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?
For 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), which 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’?
Before 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 aware 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:
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
- That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green
- The String of Pearls by Thomas Preskett Prest
In 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 The 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.