Gender Integration and the Mystery | The Big Three | Howard Haycraft | Mystery Story Settings | Art, Music and the Mystery | Paperback Mystery Illustrators: William Teason, Victor Kalin, Garrido | RKO | Pulp Fiction | Is 1943 the End of the Golden Age?

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Gender Integration and the Mystery

Women writers have always been unusually prominent in the mystery genre. They make up roughly half of the writers in the field, and include many of the most famous detective novelists, including Agatha Christie, usually considered the mystery field's greatest author.

Women integrated the detective story in the 1860's. The near simultaneous appearance of Louisa May Alcott, Seeley Regester, and Harriet Prescott Spofford in the United States, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood in Great Britain, and Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt in Australia marks an en masse entrance of women into what had largely been an all male preserve. (A big Thank You to early mystery scholar Lucy Sussex, who pointed out that Ellen Davitt's work should be added to this list. She caused Davitt's book to be reprinted in the early 1990's.) In addition, internal evidence leads one to suspect that such psudononymous and initials only writers of the 1860's such as "Andrew Forrester, Jr.", M.Lindsay and M.M.B. might also have been women, a possibility raised by E.F. Bleiler, who has done so much to revive Forrester's work.

A generation later, Anna Katherine's Green's debut work, The Leavenworth Case (1878), became the first US best seller in any genre, selling over a quarter of a million copies, and earning Green the title of "The Mother of the Detective Novel". Since that time, there has been a continuous history of heavy involvement of women writers in the mystery genre. It has been fully integrated for over 140 years.

Some key points:

1) Of all art forms in human history, the mystery is the most sexually integrated. No other branch of literature, music or art, serious or popular, has had such full equality for women, or such intensive participation by women artists.

2) Much of the artistic success of the mystery field depends on gender integration, often in subtle ways that are perhaps not immediately apparent. Gender integration doubled the pool of talent from which the mystery could draw. Nearly every subgroup in the history of mystery is much larger than it would be if the field were restricted to men writers. This enabled "critical mass" to be achieved, I suspect, in many areas. Take, for example, the "Big Three" Golden Age mystery novelists, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen. Could Carr and Queen have written so much and so well, if there had been no Agatha Christie? After all, she preceded them in the genre by nearly a decade. Her books were part of their cultural background, and also helped to create a market for their works among readers, publishers and critics. Would readers have understood what a "good puzzle story" is, if one of its main exemplars did not exist? Would Carr and Queen themselves have understood it as well, even?

3) There have been moments of backsliding in which women were excluded from some branches of mystery fiction. Women mystery writers were prominent in the early pulp magazines. These included such general purpose pulps such as Argosy and All-Story, which published Mary Roberts Rinehart from 1905 on, and the first specialized mystery pulp, Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, founded in 1915, which often featured Carolyn Wells and Isabel Ostrander. But with the rise of the "hard-boiled" pulp Black Mask in the early 1920's, women found themselves systematically excluded from the pulps. It is hard to believe that the near absence of women from the "tough" detective pulps of the 1920's and 30's is the result of anything but discrimination. Black Mask used to bill itself as the "he-man magazine". Similarly, historian Anthony Slide has documented how in the rough and ready, pioneer film industry of the 1910's, one out of every ten film directors in the US was a woman. His Early Women Film Directors documents the careers of 22 women directors, out of an industry that contained roughly 200 directors all told. After Wall Street started investing big money in the film industry in 1922, the careers of almost all these women came to an abrupt end. The profession of film director became almost all male, and remained so until modern times (roughly the mid 1970's). The rise of Black Mask and its exclusion of women took place virtually simultaneously, c1923. This should sound a cautionary note for feminists: history is not always full of "progress", in which people gradually learn to be less discriminatory. Instead, history shows that women can be excluded from a field in which they previously have had great success. While women writers disappeared from the pulps during the 1920's and 30's, they were flourishing among book publishers, and among the better paying "slick magazines". Huge numbers of women published in both media, often with works of the highest quality.

The Big Three

History of an idea: where does the idea of a Big Three come from, the concept that the three great writers of the classical detective novel are Christie, Carr and Queen? The linking of the three names by a critic, Christie, Carr and Queen, was seemingly first used by Anthony Boucher. He casually listed them once together in passing as the "greatest names" in detective fiction. More centrally and emphatically, Jon L. Breen described them as the big three of the classical novel. He also expressed his disappointment that there weren't more writers like these three lurking in detective tradition. I know full well what he means. I have often started a novel by Anthony Berkeley or Nicholas Blake or Ronald Knox hoping that this would be the one, that I would read a really great detective novel as good as Agatha Christie, only to be completely disappointed.

Since Breen, I have seen this grouping, fairly casually referred to, in many other writers. It is beginning to take on the status of a cliché or a truism, as if it were a well recognized fact. People often cite the three merely to invoke a tradition, that of the well done puzzle plot novel, rather to launch a complex argument about detective history. For example, a reviewer might write (accurately) that "Bill Pronzini's Casefile contains excellent puzzle plot stories in the tradition of Christie, Carr and Queen."

Still, I think that it is very interesting. Most modern readers of detective fiction who are enthused about the classical tradition are most impressed with the same three writers. They are not wildly diverse in their tastes, with one critic promoting Allingham, another Berkeley or F.A.M. Webster. No, they seem to recognize a basic excellence here. There is the sign of an emerging canon here.

Ultimately, one might say reality is source of this idea. The Big Three are the only detective writers I yet know of, who wrote a large number of brilliantly puzzle plotted novels. There are any number of one shots, who produced a single great detective novel: Zangwill, Moffett, Bentley, Milne, Talbot, Asimov. And we are excluding the great short story writers here: Poe, Doyle, Futrelle, Chesterton, Reeve, Hammett and many others, including most pulp writers, who mainly specialized in short stories. Van Dine wrote a large number of very well written novels, whose story telling and literary style are excellent, but he is not anywhere as good at puzzle plotting as Christie, Carr and Queen. I don't like most of Dorothy Sayers' novels anywhere as much as her short stories, but certainly The Nine Tailors has literary value. One can also admire such writers who mix comedy, good storytelling and some skillful plotting, as Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer. Mary Roberts Rinehart is a great storyteller, but she does not concentrate on puzzle plots in the pure sense of the term. Writers like Palmer and Rinehart, who seem to come out of the Anna Katherine Green tradition, often excel more at detection than the puzzle plot proper. I am still exploring such gifted writers as R. Austin Freeman, Anthony Abbot, Lenore Glen Offord, and Helen McCloy. Some caveats: books by obscure mystery writers of the past are very difficult to obtain. It is certainly possible that B.L. Farjeon or Lynn Brock are great writers; I have never even seen copies of their books, let alone read them, and strongly suspect that most contemporary writers haven't read them, either. What this means is that the big three are "the best writers currently available", not the "best writers, period".

Howard Haycraft

In 1941, for the 100th anniversary of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), Howard Haycraft published a history of detective fiction, Murder For Pleasure (1941). This was a well researched, well written general history of the field. Haycraft drew upon the researches of S.S. Van Dine and other early critics; he later collected the best essays of his predecessors in The Art of the Mystery Story (1946). Other important works edited by Haycraft include the anthologies, The Boys' Book of Great Detective Stories (1938) and The Boys' Second Book of Great Detective Stories (1940), which together provide a historical survey of the detective field. These books are still available in many children's libraries; the first collection contains recommended stories by Poe, Doyle, Barr, Futrelle, Freeman, Orczy, Balmer & MacHarg, Adams, Chesterton, Reeve, Leblanc; stories I recommend from the second book: Bramah, O'Higgens, Fletcher, Christie, Sayers, the Coles, and Octavus Roy Cohen.

Haycraft's taste became canonical in the most absolute sense: publishers apparently long used his Murder For Pleasure to decide which writers to reprint. I doubt Haycraft intended his book to be used in this fashion; it was simply for a long time the only general purpose history of detective fiction available. I have no "inside information" that publishers used his book in this way, but the one to one correspondence between inclusion in Haycraft and being widely reprinted in paperback throughout the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's, is circumstantial evidence too overwhelming to ignore. And it's a plausible story: one can easily imagine an editor at a paperback house thumbing through Haycraft, the only source of such information, getting ideas on writers to reprint.

The taste of Howard Haycraft, Ellery Queen and other 1940's critics lay heavily towards promoting books that showed that mystery fiction could be written with literary distinction. Consequently, the average collection of "mystery classics" available today is heavily flooded with books whose chief merits are literate prose and a setting among the English intelligentsia. The Big Three are obviously much, much better plotters than such literary types as Margery Allingham or Nicholas Blake.

Mystery Story Settings

Writers on Golden Age mystery fiction often talk about "the English Country House Mystery". But examining the works of the greatest Golden Age writers, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, suggests this is a misnomer. Agatha Christie's best works tend to be located either "On the Road", often at the archaeological sites she knew in the Middle East, or among middle class residents of small towns. These small towns and their inhabitants tended to be fairly "normal", and avoided the small town eccentricities of such contemporary writers as Martha Grimes or the "Mr. Moseby" books.

John Dickson Carr set most of his novels in London, a London full of mysterious buildings where criminal activities and apparently ghostly activity is taking place by night. Occasionally he also set his works in France. During the 1940's he discovered the suburbs, and often set his works in middle class suburban villas.

Ellery Queen usually peopled his stories with New York sophisticates and eccentrics. His works tend to take place in a "Sophisticated New York" setting, with some side trips to Hollywood. In the 1940's he invented Wrightsville, a small New England manufacturing town, and located several works here.

All three of these great writers occasionally set their works at country houses. But these novels are a minority among their major books. The settings they did choose, London, New York and Abroad, are among the most sophisticated centers available for fiction in the 1930's. Even the pulp writers set their works among the more glamorous criminal classes in San Francisco (Hammett) or L. A. (Chandler). These settings let their authors open full throttle on the fictional possibilities of the day.

By contrast, post war mysteries that purport to be "in the tradition of great mystery fiction" tend to be set in far more provincial settings. Aristocratic country houses, very hick small towns, small academic departments, small businesses, apartment buildings, small petty people plotting to kill each other. Spy novels love to show people under cover in rural areas of dictatorial countries, or in sleazy boarding houses.

Art, Music and the Mystery

Many classical mystery writers had backgrounds in Art, and a number in Music.

What I think all of this suggests, is that the type of minds that are attracted to the non-literary arts, are also the types of minds that excel at the classical, highly plotted mystery story. The elaborate formal patterns of the Golden Age mystery plot are profoundly similar to the complex forms of the visual arts and classical music.

Some examples:

Painters and Illustrators Ngaio Marsh had a long time career as a landscape painter. Her painter character Agatha Troy clearly has aspects of being a self portrait. Marsh was also an important theater director. She also worked in interior design, as did so many artists of her era. Christianna Brand also worked as an interior designer. Frederic Dannay, one of the Ellery Queen cousins, worked as a art director in advertising. (Dannay largely plotted the Ellery Queen novels, and the other cousin Manfred Lee, largely wrote them.) Clayton Rawson worked as a commercial illustrator, and his elaborate, excellent illustrations are used in his own novels. Spy writer Len Deighton also started out as an illustrator, and like Dannay, became an art director in advertising; he also worked as a news photographer. Fredric Brown painted water colors. Stacy Aumonier began as a landscape painter. G.K. Chesterton, Baroness Orczy, F.Tennyson Jesse, David X Manners, Louis Joseph Vance, John A. Willard, James Norman, Joan Lindsay, Len Deighton, Ed McBain, Dorothy Gilman and Stuart Palmer all went to art school, the Wisconsin born Palmer at the Chicago Art Institute. One suspects that the two illustrations in Palmer's Murder on Wheels (1932) are also Palmer's own work. These illustrations are a bit doodle like, and Palmer describes his Inspector Piper doodling in this book. There is also an unusual floor plan illustration in Palmer's Murder on the Blackboard (1932). In both books, illustrations are attributed to Palmer's detective character, Hildegarde Withers. Chesterton's own illustrations are available for some of his early books, notably his clerihews, and The Club of Queer Trades. These illustrations are basically caricatures, and tend to be witty, and full of interesting exaggerations. Sax Rohmer also did art work, as well as composing music and songs. R. Austin Freeman also did illustrations for his books, as well as landscapes and marine paintings. Robert Van Gulik illustrated his own books. Hal Clement is well known for his paintings of astronomical subjects, as well as his science fiction mysteries. Barry Pain drew for a hobby. Robert Campbell was trained as an artist. Vincent Starrett's first ambition was to be an illustrator. Joan Lindsay was a painter. Liza Cody started out as a painter. Helen Nielsen began her career in the fields of commercial art and interior decorating. Lee Thayer was a professional artist and interior designer, as well as a prolific mystery novelist. While both she and Orczy exhibited their paintings during their lifetime, they have both been dropped out of art history, as has happened to so many women artists. I have never been able to locate any examples of Orczy's work. Some of Thayer's book illustrations are available on The Internet. I have seen only one of Marsh's, for that matter, reproduced in glorious black and white, something almost guaranteed to obscure a painting's real style. There is a bit of a common pattern here: women mystery writers tended to paint and exhibit in the world of "fine" art, whereas men tended to find jobs in the world of commercial art.

Nicholas Bentley, son of E.C. Bentley of Trent's Last Case fame, was both an artist and an author of thrillers. J.G. Ballard has created avant-garde sculpture, and views all of his work as being a literary ally to the British Pop Art movement. He is a long time friend of the Pop Art sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi.

Photographers R. Austin Freeman worked as both a sculptor and photographer, and as a amateur craftsman in many fields. His statue of The Stoneware Monkey (1938) is reproduced photographically as the frontispiece to that book. James Norman was a sculptor, and worked as an ice carver. William Hope Hodgson was an enthusiastic photographer, in an era when this was necessarily a highly skilled occupation. He used to earn his living giving lectures about his photographs of spectacular storms at sea. Erle Stanley Gardner was also into photography as a hobby, as were Percival Wilde, Q. Patrick, Dale Clark and Richard Sale. George Harmon Coxe was also involved in photography, as well as creating two photographer-detectives, Flashgun Casey and Kent Murdock. Many pulp writers seem to have photography as a hobby. Karl W. Detzer worked as a news photographer as a young man; so did Loren D. Estleman; Donald Hamilton also worked as a photographer. Stephen Wasylyk worked as a photographer and art director. O'Neil De Noux worked as a U.S. Army combat photographer. Photos of Hitchcock by David X Manners appeared on the covers of early issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which his brother William Manners edited.

Architecture Frederick Skerry was an architect before taking up writing. The contemporary writer S. J. Rozan also works for an architectural firm.

Films L. Frank Baum of Oz fame directed silent films. In our own time Nicholas Meyer works as a movie director, which reminds one that such movie directors as Samuel Fuller and Orson Welles also wrote prose thrillers, such as Fuller's excellent Crown of India (1966).

Comics and Cartoons Edward D. Hoch drew comic strips as a small child. Ron Goulart did cartoons as a kid; he wrote many major books on comics history. British mystery short story writer Will Scott was a well known artist in the field of caricature, too, as well as illustration and cartooning. We have not even mentioned comics artists who worked extensively in the mystery field, such as Alex Raymond, Chester Gould, Manny Stallman, Carmine Infantino and Steve Ditko.

Art Critics There are also critics of the visual arts among mystery writers. S.S Van Dine's Modern Painters was an important early look at Modern Art; he was the brother of painter Staunton McDonald Wright. Van Dine's detective Philo Vance is mainly an art connoisseur and collector, when not in his role as amateur detective and criminal nemesis. What Vance is collecting, and the opinions he expresses on art, are still interesting today. In a triumph of style, the first Vance book, The Benson Murder Case (1926), begins with a chapter not on crime, but on Vance's collection. Vance's tastes, like those of his creator, embrace the whole range of world art, and are admirably multi-racial, decades before this became at all fashionable. Van Dine also occasionally did caricatures, including a self-portrait. Arthur Morrison was a famous collector and scholar of Japanese art, writing The Painters of Japan (1911). John Canady, the art critic of the New York Times, also wrote thrillers as "Matthew Head". Burton Stevenson's comments on art in The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet (1911), also suggest connoisseurship. Such contemporary plot oriented writers as Aaron Elkins and Herbert Resnicow have written stories with a background in the art world, not to mention John Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand". Helen McCloy also worked as an art critic during her youth. Such Edgar Allan Poe stories as "The Domain of Arnheim" show his interest in landscape architecture. H.P. Lovecraft's chief interest was architecture, especially Colonial, and he wrote a guidebook to the historic city of Québec. "Architecture" he wrote, "is the greatest art." Many of his stories are architecture centered. Clyde B. Clason wrote books on furniture and architecture. Similarly, James Powell worked for many years on a magazine specializing in antiques. And Gertrude Stein, who sometimes dabbled in the detective story, was an insightful writer on, and early collector of, Picasso.

Film Critics Francis M. Nevins, Stuart Kaminsky, Arthur Lyons, Eddie Muller, Bill Krohn and Ruth Dwyer have published books of film criticism.

Related to Artists Anna Katherine Green was married to Charles Rohlfs, the furniture designer. We have a Rohlfs chair at the Detroit Art Institute; his work is allied to the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements. Margery Allingham and John D. McDonald were also married to artists. Victor L. Whitechurch's wife Florence Partridge was an artist, also serving as Whitechurch's illustrator. Like many woman artists, her work is hard to find nowadays. MacKinlay Kantor's wife was an artist, and did the book jacket for his Signal Thirty-two (1950). Helen Reilly was married to artist-cartoonist Paul Reilly. Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came from families of artists. Louisa May Alcott's sister was an artist, as was the Brontës' brother. Michael Avallone's father was a sculptor.

Musicians In a perhaps related development, Agatha Christie trained to be an opera singer. Edmund Crispin was a well known composer. Evelyn Berckman composed classical music. Freeman Wills Crofts was an amateur organist and orchestra conductor. Craig Rice worked as a composer as well as a writer, creating numerous songs. Mystery pioneer E.T.A. Hoffmann was a classical composer. Richard Matheson composed music in college. Casebook writer James M'Govan was an ardent violinist. Jack Vance played jazz cornet. Dorothy B. Hughes played as part of a two-piano team, and liked to improvise. According to the cover the the paperback of Blood on Lake Louisa, Baynard Kendrick played the piano from age three on. Pulp writer Roger Torrey played piano, mainly pop music, while Robert Leslie Bellem was a classical music lover, and Herbert Brean liked Dixieland. Paul Halter played the guitar in night clubs. Geoffrey Homes had a career recording sound effects, and selling them to the movies. Contemporary author Doug Allyn works as a rock musician; so did Jeffery Deaver, Dan Brown and Ian Rankin. Hugh Pentecost's mother was an opera singer. Anthony Boucher was an opera expert, and had a radio show about vintage recordings.

Scientists and Engineers There are also quite a few mystery writers with science or engineering backgrounds, including Arthur Sherburne Hardy, Frank L. Packard, Freeman Wills Crofts, J.J. Connington, Allan Vaughn Elston, William MacHarg, Eric Ambler and Isaac Asimov.

Literary Backgrounds One must point out that some Golden Age mystery writers had literary backgrounds. Dorothy L. Sayers and Jorge Luis Borges were both highly trained literateurs. John Dickson Carr seems to have been mainly interested in literature and history, at school.

Paperback Mystery Illustrators: William Teason, Victor Kalin, Hector Garrido

The most conspicuous artist for paperback mystery covers in the 1960's was William Teason. His covers were still lifes, showing objects used as clues in the books he illustrated. This emphasized the puzzle plot nature of the books. Appropriately, they were most common on covers of Agatha Christie novels; he also illustrated the Sherlock Holmes books. When reading the book, the clues pictured on the cover would emerge in the story. One would be fascinated by the clues, and stare at the cover as a meditation device, trying to figure out how the clues pointed to the hidden solution of the tale. The beauty of Teason's illustrations also often made the clues in the story seem more intriguing. So Christie's novel would stimulate interest in the painting, and the painting in Christie's novel. It was a circular effect. The use of a still life of clues was consistent with Christie's strictures against illustrating her detectives - she was adamant, for example, that Hercule Poirot never be pictured. They also lent a timeless element to Christie's tales. One did not visualize the books as being part of any strict time period - the covers illustrated clues in the story, not daily life of some era. Teason's paintings were in full color, and often were very striking. They broke with the age old still life tradition of objects arranged on a table. Instead, the objects were sometimes floating in pictorial space, often against a patterned background. Other works showed a top down angle, viewing the objects directly from above, a point of view rarely found in still life. Teason had a fondness for both jewels and statuettes in his still lifes.

Some of the best mystery novel covers of the era were painted by Victor Kalin. If Teason's works could be described as "cheery", Kalin's works could be called "dramatic". He illustrated many Mary Roberts Rinehart books. Sometimes he would follow the Teason approach, and show a still life of clues on the cover - for example, for The Great Mistake. (During the 60's I regarded Teason's approach as canonical for mystery covers.) But more often Kalin's approach was architectural, showing buildings and landscape scenes from the story. His illustration for The Window at the White Cat is a visual pun. The White Cat is a somewhat crooked political club; in the novel it is housed in an urban building. Kalin makes it an elaborate white house for his cover, somewhat Gothic and gingerbready. But if you look at the cover at a distance, the house turns into the face of a white cat. The windows of the house become the cat's eyes, etc. It is a very clever visual illusion. The back cover of this book is an elaborate tree. Kalin's jagged, rhythmic trees seem inspired by those in Chinese art. Kalin also did a second, different cover for this novel, one that is both more realistic in style, and highly effective. It shows a hand with a gun reaching out of a window in a grim urban area, on a rain soaked day. It is very beautiful and dramatic. Kalin's cover for The Swimming Pool shows a wooden diving tower; Kalin especially loved to paint wood. Kalin's masterpiece is The Case of Jennie Brice. The wrap around cover shows the flood scenes from the first chapter of that novel. We see the flood penetrating right into the first floors of the buildings. As in the book, the concepts of indoors and outdoors has broken down, with rowboats used to navigate indoors and out. The scene is at night, and there are elaborate patches of light and shadow. Kalin did two different covers for this book, as well.

One of his covers for The Circular Staircase shows a cross between the architectural and still life approaches: it shows blueprints for the building, including the staircase, and combines these with a few other objects, such as bullets. The blueprints serve both as a still life object, and an architectural illustration. Kalin also did covers for some of John Creasey's novels, which also were mainly still lifes.

Another striking cover is by an artist billed as "Garrido". The 1967 cover of Mary Roberts Rinehart's Married People shows a young woman running down a brownstone filled street in the night and rain. It is very evocative. One would like to know more about this artist's work. Hector Garrido also did a striking, highly geometric cover for Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten, showing a train station from an angle above. It is very Constructivist. The train station resembles the one in Poughkeepsie, New York; the angle chosen is similar to one used by André Kertész in a 1937 photograph of the station.

The jacket cover of Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Carl Rose shows a striking, almost abstract design of numerous New York City buildings, with their windows partially lit up at night. Such patterns will become widely used in the work of comic book artist Steve Ditko, especially in his classic The Creeper (1968).


RKO Studios B-movie group seems to have some unusually strong ties with the world of mystery fiction. Many writers from Black Mask ended up working there, notably Horace McCoy and Paul Cain, under his move pseudonym of Peter Ruric. RKO also made the first Marlowe movie, Murder, My Sweet. RKO also had its eye on "Mystery", an unusual magazine of the period. Mystery was officially classified as a pulp magazine, sharing common physical characteristics of the other pulps. But unlike most of them, it featured writers whose work was affiliated with the Golden Age. Many of Ellery Queen's short stories appeared here. So did Stuart Palmer's Hildegarde Withers tales, and some of C. Daly King's short stories, as well as works by S.S. Van Dine, Mignon G. Eberhart, Vincent Starrett, and Hulbert Footner. RKO made several of the Hildegarde Withers tales into movies, and eventually employed Stuart Palmer as a scriptwriter for its mystery B's. At RKO he first met fellow mystery writer Craig Rice, later his collaborator on the delightful People Vs. Withers and Malone tales. Palmer and Rice collaborated on The Falcon's Brother, a well done mystery film of the era. This is a nice, entertaining B movie, but traces of Rice and Palmer's strong literary personalities are not at once apparent in it. Mystery also serialized Frederick Arnold Kummer's novel The Phantom of Crestwood (1932), which RKO duly made into a not-bad whodunit, with Ricardo Cortez again in the lead. This film has some well done flashback segments, which are segued in and out by interesting camera movements. It is unusual to see any studio with such an interest in mystery authors as scriptwriters. Of course, many crime writers today would love to find a movie or TV producer with a similar enthusiasm for employing them to write. RKO's B-movies were unusually good, some of my favorite B's of all time. Especially outstanding among their adaptations is Two in the Dark (1936), the Benjamin Stoloff directed adaptation of a novel by Gelett Burgess, probably Two O'Clock Courage (1934). RKO's best B-movie directors, and their period of association with the studio, include George Archainbaud (early thirties), Ben Stoloff (mid thirties), Lew Landers (late thirties), and Richard Fleischer (late 1940's).

Palmer wrote two mystery novels with a Hollywood studio background, The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941), and Cold Poison (1954). Hooligan came out in the same year as Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, and the two books paint a surprisingly consistent snapshot of the Hollywood studio system of their era. Both authors milk the eccentricities of Hollywood characters for color and humor, but both men basically highly admire the Hollywood of the time, and paint a subtly flattering portrait of it. Of course both writers worked as professional screen writers in the studio system, and clearly neither had any motivation to bite the hand that fed them. Still, the admiration of both men seems basically sincere. Palmer might lampoon Hollywood people for flamboyance, and for glamorizing everything they touch in movie adaptations, but basically glamour and flamboyance were part of what Hollywood films were selling, and one suspects that most film people were secretly proud of these traits. It is like lampooning bankers for their caution with money, or computer programmers for being technonerds. These character traits are essentially professional assets, and few in these professions mind such "satire" at all. They probably feel it enhances their rep.

Pulp Fiction

All artistic generalizations about pulp fiction are automatically going to be absurd. There is so much pulp writing, and it is so diverse, that almost anything said about it as a whole is going to be false. Readers can only emphasize one or more traditions within the field. I like pulp stories that have good plotting, and vigorous storytelling. By contrast, some readers today are only interested in pulp stories that are extremely tough - the hard-boiled school. These two approaches (good plotting vs. hard-boiled) sometimes intersect, and sometimes diverge. One can find hard-boiled stories that are well plotted, hard-boiled stories with lousy plots, and well-plotted pulp stories that are not at all tough or hard-boiled. Many admirable (from the point of view of plotting) pulp writers, such as Merle Constiner, are about as tough as Miss Marple. (Well, maybe, a little tougher!) Despite this, Constiner's stories appear in two anthologies with the word "Hard-Boiled" in their titles. Many people seem to think that this phrase is a synonym for pulp detective fiction. I tend to reserve this phrase for writers like Hammett, Whitfield, Paul Cain, and Chandler, authors with a genuinely "hard-boiled" view of the world. From this point of view, the term hard-boiled refers to only a small subset of pulp fiction as a whole, mainly centered around writers associated with Black Mask magazine.

Pulp fiction is fairly well defined as a publishing category, but it contains many different artistic approaches. Many critics seem to underestimate the diversity of pulp fiction. For example, take the pulp stories of Cornell Woolrich. What do they have to do with the hard-boiled school of Hammett? As far as I can tell, just about nothing. They are a fundamentally different kind of story.

Some severe critics of pulp, such as John Dickson Carr, have depicted the entire field as consisting of stories of mindless violence, largely plotless action and thrills. They hate this kind of story, and I don't usually like them either. One can certainly find such stories in the pulp magazines - lots of them. But they are hardly the whole world of the pulps. This particular, negative view of pulp fiction seems to be common with many fans of Golden Age mystery literature. I have nothing against this point of view if it is a carefully formed artistic judgment. But if it is just a vague impression or a lingering stereotype, it is most unfortunate. I believe that it is out of sync with large quantities of high quality, well plotted pulp tales. I hope fans of the classical mystery might try some of the wonderful anthologies edited in recent years by Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg. They might be very pleasantly surprised at the high quality of the fiction contained therein.

Pulp Fiction and the Mass Media

Pulp series characters rarely reappeared in other media. During the 1930's the movies adapted many detectives to the screen, but they nearly always appeared in hard back books. Pulp characters almost never made it into the movies. One can see some exceptions, but they are ambiguous. For example, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask a year before its publication as a novel. It was best known as a hard back book, however; Sam Spade was apparently not considered as a pulp series character. The same is true of Philip Marlowe. Chandler reworked his earlier pulp stories to form the first two Marlowe novels, but the material was familiar to most people as books, not in its earlier pulp incarnation. Chandler also changed his detective's name; Marlowe never appeared in the earlier pulps, where Chandler used other series detectives such as Johnny Dalmas.

One consequence of this media black out is that pulp characters became much less well known than book ones. My Dad never read any of the Ellery Queen books, but he was familiar with the character from the movies and radio and TV. By contrast, such popular pulp detectives as the Continental Op and Race Williams and Cardigan largely disappeared as soon as the pulps stopped carrying their stories.

One exception to these strictures is George Harmon Coxe's Flashgun Casey, who appeared in numerous Black Mask stories before appearing in novels. Casey was the subject of first, a long running radio show, then a pioneering TV crime drama (1951 - 1952). Casey had appeared in novels as well as pulp stories, and perhaps he was thought of as a book character, not a pulp sleuth.

Is 1943 the End of the Golden Age?

A definition (I invented) of Golden Age writers:

"A Golden Age mystery or science fiction writer is one who published their first work in the genre in a periodical or book from 1901 to 1944."

This starts us off with Orczy, Freeman, Chesterton, Futrelle and Rinehart, and winds us up with Christianna Brand, Hake Talbot, Charlotte Armstrong, Hal Clement, James Yaffe, Ed Lacy, Lillian de la Torre and Edmund Crispin. (Brand debuted in 1941; Talbot, Armstrong and Clement in 1942, Yaffe, Lacy and de la Torre in 1943, and Crispin in 1944.) In between these two groups come all the great Golden Age detective writers - and lots of the main 20th Century science fiction writers, as well.

By contrast, many of those who debuted after 1944 seem much less Golden Age like: 1944: Ross Macdonald, Thomas Dewey; 1945: Julian Symons, Dilwyn Rees; 1946: Wade Miller, John D. MacDonald, Arthur C. Clarke; 1947: Joseph Commings, Harry Kemelman, Jack Iams, Michael Gilbert, Poul Anderson. Of these, only Joseph Commings and Dilwyn Rees seem deeply Golden Age in orientation. One might note that Commings was actually writing his stories during World War II (before 1945), but did not succeed in getting any published till 1947 - typical of his life-long difficulties with publishers.

There seems to be a change in detective fiction that took place around 1943, especially during the years 1942-1944. The change was noticed and hailed at the time by Raymond Chandler. Chandler felt the change was wholly good: a bad kind of detective story being replaced by a good one. I tend to feel almost the exact opposite: it shows the end of a strong publishing market for the classic kind of Golden Age, puzzle plot fiction. However, the boundary between the two kinds of fiction seems to be real, and this is what this article is trying to document. I have named this division the Chandler Boundary, in honor of its discoverer.

I have little proof, but I find it hard to believe that economic forces did not play a major role in this change. Specifically, I believe publishers must have put tremendous pressure on their authors to change their style. I do not believe that a change in critical opinion alone could have caused such a radical mass change to a majority of all authors publishing detective fiction. I have, however, seen precious little documentation to back up this idea. In addition, when recruiting new authors, I believe publishers and editors looked for gifted plotters in the Golden Age mode up through 1944; and were much less interested in good plotters thereafter.

Changes in fiction can be of at least two types. One type of change is artistic. Books can use a different artistic approach, be simpler or more complex, or be of higher or lower quality. Such changes are very real. However, because assessing such changes involves aesthetic judgment, it can be hard to document such changes objectively. For example, I believe that the average quality of John Dickson Carr's fiction was much higher before 1944 than after. This change is drastic. It is pretty noticeable, at least to me. However, it is clear that this involves my personal aesthetic judgment of Carr's fiction. Another reader could evaluate Carr's fiction very differently, and not see a change in quality around 1944.

A second type of change involves aspects of writing that are objectively documentable. These include two changes that are very common in mystery fiction around 1943. Mystery authors frequently stopped writing about their series sleuths, and starting writing non-series novels, without continuing characters. They also often changed from mystery stories to suspense tales, without mystery. These objective changes are easily documented. So is a third change: many mystery writers either stopped publishing altogether, or greatly slowed their output of books.

Warning: I am by no means implying that the 1943 changes in mystery fiction affected all writers. Reader Nicholas Fuller points out that John Rhode, Christianna Brand, H.C. Bailey, Josephine Bell and Gladys Mitchell were unaffected by the changes. I would add there is little sign of any break in the work of Freeman Wills Crofts, Leslie Ford or Elizabeth Daly. One also should add that Golden Age style novels continued to be published after 1943; in fact, such contemporary writers as William L. DeAndrea and Edward D. Hoch seem like Golden Age authors. The point is simply that what happened in 1943 was a statistically significant transformation of mystery fiction, one that impacted a large number of authors.

A chronology documenting these changes:


C. Daly King publishes his last mystery novel, Bermuda Burial (1940). Around 1945 he will write another, but it will never be published, presumably because publishers no longer want Golden Age style novels.

Paul McGuire publishes his last mystery novel, The Spanish Steps (1940).

Lynn Brock publishes his last novel about his series sleuth Col. Gore, with The Stoat (1940).

H. C. Bailey publishes his last short story collection, although he continues to publish novels till 1950.


Clyde B. Clason publishes Green Shiver (1941), the last of his ten detective novels, all written in the S.S. Van Dine Golden Age style, starring his series sleuth.

Sue MacVeigh publishes the last of her four Golden Age style railroad mysteries.

Thomas Polsky published the last of his three novels about detective "Grid" Griddle.


Dorothy L. Sayers writes her last complete work of detective fiction, "Talboys".

Anthony Boucher publishes the last of his detective novels, all written in a complex Golden Age plotting style, and featuring series sleuths.

Clayton Rawson publishes the last of his Golden Age style impossible crime novels about the Great Merlini, No Coffin for the Corpse (1942).

Rex Stout ends his Golden Age style stories with two novellas. He resumes publishing in 1944 after war time activities with less puzzle plot oriented fiction.

John K. Butler publishes his last pulp detective fiction. He will write only for the movies and television over the next twenty years.

Rufus King ends his run of whodunits, with some Dr. Paul Starr short stories, and writes the first of a series of suspense novels, Design in Evil (1942). The whodunits mainly feature series characters, the suspense tales do not.

Erle Stanley Gardner climaxes a series of well plotted whodunits with The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942). Most of his writing after this will contain much less creative puzzle plots, although he too will experience a mid 1950's boom, along with Rex Stout and John Dickson Carr. The boom is noticeable in the years 1952 - 1956; perhaps publishers were encouraging Golden Age style fiction during those years.

Agatha Christie ends a series of 18 books about Hercule Poirot, that had run more or less continuously since the early 1930's. Sometime around the early 1940's she has written a novel about his death, Curtain, that will not be published till 1975. She will return to him throughout the next thirty years, but only at long intervals, around once every three books. She writes books about her other series sleuth, Miss Marple, The Body in the Library (1942) and The Moving Finger (1943). After 1943, she starts non-series novels, and books about minor characters such as Sergeant Battle. In my judgment, her plots become much less ingenious. Her books from this point on seem much less in Golden Age style. She also begins working extensively as a playwright in 1943.

Georgette Heyer ends a long run of Golden Age mysteries with Penhallow (1942). She will publish two more after 1950, but mainly she will stick to historical romances.

The Coles publish the last of their Golden Age style mystery novels; they will publish some short story collections in 1943 and 1946, then leave the mystery genre.

Percival Wilde writes the last of his four mystery novels. He will continue to write short stories for EQMM.

R. Austin Freeman publishes the last of his Golden Age style mysteries, then dies the next year.

John P. Marquand ends his series of Mr. Moto novels. He will write a non-series crime novel in 1949, and one more Mr. Moto book in 1957.

Stewart Sterling begins publishing his books about fire marshal Ben Pedley.


The previous year, Ellery Queen broke a three year writing silence to publish a book in radically different style from his early books, Calamity Town (1942). It is much simpler in plotting than his early books, and consciously much more "realistic": its first chapter is titled "Ellery Queen Discovers America", indicating that its detective was going to be exploring the real world of the United States for the first time in this book. EQ publishes a last novel in his old Golden Age style, There Was an Old Woman (1943). Thereafter, most of his novels will be in the new style of Calamity Town.

Ngaio Marsh ends a series of classics in the Golden Age style with Colour Scheme (1943). Her later books tend not to be as inspired, although that is my personal judgment, not an objective fact.

Anthony Abbot writes the last of his Golden Age style Thatcher Colt novels, The Shudders (1943).

Norbert Davis concludes his Max Latin stories in Dime Detective. He publishes his two main novels, The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) and Sally in Our Alley (1943); one more will follow in 1946.

Cornell Woolrich ends most of his writing for the pulps. This includes two of his last pure mystery stories, as opposed to suspense novels, "Leg Man" (1943) and the classic "If the Shoe Fits" (1943).

Helen McCloy ends her main series of Basil Willing Golden Age style puzzle plot mysteries with The Goblin Market (1943). Although she will occasionally return to Willing and the whodunit, most of her subsequent books will be non-series suspense novels. Two of the subsequent Willing's will be in 1955 and 1956, during the 1952-1956 revival of interest in Golden Age style.

Milton M. Propper publishes the last of his fourteen Golden Age style novels about his series sleuth Tommy Rankin. He will publish nothing more.

Raymond Chandler publishes the last of his four first Philip Marlowe novels, The Lady in the Lake (1943), following a long series of pulp stories, and begins writing for the movies, instead. He will publish far less prose fiction after this - just three more novels. His works appear in paperback for the first time in 1943, and become huge bestsellers.

Dorothy Cameron Disney ends a series of Rinehart school books with Crimson Friday (1943). Her next book will be a spy novel in a drastically different style, The 17th Letter (1944 - 1945). She will publish only two more mystery novels, in 1948 and 1949.

Mabel Seeley ends a run of five HIBK novels. She will publish only two more mystery books, in the 1950's.

Kurt Steel publishes the last of his 10 hard-boiled novels, about his series private eye Hank Hyter. He will publish no more books till his early death in 1946.

Lillian de la Torre starts publishing her innovative historical detective stories, about Dr. Sam: Johnson.

James Yaffe publishes his first short story in EQMM.

Craig Rice's fiction substantially increases in quality, inaugurating her mature period.

Anne Nash publishes her first mystery, Said with Flowers (1943).

Julius Long starts his main run of pulp stories (1943 - 1947).

Ed Lacy (Len Zinberg) publishes his first detective short story "Pay Telephone" in the pulp magazine Popular Detective (October 1943), although his mainstream and boxing fiction had appeared since 1934 (information from "Ed Lacy: New York City Crime Author", by Ed Lynskey, MYSTERY*FILE #45, 2004).


John Dickson Carr ends an twelve year streak of impossible crime masterpieces with Till Death Do Us Part (1944). His books are largely poorer in quality after this, although there is a flare up in quality during 1952 - 1955. In 1950, he will start writing historical fiction, and write many fewer contemporary mysteries.

Hake Talbot publishes his second detective novel, The Rim of the Pit (1944), now considered a masterpiece of the Golden Age impossible crime puzzle. His third novel was rejected by publishers, and he never published another detective book.

Elizabeth Dean publishes the third and last of her detective novels, Murder a Mile High (1944).

Vincent Starrett publishes his last book with a series sleuth in the detective field, the collection The Case Book of Jimmie Lavender (1944). He will publish one more non-series book in 1946.

Lenore Glen Offord ends a series of five detective novels, mostly with series sleuths. She will publish a non-series mystery in 1947, then two more mysteries in the 1950's, greatly slowing her output.

Geoffrey Homes ends an eleven book run of detective novels featuring his series sleuths. He will publish one non-series suspense novel in 1946, then permanently retire from prose fiction for a career as movie screen writer.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor publishes the penultimate novel about her series sleuth Leonidas Witherall; one more will follow in 1947.

Helen Reilly drastically changes her style from realistic books about police procedure, to Had I But Known novels with The Opening Door (1944).

J.J. Connington publishes his next-to-last Golden Age style novel about his series sleuth Sir Clinton Driffield; there will be only one more, in 1947, with Connington dying that year.

C. W. Grafton publishes the second of two books about his series sleuth, lawyer Gil Henry. They are The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope (1943) and The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher (1944). He would publish just one more mystery in 1950, a non-series work.

Leigh Brackett starts publishing Raymond Chandler imitations. Private eye stories in the Chandler style will be extremely common over the next decade.

Thomas Dewey publishes his first mystery novel.

Ross MacDonald publishes his first mystery novel.

Edmund Crispin publishes his first mystery novel.

Margaret Millar writes her first non-series novel; these will be her main form of fiction for the next thirty years. Previously, she had written a few series whodunits (1941 - 1942) about Paul Prye, in a much different style.

The great flood of film noir began in this year. There were a handful of pioneering noir films before this, but 1944 was the year when Hollywood began producing them en masse. Noir films will be produced in huge numbers through 1951, and then in fewer but still substantial quantities through 1958. See Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (1979), edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, for detailed yearly statistics on film noir production. Several of the key film noirs released near the start of the mass production cycle were actually filmed in 1943. These include, in filming order, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear, Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. The Lang film's release was delayed till 1945; the other two were released in 1944.


The professional organization Mystery Writers of America are formed. Their best of the year awards, the Edgars, are handed out for the first time, for the best mysteries of 1944.

Mary Roberts Rinehart publishes her next-to-last mystery novel; one more will follow in 1952.

Julian Symons publishes his first mystery novel.

Dilwyn Rees publishes the first of his two Golden Age style mystery novels.

In general, I believe post-1943 fiction tends to be much less puzzle plot oriented. It tends to deal much more with underworld and corrupt rich people, depicted without eccentricities or glamour. In this sense, it is often asserted to be more realistic in its treatment of crime, although its view of reality tends to be far more restricted than Golden Age fiction, which took in wide swaths of society. "Realism" is a very loaded word. Compare say, Sayers' Murder Must Advertise (1933) and Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which is full of various corrupt rich people in California. Sayers' novel is unquestionably a realistic look at British advertising in the 1930's: it is a famous insider's view. And I would question whether Chandler's novel corresponds to anything in reality: how many murders, thefts or complex deceptions were actually committed by California socialites in the 1940's? Can anybody point to even a single real case of a scheming socialite that resembles Velma's complex machinations in this novel? Did California socialites even resemble Velma in having poisonous personalities, or is she just a misogynist fantasy? Yet most devotees of hard-boiled fiction unquestionably assert that Chandler is realistic and Sayers is not. It is an article of faith among them that the milieu favored by Chandler automatically confers realism on a book. As Chandler explained in "The Simple Art of Murder", these are the sort of people who commit murder, while Sayers' copywriters are not. Therefore, it is realistic.