17 January 2016

Old-Time Detection: Best Mystery Writers


Old-Time Detection: The Catalyst Club
featuring Arthur Vidro

I’ve been pestering Arthur Vidro to submit an article ever since he was kind enough to send me a copy of Old-Time Detection, which I read with my feet propped up in the waiting area of an old-time tire repair shop. Before me, Dale Andrews not only invited Arthur, but has written about him more than once.

Arthur lives in Claremont which, as Dale has noted, is the pattern for Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville. His address is on… Ellery Street.

Arthur hand-publishes
Old-Time Detection three times a year, a labor of love. As you might surmise, OTD eschews many of our modern means of publishing, but then its focus is not of this century. It harks back to when detectives used deduction and ratiocination rather than rely on electronic surveillance and CSI labs. That word ‘ratiocination’… I learned its definition as a kid reading golden age mysteries. When has anyone read that word in a novel in the past half century?

The following originally appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of Old-Time Detection. [Mr. Vidro’s notes appear in brackets.]


For more information about subscribing, contact Arthur at oldtimedetection(at)netzero(dot)net

— Leigh Lundin

Anthony Boucher's 1951 List of 44
[42 novelists plus 2 short-story writers]
by Anthony Boucher
annotated by Arthur Vidro

    In June 1951, Ellery Queen asked his fellow crime writers:
“Would you care to nominate the ten best living detective-story writers? “For your convenience, why not use the back of this letter, and the stamped, addressed envelope enclosed.”
— Fred Dannay [of the Ellery Queen collaboration]
    Probably the most thorough reply to Fred Dannay's request for a top ten list came from mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher. His response merits being quoted in full. The names he cites, by his merely citing them, give 21st century readers a dazzling roster of worthy authors to read. I don't know how much time Boucher spent in crafting his reply, but clearly he was enjoying himself; this was no mere annoying task for him, but a challenge he tackled with enthusiasm.
    Boucher's reply, from Berkeley, California, was among the earliest received; it was dated June 14, 1951 and typed on the letterhead of the Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, which was edited by Boucher and published by Spivak:
Dear Fred,

    You're a menace!
    You know I take my responsibilities seriously and can't just go jotting ten names down on the back of a letter – and you also know I never can resist such queries… and there goes a large chunk of F&SF's working day. Spivak should sue you.
    Anyway:
    My list of ten is not just living writers – it's contemporary practicing professionals, not including those who happen to be alive but are not actively important; order is alphabetical:
Nicholas Blake
John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson
Agatha Christie
Erle Stanley Gardner / A.A. Fair
Michael Innes
Ngaio Marsh
Ellery Queen / Barnaby Ross
Georges Simenon
Josephine Tey
Cornell Woolrich / William Irish / George Hopley
    A major criterion in selection was not only quality, but individuality and distinction.
    [Always the completist, Boucher insisted on including each author's known pseudonyms – in Woolrich's case, more than one pseudonym. He also felt obliged to bestow honor upon top writers who no longer were adding much to their prior accomplishments.]
    Here's a supplementary list of twelve living writers of the first rank who have stopped writing (at least in our field) or made only a few insignificant contributions in recent years:
Eric Ambler
E.C. Bentley
Anthony Berkeley / Francis Iles
Raymond Chandler
Freeman Wills Crofts
Graham Greene
Dashiell Hammett
Ronald A. Knox
Philip MacDonald
A.E.W. Mason
Craig Rice
Dorothy L. Sayers
    These lists are, incidentally, based primarily on the novel – thus excluding such figures as T.S. Stribling, who's written only shorts, or Roy Vickers, whose novels are usually ghastly. [Vickers won much acclaim for his Department of Dead Ends police investigative short stories. Stribling, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel-length fiction, is well worth seeking out for his short stories featuring criminologist Dr. Henry Poggioli – some of which are in print, courtesy of Crippen & Landru Publishers.]
    You might also be interested in the list of also-rans. These are the people who only barely got squeezed off the first list:
Margery Allingham
Charlotte Armstrong
Manning Coles
Edmund Crispin
Elizabeth Daly
Cyril Hare
Matthew Head
H.F. Heard
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
the Lockridges
Helen McCloy
John Ross Macdonald
Margaret Millar
Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin
Elliot Paul
Evelyn Piper
Mabel Seeley
Rex Stout
Lawrence Treat
Arthur W. Upfield
    [John Ross Macdonald would later become more famous as Ross Macdonald. The Lockridges refers to the husband/wife mystery writing team of Richard and Frances Lockridge.]
    Do keep me posted and Tell Me All about this poll.
    TIMES has decided to give me the whole mystery-review column for a four-month trial period starting July 1. I'll also be covering the science fiction field for the TRIB (as H.H. Holmes) … which is handy because I have to read all that for F&SF's reviewing column anyway.
    [TIMES and TRIB refer to the newspapers The New York Times and probably the New York Herald Tribune. H.H. Holmes was a pseudonym Boucher also used on two of his mystery novels, Nine Times Nine and Rocket to the Morgue.]
    It took me a while (complicated by commuting to Los Angeles for the Hammett trial) to get over the illness with which I so spectacularly left New York; and I'm only gradually getting untangled and back to normal operations. I'll try to write you a proper letter soon – meanwhile please proffer my warmest devotion to Hilda.

Best,
Tony

    Fred Dannay was married to Hilda Wisenthal from 1947 until her death in 1972. Boucher did not consider this list of authors to be a full-fledged letter, so he promises to provide one soon; he corresponded frequently with Fred Dannay. Dashiell Hammett in 1951 was convicted of contempt of court for which he served five months in jail. Boucher's “Criminals at Large” column in The New York Times would run from 1951 until his death in 1968.



Leigh again with a historical note:
Old-Time Detection: T.S. Stribling
The trial referred to grew out of the McCarthy hearings in which Congress demanded Dashiell Hammett brand friends as communists. The thought police ploy was nasty: If a respondent knew no communists or had the fortitude to not dime out acquaintances with different beliefs, the result was the same: imprisonment for contempt of court.

Punishment of six months in a federal prison wasn’t sufficient: Hammett was blacklisted, his radio program cancelled, his books taken out of print, and his financial resources drained by government fines and legal fees.
Subscribe to Old-Time Detection ($18US per year, slightly higher elsewhere) by writing Arthur at  oldtimedetection(at)netzero(dot)net

8 comments:

janice law said...

A great list and a good introduction to Arthur Vidro.

Eve Fisher said...

A great list - and I'm happy to see I've read a whole lot of those authors. Thank you for the introduction to Arthur Vidro and Old Time Detection.

Anonymous said...

A fine list of classics writers. I haven't read Strirbling so that drew my attention.

Are you saying the author really lives on Ellery St or is that a business address?

Dale Andrews said...

Arthur Vidro is one of the "West Eighty-Seventh Street Irregulars" honorees on Kurt Sercu's Ellery Queen website. More information about Arthur and his hometown of Claremont is available there at the following address:

http://queen.spaceports.com/Irregulars_8.html

Claremont, faithful readers of SleuthSayers may recall, is also the city that hosted the first staging of Joe Goodrich's EQ play "Calamity Town." Arthur directed the production and played a supporting role -- real estate agent J. C. Pettigrew.

Leigh Lundin said...

The list of authors gives an idea of some of the authors found in the pages of Old-Time Detection. The periodical is truly a labor of love.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, I’m not sure I entirely understand your question. Are you asking if ‘Ellery’ is a real street name? Dale might know or we have to see if Arthur weighs in, but I can state that’s where fans mail checks for subscriptions.

Dale Andrews said...

"Ellery" is, indeed, a street name in Claremont. You can easily find it on Google Maps.

A Broad Abroad said...

My love of detective stories was ignited and nurtured by my maternal grandmother, an avid reader. I'm pleased to see any number of familiar names on these lists, all introduced by her. Thanks, Gran. Oh, and thanks to Arthur for the rest.