experiments from mysteries like John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule and Ton Vervoort's Moord onder astrologen as games.Delete
Hold on a minute! Just thought of an example that has a game format baked into its plot, J.A. Konrath's short story "With a Twist." A terminally ill lover of puzzles committed suicide under impossible circumstances and hid clues, codes and messages to the solution all over his locked apartment. So basically turning the locked room mystery into an escape room game.
By the way, I intend to do an overview later this year of the locked room mystery from 2000 to 2020. The landscape has changed considerably during those twenty years deserving of a semi-coherent ramble.
There are very few examples in western direction, but quite a few in Japan.Delete
The aforementioned 人狼サバイバル is a literal and straight-forward application of the "Werewolf"/"Mafia" party game in a murder mystery setting, and so is the video game RAGING LOOP. The second Danganronpa novel THE DETECTIVE AUCTION involves a weird but obvious adaptation of the premise.
Houjou Kie is a science-fiction hybrid mystery author, but she doesn't write space-faring science fiction like Asimov or McDewitt. She exists more in the "high-concept gimmick" school of science-fiction, which I think would be of interest to fans of Christopher Nolan (his science-fiction movies may as well be labeled mystery novels, and I am working on a Nolan post for next month). She wrote, for example, 時空旅行者の砂時計 (The Hourglass of the Space-Time Traveler), in which a locked-room mystery is committed with the mechanics of heavily rule-dictated time travel -- even with time travel, the murder is impossible!?
Well, she wrote a novel called "Delicious Death for Detectives" which has a bizarre premise: if I remember correctly, a Virtual Reality social deduction game (imagine a super souped-up version of Among Us) is prepared for a group of super-detectives, and the detective is the murderer in the video game (turning it into an inverted mystery). If someone makes an incorrect deduction, they die (in the game and in real life), but if someone makes a correct deduction, the killer (the protagonist) is killed!
However, in the real world, REAL murders are also being committed to the rules of a social deduction game! In this case, the protagonist is innocent and is investigating the crimes! So, in order to solve the REAL crimes and avoid being killed before he can do it, he is forced to continue to murder people inside of the video game and fool his fellow detectives... Giving his novel a weird "double-structure" in which half the story is an inverted mystery and the other half is a non-inverted mystery...
Shoot, I forgot to also say, thank you for the recommendations, and that post sounds interesting! I'm working on an Alibi Lecture post at the moment, and I thought that was cool, but this historical post on locked-room mysteries sounds fascinating!Delete
You have read The Case of the Missing Minutes right? Travers started on an Alibi Lecture in that one, but, regrettably, mentioning only the manipulation of clocks and witnesses. So only an appetizer to what could have been the alibi's equivalent of the Locked Room Lecture. It even has a good and simple quote from Travers summing up the essence of the alibi-puzzle, "no gentleman, however ingenious, can be in two places at once." Herbert Brean's The Clock Strikes Thirteen contains a full, if very brief, lecture on alibis. No idea if its of any use, but they're only examples of Alibi Lecture I have come across.Delete
Well, I certainly agree with you that DIABOLIC CANDELABRA was unpretentious... Other opinions notwithstanding. This was probably the wrong Punshon to start with.Delete
No. It was the right Punshon to start with. All your preconceived notions of Punshon are gone now. So now you can take a look at his other work with a clear and open mind. You're welcome! :)Delete
I am sad to learn of Rupert Heath's passing. My condolences to his family at this difficult time. Heath's contribution to GAD fiction is an impressive one. I own many Dean Street Press titles and second your recommendation for Punshon's Diabolic Candelabra.ReplyDelete
Lists like this from expert bloggers allow me to curate the best of the best titles. Bleeding Hooks is the only one in this list I don't have. but it was delivered to me today. If TomCat here and John over at Pretty Sinister recommend it, then that's all I need to know. Thanks for that.
Rupert Heath and Dean Street Press will be remembered for being instrumental in helping to make the current reprint renaissance a reality. Reprinting writers like Bush and Punshon en masse really helped push everything forwards when classic reprints began to pick up momentum around 2014/2015.Delete
And hope Bleeding Hooks lives up to our praise!
Thanks for sharing this list of recommendations - some interesting titles here, many of which were already on my TBR pile but get a little push higher as a result. I thoroughly second your praise of Heel of Achilles which is top drawer stuff and deserves your describing it as a 'genuine classic' of the inverted mystery form.ReplyDelete
I wish the Radfords had written more inverted mysteries. The inverted format really complements their style of plotting and scientific detection.Delete