The Top 3 in Crime Fiction Pre 1929

In my review of E. C. Bentley’s Last Case (1913) on Monday I mentioned a quote from Agatha Christie where she declares her enthusiasm for the book, saying it was ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written.’ Curtis Evans managed to track down that quote to a dustjacket for the book from 1929. Annoyingly though I have not been able to find out what the other two stories were. However, since I didn’t rate Bentley’s book as highly as Christie did, I started wondering what my three choices would be for the ‘best detective stories ever written.’ To narrow down my task just a little I decided to only look at those which would have been available to Christie by 1929. Not that this made the task much easier, as there is still a lot of stories to choose from and a question which came to mind was what criteria should I use? Should it just be based purely on how much I loved reading certain books? Or should it be to do with how much the text contributed to the genre as a whole?

The Red House MysteryFor instance I enjoyed A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922), Gladys Mitchell’s Speedy Death (1929) and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), but can they be said to be the best though and did they contribute enough the genre? Going back further than the 1920s a story I enjoyed reading was Thomas Peckett Prest’s The String of Pearls (1846-47), The Big Bow Mysterywhich certainly contributed one of literature’s scariest villains – Sweeney Todd. There is also the work of Anna Katharine Green to consider as her novel, That Affair Next Door (1897), was fundamental in the rise of the elderly spinster sleuth. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill also came to mind with its famous solution to the murder – but is that enough to qualify it as one of the ‘best detective stories ever written’?

The Murder of Roger AckroydBefore you worry I haven’t forgotten some of the more big names of the period and Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is definitely a strong contender for the trick it manages to pull off. It is probably a crime not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, whose detective short stories introduced or developed a number of tropes which even writers today are still responding and writing back to. Two texts I haven’t read but I am awareThe Mystery of the Hansom Cab are considered important by others are Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) and Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886), though in the latter case I have read that he only included the detective fiction components for mercenary reasons e.g. he thought it would make the story sell better.

So which to pick?

To make things easier I decided to focus purely on novels rather than short stories, which knocks out Doyle and Poe. That is because trying to narrow down my favourite Holmes short story could take a while (and based on my reading of the first two Holmes novels, I’d say Holmes is at his best in his short story format) and because although Poe’s stories introduced a lot of important genre devices, I think other writers in the list have stronger writing styles. I am prepared for people to completely disagree with this decision, but I guess part of me did want to steer slightly away from the big name authors. Equally I veered away from my Sayers’ choices as I felt her best work was in the 1930s and in the case of The Red House Mystery, I have so little memories on it that it would be hard to justify choosing it without giving it a re-read first. Who knows maybe I won’t like it on re-reading it? Equally I couldn’t decide on a book I had never read myself which therefore excludes The Moonstone and The Mystery of the Hansom Cab.

In the end my final choices (at this particular point in time) are:

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  2. That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green
  3. The String of Pearls by Thomas Preskett Prest

That Affair Next DoorIn my opinion The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Christie’s best novel pre 1929 and its’ central device (I’ll say no more), caused consternation and uproar when it was published and it still has the power to shock and surprise readers today. The elderly spinster sleuth was a key fictional character in the Golden Age period, so I think Green’s novel is deserving of a place as this book really helped to flesh out this character and show how elderly women have the necessary sleuthing skills. Finally TheThe String of Pearls String of Pearls was a novel that I really enjoyed, with an intricate plot and very well drawn characters (Todd’s villainy is supreme) and I think it deserves to be more well-known than it is, as it tends to be overshadowed by later adaptations which have adopted its central villain.

Over to You

Having now decided on my three, there is part of me wondering whether I have missed some great books, so if you think I have let me know which three you would choose instead. The only rule is that they need to have been published by 1929 and they can be short stories or novels.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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17 Responses to The Top 3 in Crime Fiction Pre 1929

  1. JFW says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts, so thanks for the post. 🙂

    I definitely agree with you that ‘Roger Ackroyd’ deserves a spot in the top three. In fact, I might put it in my top three Golden Age mysteries, possibly mysteries, period. I think what makes this title so special to me is not simply that it played its trick so well, but that it effectively pioneered a very significant trick within the genre. I think another title that makes a similar achievement, in my eyes, would be Gaston Leroux’s ‘Mystery of the Yellow Room’ – which also falls within the stipulated pre-1929 time-frame.

    As for Anna Katharine Green, I’ve only read ‘Leavenworth Case’, so thanks for recommending another title of hers. 🙂 Incidentally, Hercule Poirot praised ‘Leavenworth Case’ and ‘Yellow Room’ in one of his exuberant rants to Hastings – perhaps in ‘The Clocks’?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read The Mystery of the Yellow Room, but I found the narrative style dense and hard to enjoyably read, but yes its solution certainly means it adds something to the genre. I haven’t read The Leavenworth Case, but Harper Collins are doing a reprint of it next month I think, so I might give it a try.

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    • Santosh Iyer says:

      Yes, in The Clocks Hercule Poirot praises Leavenworth Case, Yellow Room and also The Adventures Of Arsene Lupin, but to Colin Lamb, not Hastings. Hastings does not appear in this book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • JJ says:

      Definitely The Mystery of the Yellow Room for me. I tried reading the first sequel and it was unfortunately awful, but for me Leroux wrote one of the all-time classics with Yellow Room.

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  2. ravenking81 says:

    I have a soft spot for Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday” (1909), but it’s such a weird little book, I’m not even sur, it can be called a mystery.

    “Through The Wall” (1909) by Cleveland Moffet is an excellent and little-known mystery.

    I also like Frreman Wills Crofts’ “The Cask” (1920). I understand Crofts has his detractors, but I still think “The Cask” deserves its classic status.

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  3. John says:

    The Crime of Orcival (1868) by Emile Gaboriau is one of the finest detective novels of the French school and in had a large influence on the development of the genre in English.
    Uncle Abner (1918) by Melville Davisson Post, seriously neglected and almost completely forgotten American writer. This is a collection of short stories some of which are true classics in the genre.
    Ashes to Ashes (1917) by Isabel Ostrander, a crime novel with detective elements told from the viewpoint of the killer. It predates the entire “Francis Iles school” of crime novel. Although not a strongly literate writer the fact that Ostrander wrote such a controversial novel and made it commercial (it was first serialized in a pulp magazine) ought to stand for something. Her ideas and plotting can sometimes dazzle for pre-1920s era mystery fiction.

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  4. John says:

    Through the Wall is a complete imitation of the French school of detective novel. Moffett was an American journalist and a Francophile. The story takes place in France and the detective is a French genius. That title made the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list of landmark novels. It’s kind of an epic detective novel. I made it through about one third of it and never finished. That’s not to say it’s bad, I just lost interest in the labyrinthine plot and the ever shifting focus of the very involved story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We can’t include any Father Brown Mysteries since you have a block o short stories, but I always loved those – what a terrible TV series though! Father Brown miscast. I love Andrew Sachs’ readings of them though,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lesblatt says:

    I certainly agree with John about the Uncle Abner stories. Melville Davisson Post’s stories are powerful and his characters are very strong and well-defined – I think you’d like them, Kate. I would also vote for Ackroyd. And I think The Moonstone should be on the list as well, for its multiple narrators, strong plot and excellent characters all of which (and whom) helped create the modern crime novel. And, as a strong also-ran (which would be on the list if I didn’t have to put Ackroyd there!), may I suggest R. Austin Freeman’s “The Red Thumb Mark.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s been a few Freeman suggestions for this post. I have wondered whether I should give him another try, as when I read Mr Polton Explains it pretty much put me off him for life. Definitely interested in reading The Moonstone and some stories by Davisson as I have heard good things about both.

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  7. Pingback: A Classic Which Deserves Its Reputation: | crossexaminingcrime

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