by Robert C. Hahn
In October, Pegasus Crime is publishing Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s ($35), annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, with a foreword by Otto Penzler. This volume brings together five classic first novels worth revisiting:
In The House Without a Key (1925) Earl Derr Biggers introduced the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan. An audience familiar only with the movies and radio plays featuring a stereotypical Chan spouting ridiculous platitudes and a subservient mien may be surprised to find Biggers’s Chan not only intelligent but also philosophical and learned.
S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) invented Philo Vance, the aristocratic, rich, effete, amateur detective who solves crimes simply by examining clues and suspects available to police who are unable to appreciate their true significance. Klinger has chosen Philo Vance’s first case, The Benson Murder Case (1926), which launched Van Dines’s run of twelve novels.
Edwaard Stratemeyer was a publisher and book packager (Stratemeyer Syndicate) who created the Hardy Boys series in 1927 with The Tower Treasure. The books were written by freelance writers and published under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. The novels featured the teenage brothers Frank and Joe, and their family and friends from the fictional city of Bayport. With this series, 190 volumes in length, Stratemeyer is credited with creating the first “juvenile mystery” and fostering a love of mysteries in countless boys and girls. He also created the Nancy Drew series.
The writing team of Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay introduced the debonair Ellery Queen in 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery, and from then until Lee’s death in 1971 the pair produced thirty-five novels featuring Queen, who often solved cases his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NY Police Department, was unable to solve by conventional means.
The “hero” of W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, another 1929 title, is himself a gangster, albeit one capable of eliciting sympathy. Rico rises from the Chicago slums in this classic gangster novel, which also served as the basis for the Edward G. Robinson movie of the same name.
Otto Penzler has done it all. He is the founder of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, one of the best specialty bookstores in the country. He published The Armchair Detective, a superb quarterly, for seventeen years. He has been the series editor of Best American Mystery Stories of the Year since 1997, and he has edited numerous impressive collections of short stories using his unique combination of knowledge, experience, and literary connections to great effect. He founded Mysterious Press to publish e-books. And he recently announced a new venture: Penzler Publishers and the American Mystery Classics imprint, which will feature mystery writers from the period between WWI and WWII.
In 2017 Penzler assembled a star-studded collection of stories originally published as individual volumes in the Mysterious Bookshop’s Bibliomystery series. The stories were collected in Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores (Pegasus, $26.95). In his foreword, Ian Rankin notes that Penzler contacted authors about contributing stories for the volume and a sterling cast of mystery writers responded. The result was an impressive collection of fifteen stories, including an unpublished Mickey Spillane tale, “It’s in the Book,” that Max Allan Collins finished. Collins had partnered with Spillane on several Mike Hammer novels, and in this tale he does so again as Hammer tries to find a book desired by an ambitious senator.
C. J. Box uses an old photograph of uncertain origin as the impetus for his clever story “Pronghorns of the Third Reich,” which involves an old ranch owner whose treasure contains some surprising secrets.
Ken Bruen’s well-crafted stories are often set in his native Ireland or in London, but New York is where “The Book of Virtue” takes place. The anonymous narrator survives a rough childhood, crows when his bastard of a father dies, and puzzles over his inheritance, a leather volume trimmed in gold leaf and containing more wisdom than his father ever had. As an enforcer at a midtown bar run by a Russian calling himself Brady, the narrator sleeps with Brady’s woman Cici then plots to get rid of him. It’s a typical Bruen story—punchy, cynical, and convincing.
Laura Lippman has garnered all kinds of awards for her Tess Monaghan series, copping Edgar, Anthony, Shamus, Agatha, and Nero awards, not to mention another dozen or so nominations. Tess stars in her entry “The Book Thing,” featuring a beloved bookstore, many justly famous children’s books, and an unusual book thief.
Other contributors to this inaugural volume are: Jeffery Deaver, Reed Farrel Coleman, Peter Blauner, Thomas H. Cook, Loren D. Estleman, William Link, Anne Perry, Andrew Taylor, David Bell, John Connolly, and Nelson DeMille.
Penzler has now come out with a second volume of Bibliomysteries (Pegasus, $26.95), and once again, he has selected an additional outstanding fifteen stories by another star-studded cast of authors.
Peter Lovesey has been writing long enough and well enough to garner three lifetime achievement awards (the Grandmaster Award from the MWA, The Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association, and Malice Domestic’s Agatha Lifetime Award) as well as enough other awards and nominations to fill several bookshelves. He leads this second collection with a clever story involving a stash of early Agatha Christie first editions and their strange fate after reaching a bookshop in Poketown, Pennsylvania.
Carolyn Hart was a natural for this series, since Annie Darling, a bookshop owner, is one of the principal characters in her longest running series that began with Death on Demand in 1987. Hart’s stories are often filled with references to works that she has recently discovered or rediscovered and brings to the attention of her fans. The mystery revolves around Agatha Christie’s first book, Poirot Investigates, which happens to be an association copy with Christie’s own inscription “To Her Majesty, the Queen.” The book is brought to Annie by Ellen Gallagher, who has no idea what a treasure she is holding. Ellen, who badly needs money, is stunned when Annie tells her it is worth “at least $100,000” and maybe a good deal more. Naturally, Ellen talks about her good fortune and the fortune, that is, the book, disappears until Annie plays detective.
American-born Elizabeth George writes thoroughly British mysteries featuring aristocratic Scotland Yard inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers, plus a recurring cast in a series of twenty novels. In her stand-alone entry she returns to America for a spooky story about a young woman with an unusual gift who can not only transport herself into a book’s setting, but can transport others as well. The results of such strange gifts are always unpredictable and seldom end well, but George’s clever and unexpected ending is bound to bring a smile or a laugh to lovers of classical mysteries.
The rest of the contributors include F. Paul Wilson, best known for his horror stories; Goosebumps author R. L. Stine; Lyndsay Faye, a Sherlockian, whose story features D. Watson; Joyce Carol Oates, a superior novelist and editor; Scottish authors Denise Mina and Ian Rankin; Bradford Morrow, Thomas Perry, Megan Abbott, Stephen Hunter, James Grady, and James W. Hall.