Over 50 years ago, on January 5th 1964 to be exact, the following article appeared in The New York Times and, as can be seen by reading it the mystery novel was a big thing back then. I have shared this with you as I found it interesting, but it also made me wonder how much the article would differ from the original if Mr. Boucher were to write it today.
“The past few years have seen something of a revolution in the publishing of paperback mystery novels. From the very beginnings of the paperback industry; murder has been a trade staple, but the emphasis used to rest almost exclusively upon fast‐action novels of violence and sex, with only a very few of the most famous practitioners of more reasoned and contemplative detection represented on the newsstands.
Violence‐and‐sex has not disappeared: it will always (and quite rightfully) have its market. But now the paperback repertory cones to embrace more and more of the serious novels of murder and deduction which were once assumed, on no particular evidence, to be commercial poison in paperback. This trend is evident not merely in the more expensive “quality” paperbacks (Dolphin, Collier)
Berkley has published, and kept in print, the entire work of the subtly perceptive Josephine Tey. Lancer is well launched on a project of the complete works of the versatile and rewarding Andrew Garve. Ace’s “giant double‐books” each contains two novels by female writers of the enviable stature of Ursula Curtiss, Charlotte Armstrong and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. And both Ballantine and Pyramid have established carefully edited lines of mysteries for connoisseurs.
Indeed, if any university were so wise as to offer a course in the mystery novel as a branch of literary history, a more than adequate reading list could be built up from paperbacks currently in print—including the obvious major textbook for the course, Howard Haycraft’s splendid critical anthology
Such a reading list would start with any one of the 11 available story collections of the founding master, Edgar Allan Poe. and go on through Wilkie Collins—with the complete text of the “The Moonstone” (Dolphin), and not its truncated form (Pyramid), plus the less detectival “The Woman in White” (Dolphin, Everyman) as collateral reading—to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Since most of the Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain, they are to be found in innumerable editions, none of them textually ideal; but the nod should go to the Berkley edition (now almost complete) because it is legitimately authorized and royalty‐paying, and because its jackets, by W. Teason, are the most tasteful that I have yet seen on any Doyle books. And with the stories themselves should go William S. BaringGould’s definitive biography, “Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street” (Popular), the one significant work of Baker Street Irregularity to appear in a newsstand paperback.
The first third of this century is not copiously represented in today’s paperbacks; but our imaginary course could get on adequately with R. Austin Freeman’s “Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight” (Collier), E. C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” (Ballantine), Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” (Dolphin) and Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Strong Poison” (Harper)—classics all, though these authors need more representation on the lists—plus two colIections of superb short stories, G. K. Chesterton’s “Ten Adventures of Father Brown” (Dell) and Melville Davisson Post’s “Uncle Abner” (Collier).
From there on, the problem becomes one of selection from stores of treasures. In the classic formal detective story, there are any number of books in print by Ellery Queen (Pocket Books), Rex Stout (Bantam), Elizabeth Daly (Berkley), Ngaio Marsh (Berkley) Margery Allingham (Penguin, Macfadden) and Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, each of whom appears on the lists of many publishers. Each of these authors has produced so many of the best works in the genre that the choice would be up to the individual taste of the instructor. Oddly though Carr is everywhere, his alter ego Carter Dickson is rare in paperback: but Berkley is starting to remedy that deficiency. The superlative Michael Innes has not had quite his due in reprints as yet; but he can be well represented, in his Collinsian detectival manner by ”Lament for a Maker” (Collier) and, in his vein of romantic adventure, by “The Case of the Journeying Boy” (Berkley).
It will consider the femininegothic novel of romantic terror, from the work of the Brontes (many editions) through Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” (Pocket Books) to Victoria Holt’s “Mistress of Mellyn” (Crest). It will at least touch upon the spy novel, from John Buchan’s still incomparable “The 39 Steps” (Popular) to the contemporary contrast between Ian Fleming and William Haggard (both Signet).
It will look into the exotic of detection: the fine Australian regional novels of Arthur W. Upfield (Berkley), the work of Georges Simenon, especially the revolutionary early Maigret novels (Penguin); the Argentine “Ficciones” of Jorge Luis Borges (Evergreen); the glorious Chinoiserie of Robert Van Gulik, whose Judge Dee novels both Dell and Avon begin reprinting in the same week
It will notice the occasional isolated masterpiece by an author who wrote nothing else in the field—such important icebreaking detective stories as Helen Eustic’s “The Horizontal Man (Dolphin) or Leo Perutz’s “The Master of the Day of Judgment” (Collier).
And it will not overlook, among all these reprints, the original paperback novels, the legitimate heirs to the dead pulps in which Hammett and Chandler flourished—their serious and substantial authors, such as John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Donald Hamilton and Vin Packer (all Gold Medal), and their highly competent purveyors of light amusement, like Carter Brown (Signet), Richard S. Prather (Gold Medal) and Henry Kane (many publishers).
Starting as paperback originals and later as reprints from hard‐cover are the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain (Permabooks). all still in print and invaluable for the course as prime specimens of the modern novel of police procedure—to which should be added J. J. Marric’s novels of Commander Gideon of Scotland Yard (Berkley).
Only on fifth Thursdays of the month will the lecturer regret that he is unable to make a point by reference to current paperbacks. There is, for instance, no novel in print by Freeman Willis Croft, the great master of the perfect timetable alibi, or by Craig Rice, the most warmly humorous personality ever to communicate with her readers through murder.
The more I talk about this hypothetical course the more I hope you might enjoy enrolling in it. And why not? It’s available at your nearest bookstore.”
Anthony Boucher, August 21, 1911 – April 29, 1968