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?