by Henny Brawley
The Circular Staircase (1908) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1976-1958 Mary Roberts Rinehart was among the earliest mystery authors to include humor and a female protagonist. Her books reflect their times. Women wore hats. An unchaperoned single woman spending the night with a man was unthinkable. She was at one time the highest paid author in America. Se was the first woman war correspondent to reach No Man’s Land in France in WWI. She loved America’s west and championed Indian tribes then in desperate straits.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. 1875-1940
Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay is a gentleman adventurer, brave, stalwart, always understated in the finest British tradition. Buchan, the first Baron Tweedsmuir, was once described as a man of unintimidating gay alacrity and a warmth of companionable charm. One of his sons said a few years after his death: “Everything at home sprang into cheerful new life the moment my father entered the front door.”
The House without a Key (1925) by Earl Derr Biggers, 1884-1933
Debut of Honolulu Det. Sgt. Inspector Charlie Chan, a wise and philosophical man with a gift for insightful comments. A fascinating return to the Hawaii of the ‘20s and a fine introduction to Chan’s understanding of the nuances of Eastern and Western attitudes. Chan is a fully realized character in the novels unlike his depiction in movies.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie, 1890-1976
Christie delighted in taking advantage of unconscious assumptions made by readers. She employs this technique as well in The Crooked House and Death on the Nile. Discover her humor and charm in the autobiographical Come Tell Me How You Live, a lively account of daily routine on one of her husband Max Mallowan’s archeological digs.
Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L (cq without period) Sayers, 1893-1957
An elegant exploration of the balance between love and independence and a fascinating portrait of university life, its passions, prejudices, and sometimes, pain. Sayers was a remarkable woman for her time or any time, brilliant, clever, inventive, and fiercely independent.
Ming Yellow (1935) by John P. Marquand, 1893-1960
Marquand’s literary novels explored the world of wealth and status. He received a Pulitzer for The Late George Apley. In a different vein entirely were the Mr. Moto novels where the wily Japanese agent’s efforts involved American adventurers. The early titles provide an understanding of China and Japan in the 1930s and they are great fun.
Fer-de-Lance (1935) by Rex Stout, 1886-1975
The first Nero Wolfe and an introduction to the famous fictional brownstone on West 35th Street. While testing commercial beers and, to his amazement finding one acceptable, Wolfe says: “. . . a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.” Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, the narrator, unfailingly provide superb entertainment.
The Case Is Closed (1937) by Patricia Wentworth, 1878-1961
When all hope is lost, call on London’s most unusual private enquiry agents Miss Maud Silver. A man is accused of murder, convicted, and is now in prison, but his wife and her cousin believe in his innocence. Only Miss Silver can use her perception and guile to save him. Miss Silver often knits bootees for babies and is likely to quote Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson: “And trust me not at all, or all in all.”
Cause for Alarm (1938) by Eric Ambler,1909-1998
A preview of the clash of fascism and democracy in WWII. Ambler revealed the dark heart of fascism in several of his nineteen thirties thrillers. After the war Ambler became a successful screenwriter as well an novelist. He had a talent for comedy and The Light of Day (1962) chronicles a hapless rogue hero in desperate trouble in Greece and Germany. It was made into a movie entitled Topkapi.
Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier, 1907-1989
One of the great opening lines in fiction: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. The tone captures the foreboding and unease that permeate the story of the second wife who lives in dead Rebecca’s shadow. A haunting novel about love and jealousy and cruelty. The author said of her work: “. . . a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower.”. Du Maurier’s novels were often tinged with horror that lingers in a reader’s mind.
Above Suspicion (1940) by Helen MacInnes, 1907-1985
The adventures of a husband and wife team of amateur spies looking for an anti-Nazi spy in pre-WWII Europe. The background is based on her journal entries while on her honeymoon in Bavaria and the darkening cloud of war that was fast approaching. Her husband scholar Gilbert Highet served in British Intelligence in WWII.
The Norths Meet Murder, 1940 by Frances and Richard Lockridge. Frances , 1896-1963. Richard, 1898-1982.
Frances and Richard Lockridge used their skills as reporters to create the Pam and Jerry North series, distinguished by Pam’s intuitive leaps and Jerry’s steadying influence. The Norths are among the early cool couples in mysteries and the martini- bright style was influenced by sketches Richard wrote for The New Yorker.
Drink to Yesterday (1940) by Manning Coles, pseudonym of Cyril Henry Coles, 1899-1965, and Adelaide Manning,1891-1959.
The first of the Tommy Hambledon British agent novels. Coles served in British intelligence in WWI and WWII and Manning worked in the War Office in WWII. They also created four entertaining ghost novels, including Brief Candles and Happy Returns about two cousins, one American and one British, who died in the Franco Prussian War and return to help a modern-day descendent.
The Fog Comes (1941) by Mary Collins,1908-1979
Murder in an upper class family in fog-shrouded Northern California. Collins wrote six mysteries in the 1940s with intelligent, independent women protagonists. Each is a standalone and all are absorbing. Her last novel was Dog Eat Dog in 1949.
The Hollow Chest (1941) by Phoebe Atwood Taylor writing as Alice Tilton,1909-1976
Taylor was famous for her Codfish Sherlock Asey Mayo but under the Tilton name she wrote comic mysteries about professorial Leonidas Witherall. The spitting image of Shakespeare, he was known to friends as Bill. The Hollow Chest is a rollicking read with unexpected twists on every page. Tilton’s books during the war years such as File for Record.(1943) depict the home front during WWII from gas rationing to air raid sirens to junk drives.
The Great Blank Kanba (1944) by Australian sisters Constance and Gwenyth Little. Constance, 1889-1980), Gwenyth (1903-1985)
Their only mystery set in Australia, a murder-struck journey across Australia by train. All but one of their books included Black in the title. The Little books were wacky tales with macabre twists and a laugh a page. Another favorite is The Black Goatee (1947). In the postwar housing crunch, desperate house hunters steal silently into the unused wing of a home to find homicide instead of comfort.
The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephone Tey, 1897-1952
A chilling tale that shows how easy it is to enmesh the innocent with false accusations. The village turns against a mother and daughter accused of kidnaping a teenager but the lawyer they seek believes in them. Tey’s novels were imaginative and unusual.
The Chinese Chop (1949) by Juanita Sheridan,1906-1974
The first novel to star writer Janice Cameron and her soon-to-be friend and champion Lily Wu. Three subsequent novels are set in 1950s Hawaii when much of old Hawaii still existed. Sheridan was as adventurous as any of her heroines . She wed often, traveled far, and claimed that her maternal grandfather was killed by Pancho Villa.
Man Running (1948) by Selwyn Jepson, 1899-1989
The first Eve Gill novel. During WWII, Jepson was a recruiting agent for SOE in Britain. He believed, despite superiors’ objections, that women made excellent agents because the strong ones possessed a cool courage and could work alone. Winston Churchill gave him the authority to recruit women. This respect is reflected in his creation after the war of super cool Eve Gill as a protagonist in six imaginative tales.
Murder’s Little Sister (1958) by Pamela Branch,1920-1967
Disheveled, irascible YOU Editor Sam Egan implores his staff: “. . . as a team let’s have a stab at Misadventure, mm? If some swine’s found a clue, we gradually introduce Suicide. Soft pedal it. Nothing of interest to a lurking journalist. Nothing definite, nothing chatty, nothing squalid. Remember, we don’t want suicide and I absolutely refuse to have Murder.” Pamela Branch entertains from the first page to the last. There are a great many clever mysteries, but few reach the heights of creativity and nonsense spun by Branch.
Killer’s Wedge (1959) by Ed McBain,1926-2005
The first in his magnificent 87th Precinct novels, the finest police procedurals ever penned. Police work is rendered accurately with characters as real as the cop next door. In this Edgar Winner, life and death hang in the balance and tension ratchets to a tumultuous finale.
My Brother Michael (1960) by Mary Stewart,1916-2014
The first sentence: “Nothing ever happens to me.” An intelligent, intriguing woman is drawn into an adventure set against a background delineated with grace and precision. Mary Stewart is deservedly compared to the Brontes. Stewart’s prose shines with erudition and charm.
Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) by Tony Hillerman,1925-2008
Tony Hillerman grew up in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma and attended an Indian boarding school for eight years, his introduction to a different culture. Warm, kind, and wise, Hillerman’s mysteries, set in the Four Corners, depict the consciousness of Navajo and Zuni tribes. Hillerman entitled his autobiography Seldom Disappointed (2001) in a tribute to his mother’s dictum: Blessed are those who expect little; they are seldom disappointed.
Crocodile on a Sandbank (1975) by Elizabeth Peters,1927-2013
Mystery author JoAnna Carl takes a copy of Crocodile on a Sandbank to hospitalized friends, saying if that didn’t make them feel better, nothing would. This first in the series featuring Amelia Peabody, a Victorian archeologist in Egypt, entertains, educatee, and delights. Elizabeth Peters (archeology trained Barbara Mertz) also wrote as Barbara Michaels.
Death in Zanzibar (1983) by M. M. Kaye,1908-2004 Published in 1959 as The Kaye’s military husband was posted to various exotic locales which she used as a background for many of her suspense novels. Her most famous novel is The Far Pavilions (1978), an epic novel of British-Indian history. Kaye was born n India and educated in England, but her ties to India were deep and lasting.
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