David C. Cooke revived the U.S. annual series of best-of-the-years in short crime fiction (after a long interregnum after Carolyn Wells's two successive volumes in the 1930s) with E. P. Dutton in 1946...and in 1960, offered this extra volume as a culling from the first fifteen years of the series, including the most distinctive stories from each volume surveying the years 1945-59. So, one prominent editor's core sampling of the latter '40s and '50s in the US, with allowances made not solely for personal taste but also balance (and while it's less likely he was too worried about this particularly for this retrospective, the representation of the range of magazines featuring crime fiction in this period is pretty good).
The selection, of course, also tells us a bit about Cooke's predilections...
Contents from WorldCat:
Best of the best detective stories.
Author: David C Cooke
Publisher: New York, Dutton, 1960. 279 p.
Body in the barn / Margaret Manners -- from Argosy, 1945
The perfectionist / Margaret St. Clair -- Mystery Book, 1946
Revenge / Samuel Blas -- Collier's, 1947
Being a murderer myself / Arthur Williams -- Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, 1948
Blackmail / Allan Vaughan Elston -- The American Magazine, 1949
A boy's will / Q. Patrick -- EQMM, 1950
The kiss-off / John P. Foran -- Male Magazine, 1951
For value received / Richard Deming -- EQMM, 1952
The killer is loose / John and Ward Hawkins -- The Saturday Evening Post, 1953
Chinese puzzle / Richard Marsten -- Manhunt Magazine, 1954
First offense / Evan Hunter -- Manhunt, 1955
Three wives too many / Kenneth Fearing -- Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine, 1956
The day of the execution / Henry Slesar -- Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, 1957
Over there--darkness / William O'Farrell -- Sleuth, 1958
Bottle of death / Gilbert Ralston -- SEP, 1959
Two stories, and the only two of the fifteen, by women lead off the book, the Manners from the slick-paper format, no-longer pulp (and not yet quite a men's magazine) Argosy, the St. Clair from the first version of Mystery Book, a digest-sized attempt to give EQMM a run for the literate crime-fiction buff's patronage; the title folded rather quickly and was purchased or revived for a shortlived if rather handsome pulp magazine from the Thrilling Group. The Blas story, his first, appeared in the general-interest "slick" magazine Collier's and was famously adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents: television series. The Williams, apparently published under a pseudonym which was not used again, was rather widely anthologized (it is one of the two stories I'd read before in later anthologies, the other being the Deming); first of three EQMM stories. The Elston is from a Collier's stablemate, the more "family-oriented" The American Magazine, which was nonetheless a solid market for un-cozy crime fiction. The Foran story is a good example of hardboiled caper fiction, first published in the men's sweat magazine Male, one of the several published by Martin Goodman (of Archie Comics notoriety...more for his business practices than for the comics' content) and featuring on staff the likes of Bruce Jay Friedman and Mario Puzo; for whatever reason, Male was mined a few times by Cooke over the years while no stories I've seen so far were taken from any of its competitors, which would soon include Argosy. The Hawkinses' story is the first of two from the more durable Collier's competitor, the SatEvePost; the next two, the two examples from hardboiled 1950s trendsetter Manhunt, are both by the same writer, born Salvatore Lombino and best known in crime fiction as Ed McBain, legally by then Evan Hunter. The fine Fearing story is from the early issues of what would soon tweak its title to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine; founded, as was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, in 1956. AHMM would soon be joined, briefly, by a stablemate magazine project co-sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, Sleuth.
Cooke can be seen here as drawn to stories which take commonly-employed formula plots and tweak them (usually) cleverly; and while there are a number of gulled fool men in the stories assembled here, the women come off a bit worse, on balance. "Body in the Barn" and "Over There--Darkness" both deal with manipulative old women who won't let the facts get in the way of their intrigues in the lives of others; "Blackmail" outlines a pretty elaborate double-bottomed scheme on the part of younger, no less self-involved woman. Other women characters are too often simply condescended to in ways we as readers are supposed to endorse, though happily there are counter-examples, as well; the Foran story turns out to be memorable in this regard, if peripherally, while at least the villainess at the heart of the Fearing story can be seen to be behaving rationally and with motive, if insufficient motive drawn from rather evil premises, in dealing with her polygynous husband (shades of Charles Kurault); Cooke compares this story favorably to The Big Clock, and he might not be wrong. Collected here are the two best Evan Hunter short stories I've read so far, while still being essentially the weakest in the volume; instead of the usual glaring stupidity at the heart of, or at least offered as an important detail in, every other Hunter fiction I've read, the "Marsten" story is slight and excessively flip about the murder of a young woman, while "First Offense" is a not-bad but utterly unsurprising story which reads for all the world like a rendering in prose of a typical script from the CBS Radio series The Lineup (it made a jump to television after several seasons, but I haven't seen the latter version, nor the film spin-off Don Siegel directed...one wonders if the Hunter story was pitched to the series before or after publication in Manhunt). The degree to which "Q. Patrick" wishes to avoid stating that his protagonist is a gay man, while portraying a self-indulgent "nelly" stereotype to a fault (and making of him as anti-empathic a twit as anyone else in the book) is almost comic in and of itself when read today; nonetheless, QP knows what he's about here. The wit and deftness employed by St. Clair, Henry Slesar, and Elston help elevate their stories, even if the Slesar suffers a bit by being too much like the Blas; the attention to fine quotidian detail also enlivens the Elston, the Deming, "The Killer is Loose" and "Bottle of Death" as well as "The Kiss-Off." I think subsequent series editors Anthony Boucher, Allen J. Hubin, and Edward Hoch did a better job in their volumes (the two from Brett Halliday...well, I've read only his first so far, and it was hobbled by no stories from EQMM at all, for reasons I can only guess at), but this gives a good sense of what some of the better work in short form was like in this decade and a half.
Hubin, editing the series at the point it celebrated 25 years (New York, Dutton, 1971), consciously chose other stories to represent the first fifteen as well as subsequent ten years:
The man who lost his head, by B. Fischer.--
The wine glass, by A. A. Milne.--
The adventure of the President's half disme, by E. Queen.--
Murder in one scene, by Q. Patrick.--
The million-to-one chance, by R. Vickers.--
The orderly world of Mr. Appleby, by S. Ellin.--
Total recall, by J. Helvick.--
The dusty drawer, by H. Muheim.--
The attacker, by M. Wolson.--
The choice, by R. Deming.--
The conscience of the cop, by W. Fay.--
The last spin, by E. Hunter.--
Secret recipe, by C. Mergendahl.--
The day the children vanished, by H. Pentecost.--
Murder method, by T. Powell.--
For all the rude people, by J. Ritchie.--
My sister Annabelle, by De Forbes.--
The cattywampus, by B. Deal.--
Routine investigation, by R. Twohy.--
The locked house, by S. Barr.--
The yellow brick road, by G. Williams.--
The road to Damascus, by M. Gilbert.--
The sooey pill, by E. Slater.--
The lord of Central Park, by A. Davidson.--
A quarter century of the best: a checklist (p. 371-380)
--I haven't received my copy of this one yet, but judging by the stories I have read, I suspect the Hubin retrospective to be better, on balance, as well.
|And the actual issue featuring the St. Clair |
story, May, 1946
(Magazine cover images courtesy of Galactic Central.)
|Argosy for January, 1945|
|First of two issues, 1958; features the O'Farrell story. |