Classic Crime Reprints of 2020: My Shortlist

Regular, (or should I say longsuffering?), readers of the blog will know that for the last couple of years I have ran the Reprint of the Year Awards in December. This Saturday I will be launching it again for the third year, so keep your eyes peeled for that post. Note it is on this forthcoming post that you need to add any titles, in the comments, you think deserving of nomination for the title of Reprint of the Year, as each year I always include several reader nomination slots in the final poll.

However, today I thought I would share with you my top ten favourites, as a kind of shortlist, though I will only be nominating two of these over the coming weeks. These ten choices are books which have been reprinted this year that I have also read and reviewed during 2020. I have not included titles which I have read and/or reviewed in previous years using earlier editions.

  1. Dance of Death (1938) by Helen McCloy (Reprinted by Agora Books)

In comparison to some of the other titles on this list, this one joined their ranks quite late in the year, as I only reviewed it on the 25th November. It is Helen McCloy’s debut novel and I was very impressed with its quality. We are given an unusual crime scene and murder weapon, combined with a well thought out investigation, conducted by the police and an amateur sleuth. This one begins in the weeks running up to Christmas, so now is a very apt time to give it a try.

2. The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts (Reprinted by Stark House Press)

Conversely, this choice was one I read way back in January, from another author I have grown to enjoy, since I first tried her work in 2019. This story beautifully depicts the dangers of telling one small lie to save face. This may seem like a non-criminally minded book, but Potts has events wonderfully snowball into an explosive finish. The ending is high impact and would definitely make for edge-of-your-seat TV watching. It is times like this that I wish TV producers would stop adapting Christie for five minutes and take a look at some other classic crime writers instead.

3. The Reluctant Murderer (1949) by Bernice Carey (Reprinted by Stark House Press)

This is an unusual inverted mystery, in that we know the person who is planning on murdering someone, but we do not know which of their friends/relations they wish to bump off. I very much enjoyed this untraditional mystery plot and since it is a first-person narrative, I found Carey was very skilful in her use of dialogue to ensure that the identity of the intended victim is not revealed too soon. The dark humour of this piece also gelled with me too.

4. The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer – (Reprinted by British Library Crime Classics)

This has been a long-awaited reprint, as before this summer, you needed to execute a bank robbery in order to buy a second-hand copy or plan a first-rate burglary to steal a copy someone else already owned. As well as being a locked room mystery, it is also a comic crime novel with a maverick amateur sleuth, and I enjoyed all three of these features. The ending contains a solution I had not come across before and it fitted the piece very well.

5. The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955) by Margot Bennett (Reprinted by British Library Crime Classics)

Choice number five is another strong example of an unconventional mystery novel well told. This time we know that four passengers were supposed to have taken a flight, which then crashed. However, only three passengers got on the plane, and the mystery centres on which one did not, (hence the name of the book). To figure this out the narrative goes back in time a few days to see the events building up to the flight. This is a character driven novel, yet within the witness testimonies which comprise the majority of the story, there are many clues to be gleamed.

6. Too Many Bones (1943) by Ruth Sawtell Wallis (Reprinted by Stark House Press)

Like Margot Bennett, this was another new to me author, and like McCloy, Wallis’ book is another strong debut. The setting is wonderfully unusual, a back of beyond museum in America, which has a specialist anthropology department. It is into this department that our heroine enters and suddenly finds herself faced with a very difficult to deal with employer. The anthropology theme is effectively used in the novel, it is not a gimmick which gets forgotten about. Instead it plays a very central and very gruesome role in the narrative. This is a suspense novel, but its utilisation of the romance subplot is not typical, and I felt the ending was very much up for grabs in terms of how the story would conclude.

7. The Undetective (1962) by Bruce Graeme (Reprinted by Moonstone Press)

This was another book I only read for the first-time last month, but it shot straight up my TBR pile due to its unconventional plot. A crime writer successfully deploys a new penname, which no one other than his wife knows is his. Yet awkwardly for him his penname becomes embroiled in a local murder, so much activity ensues in shifting the police’s attention. This is a hard novel to categorise, and in my own review I came up with the rather clunky name of unorthodox comic crime novel – yet I feel it sums up the plot well.

8. Root of All Evil (1984) by Elizabeth Ferrars (Reprinted by Felony and Mayhem)

Despite this being a later effort by Ferrars’, I found the mystery in this one to be very solid and enjoyable. Ferrars skilfully deploys familiar tropes in unexpected ways so you can never quite feel sure you know which direction the narrative is heading in. Her choice of amateur sleuth also works very well, as he is neither too implausibly brilliant, nor too inept that he’s exasperating. Instead our elderly professor is reasonably observant, though perhaps a little too ready to accept things at face value. But it’s not like we readers have ever been guilty of that…

9. Deadlock (1952) by Ruth Fenisong (Reprinted by Stark House Press)

We’re back into the realms of unusual premises again with this Fenisong title. Our victim is dead before page one and the physical reveal of this corpse is very well written, as is the way Fenisong delineates the victim’s character through the words of others; none of whom really liked him. The tropes of the busybody and of the manipulative philanthropist are beautifully executed in this book and I felt Fenisong was equally able to create powerfully poignant moments, as well as lead me well and truly up the garden path regarding the solution.

10. Crossed Skis (1952) by Carol Carnac (Reprinted by British Library Crime Classics)

My last choice sees a return to the British Library Crime Classics series, which has certainly had a strong year in its choice of titles. I found the structure of this skiing mystery intriguing in that the central death takes place off page before the book even begins, and the remainder of the story sees the group of suspects going on their skiing holiday, whilst the police try to pick up the trail back in London. Interestingly the group of suspects, bar one, do not know of the death in question, so their own increasing sense of tension and uneasiness is generated in a different way, which I liked. The police investigation is built up well also.

A quick glance at my list definitely shows a leaning towards a couple of imprints, as well as a preference for quirkier or more unusually structured mysteries. It would be great to see other people’s top ten reads of 2020’s reprints. Maybe we will have some titles the same? Or perhaps your selection will be completely different, (filled to the rafters with Freeman Wills Crofts stories).

On a final note I was gutted not to have been able to read the reprint of June Wright’s Reservation for Murder (1958), whose release date has been pushed forward twice. It has a new release date in December, hopefully third time lucky will see a copy winging its way to me.

20 comments

  1. This is a good list for me to use for acquiring more vintage mysteries. I already have HOME IS THE PRISONER / THE LITTLE LIE with John Norris’s introduction, but haven’t read it. I would love to have all the others. I really need to get TOO MANY BONE / BLOOD FROM A STONE (with intro by Curtis Evans), because of the skulls on the cover. THE MAN WHO DIDN’T FLY is not out here yet, but I will get it when it is, and I love the cover. And ROOT OF ALL EVIL. I will read anything by Ferrars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad my list appeals to you. The Wallis twofer is a definite must given those skulls! Which would you say are your favourites by Ferrars? I’ve only read a handful so far and I think only one of them was a bit of a dud.

      Like

      • It looks like I have only read three of Ferrars books. Murder Among Friends (1946) was my favorite. The first one I read was Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard (1982), which Moira at Clothes in Books sent to me. And the other one was The Small World of Murder (1973), set in Australia at Christmas. I liked both of those. So I am eager to try more.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this list, which reminds me I should read ‘Woman in the Wardrobe’ – though it’s not with me at the moment. I do agree that the Bennett and McCloy novels are interesting novels – though with ‘Dance of Death’ I suspect I liked its writing style more than its puzzle. Bennett’s novel certainly presented a different sort of puzzle while retaining the cherished fair-play traditions of the typical Golden Age mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

      • 🤔 I haven’t read many reprints this year – the BL reprints were dominated by Lorac, and the DSP reprints were dominated by Flynn, and I’ve not picked up titles from either author recently. ‘Creeping Jenny’ was quite interesting, but I’m saving ‘Peacock’s Eye’ and ‘Tread Softly’ for last. Stark House Press has released quite a few interesting sounding titles, but I think you mentioned that they tend to lean away from puzzle mysteries. And so possibly I’ve found Bennett’s novel most memorable of the reprints I’ve read.

        Liked by 1 person

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