My Top 12 Reads from the American Mystery Classics Reprint Series

It’s been a while since I posted a list on my blog and the American Mystery Classics series seemed like a good choice, given that it is something I have been dipping into quite regularly this year. The series covers a range of American writers from John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Cornell Woolrich to Charlotte Armstrong, Dolores Hitchens and Craig Rice. There are Had-I-But-Known dramas and locked room crimes, as well as courtroom sagas and inverted mysteries. So which ones have been my favourites?

Deciding which titles to go into the list was a relatively easy task. The tricky part was giving them a ranking as they are such a strong group of mysteries and I would recommend giving any, or rather, all of them of a try.

12th Place: Golden Age Detective Stories (2021), ed. by Otto Penzler

This is the only short story collection on the list, and it contains 14 mysteries from writers already published within the American Mystery Classic series. A variety of mystery fiction writing styles are covered in this anthology and my personal favourites were ‘The Case of the Crimson Kiss’ (1948) by Erle Stanley Gardner, ‘5-4=Murder’ (1953) by Baynard Kendrick ‘Puzzle for Poppy’ (1946) by Patrick Quentin and ‘The Mystery in Room 913’ (1938) by Cornell Woolrich.

11th Place: The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich

This is a good example of a book where I am glad I persevered, as if I had given up after the first 20-30 pages then I would have missed out on a great read. Woolrich successfully increases the tension and suspense as the body count mounts, alongside notes of poignancy. Yet this is not a plot without its twists and turns, and I found the denouement to have some unexpected touches.

10th Place: Cat’s Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett

This is the latest book that I have read from the series, and it is a must read for red herring fans, as well as those who love a closed circle family mystery. The writing duo behind the Scarlett penname do an excellent job of providing an engaging runup of events leading to the murder and the various family member subterfuges dovetail nicely with the central murder plot.

9th Place: The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942) by Erle Stanley Gardner

This story takes place over 18 hours, so the pace is certainly energetic. Perry Mason’s cases are very often action-packed adventures, yet they are not without their puzzling aspects and this story holds some very interesting and unusual clues. Tension levels soar when Perry and Della end up in tight corner and you are routing for them to get out of it. The kitten also serves an interesting role within the plot, which is in keeping with other Perry Mason mysteries such as The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935), The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939) and The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1958).

8th Place: Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice

This is a very enjoyable madcap comic mystery in which a trio of children solve the murder of a next-door neighbour. I liked the juvenile amateur sleuthing, as the children prove to be rather resourceful, using stereotypes attached to their age group to their own advantage, in the way that Miss Marple does with hers. The central mystery has lashings of surprises and is well-clued to boot. Another Craig Rice story has also been reprinted in this series called, Eight Faces to Three (1939). I would have included this one in the list, but I read it pre-blog many years ago, so didn’t feel I could accurately place it, although it was one I definitely enjoyed. I hope more Craig Rice make their way into the series.

7th Place: The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe (1938) by Erle Stanley Gardner

Being one of Gardner’s earlier Perry Mason stories, he was still playing around with the legal mystery formula, and I enjoyed seeing the variations and deviations from his later pattern. I liked how the initial problem Mason and the reader are presented with is turned on its head part way through the narrative and the plot goes in a very different direction. This is a page turner of a book and one where you say to yourself, “Just one more chapter.”

6th Place: The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong

This book has a wonderfully odd title, and it was this that first piqued my interest. Charlotte Armstrong is an author I strongly feel needs to better known as despite the romantic covers her books suffered, her stories are regularly well-plotted tales with unusual structures. Inverted mysteries lovers must seek out this story pronto, as it is quite an unconventional one and I think it is hard for the reader to anticipate the novel’s trajectory. It is good for keeping you on your toes and as the ending comes into view, on the edge of your seat. With Armstrong you are never guaranteed a fairy tale happy ending.

5th Place: Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

This is the third Hugh Rennert mystery, out of seven, and Rennert is a US Customs service agent, who seems to come across more than his fair share of murders. This is a very well-developed train-bound mystery and rail strike saboteurs certainly up the ante. A strong emphasis on time also contributes to the tension of the story and Downing is adept at creating a claustrophobic train carriage atmosphere, with various characters trying to hide their secrets. Cluing is also top notch.

4th Place: The Cat Saw Murder (1939) by Dolores Hitchens

Such a title might make you think this story is a cozy one, but with Hitchens that would be an erroneous assumption to make. When she does a cat mystery, she arms herself with blood-soaked murders and a badass old biddy. This is a brilliant boarding house mystery and Rachel Murdock is an excellent amateur sleuth, who has an unusual entry point into this role. There is plenty for the reader to puzzle out and I enjoyed how the author utilises tantalising foreshadowing sentences to aid this aspect. I really hope more books from this series are reprinted in the future.

3rd Place: The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) by Stuart Palmer

I think I would go so far to say that this is my favourite Miss Withers mystery and is definitely a title to add to your online shopping basket if you love mysteries set in vintage Hollywood. There are lots of reasons to enjoy this book from its action-packed plot with dramatic high points, to its intricate mystery and well-pitched comedy. I also found it had a greater sense of peril than some of the previous Miss Wither mysteries, and she too I felt had a more ruthless edge to her in this case.

2nd Place: Odor of Violets (1941) by Baynard Kendrick

This is an author I first came across when I was researching the roles of animals in classic crime fiction, for a talk I presented at the International Agatha Christie Festival last year. This book is from Kendrick’s series starring Duncan Maclain, who is a blind private detective; a character who was based on a blind British soldier the author met when he visited London during WW1. One of the strengths of this novel is in how successfully it blends mystery fiction writing styles. It has its hardboiled and spy elements, yet as Otto Penzler remarks in the introduction to the reprint, it is ‘a genuine whodunnit.’ There is much to puzzle out in this narrative as the case becomes more complex with plot events such as the crime scene being tampered with. I enjoyed how Maclain’s blindness is not a cheap gimmick in the book and the writer is adept at presenting scenes from his sleuth’s perspective.

1st Place: The Unsuspected (1947) by Charlotte Armstrong

This is Armstrong’s fourth novel and put her on the mystery fiction writing map, as at the time its inverted mystery style was regarded as controversial. When I read this book, it knocked it straight out of the park, and I had an instant favourite read for that month. Two individuals decide they must find proof that one of their employer’s has committed murder. As they make their plans you anticipate a typical amateur sleuthing adventure, yet you would be very wrong to suppose that is the path Armstrong takes with this story… I love how Armstrong does something completely different, as her change in focus takes this mystery to the next level. If you were to look up edge of your seat reading in the dictionary, then this book would be listed in its definition. If you want to write well-plotted, puzzling suspense with twists and nail-biting finales, then this is your manual. She uses the cat-and-mouse trope like no other.

So which books are your favourites from the series? And which are you looking forward to being released in the coming months?

13 comments

  1. Useful post because I have read only a few, mostly in the bottom half of the list. I know the Browning divides opinion. Must see which of these the library has: such nice print editions!

    Tip: avoid the recent Perry Mason TV series. Really, really, really avoid it.

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the warning! Not a series which has been on my radar particularly.
      I have yet to read the Fredric Browning title, The Fabulous Clipjoint, although I hope to rectify this omission at some point. I really enjoyed Night of the Jabberwock and liked Murder Can Be Fun, too.

      Like

    • Think I have read 28 to date. There are quite a few Queen/Carrs in their list I have not read yet.
      Glad you enjoyed the Woolrich title. There are two others by him in the series also which I have yet to read.
      Unfortunately the Boucher and Rawson titles you mention didn’t quite make the cut for my list. Think they were around a 3.75/5 and the lowest rating in my list was 4.25/5. The AMC does pack in a lot of quality reads.

      Like

  2. I’ve not gotten around to sampling the American Mystery Classics series of reprints, because have either read/already own the reissued book or they’re not particular high on my list of priorities. Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries sounded promising when it was announced, but the selection of stories pretty much makes it a best-of collection of previous locked room anthologies. So I’ll make it a point to move The Cat Saw Murder up my wishlist on your recommendation.

    I’m a little surprise you rank Baynard Kendrick so highly. You would assume he’s too pulpy for you to fully enjoy, but, if you liked Odor of Violets, I highly recommend The Whistling Hangman. Still my personal favorite closely followed by Blind Man’s Bluff. Anyway, thanks for the list and addition to the wishlist!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I was unsure about the Kendrick for that very reason when I started it, but I surprised myself and enjoyed it a lot.
      Three of the titles in this list I reviewed before they were in the reprint series, but the others the series was my first experience of them. Thank you for the Kendrick recommendations, hope more of them make it into the AMC series, as his books are much harder to source than Carrs are for example. Hope you enjoy the Hitchens book too.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.