Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Top Ten Obscure Golden Age novels that deserve to be better known

Following on from last week's post, here's an admittedly idiosyncratic list of obscure Golden Age novels that are fairly hard to find (at the moment) but which in my opinion deserve to be more widely known. One thing that most of them have in common is that they are unorthodox - the books by Connington and Bowers are the only really conventional ones of the type people associate with the Golden Age. I suppose I'm making the point that the Golden Age was more varied than many people believe...

10. Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell. This variant of the "whowasdunin" is set in England but written by a very talented American. What a shame her career was so short.

9. Nightmare by Lynn Brock. An odd book, quite different from his convoluted mysteries starring Colonal Gore, and an ambitious study in psychology. A downbest ending is a flaw, but it's a very interesting book.

8. Poison in the Parish by Milward Kennedy. Kennedy was influenced by Anthony Berkeley, and was almost equally innovative, although not with the same degree of success. This is a fascinating and original spin on the village mystery which deserves to be much better known.

7. No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan. This is a very impressive piece of work, so good that I felt quite distraught when I read the same author's more orthodox novel The Body in the Beck, and found it tedious. But at her best, she really could write. This book is somewhat in the Francis Iles vein, but quite distinctive. It just pushed out of the list Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith, which I also recommend.

6. The Divison Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson. This was the solo detective effort of "Red Ellen", the left wing Labour MP who was a prime mover in the Jarrow Crusade. The House of Commons setting is very well evoked, and the book is free of didacticism. The plot is so-so, but never mind, the story is very readable.

5. The Sweepstake Murder by J.J. Connington. This is a really clever and enthralling story, a fresh take on the "who will be next?" theme that makes And Then There Were None so irresistible.

4. The Grindle Nightmare by Q.Patrick. A very clever mystery with a great US setting and an astonishingly dark storyline. An unforgettable book. I'm very much indebted to John Norris for supplying me with a copy.

3. Middle-Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton. Brother of the better known Patrick, Bruce wrote a few extremely interesting novels. This is very much in the Francis Iles tradition, and is really well done.

2. As for the Woman by Francis Iles. This book was a commercial failure, and marked the end of the novel-writing career of Anthony Berkeley, aka Francis Iles. Hardly anyone seems to like it. So why do I rate it? Because it's an intriguing and unusual novel, which repays careful study. More on this topic in the future.

1. A Deed Without a Name by Dorothy Bowers. My choice of this as number one is, I readily admit, partly influenced by sentiment, but it would be a grim world if there were no place for a bit of sentiment every now and then. It's a nicely clued whodunit of real merit, by a writer of genuine ability and it evokes the "phoney war" nicely. Yes, it is not perfect, but I think it's utterly heartbreaking that Bowers died of TB months after being invited to join the Detection Club and at a time when she hoped her life was changing for the better. Had she lived, I'm confident she would have become a major star. And the good news is, this book is the easiest to find of those on this list. It was reprinted by the splendid Rue Morgue Press a few years ago.


Noah Stewart said...

These are indeed scarce, but a good "to-be-read" list for the connoisseur. I've only managed to find a couple in a long career of tracking such things down. One thing, though; the easiest one to find might actually be "The Sweepstake Murders" which is available from Hathi Trust ( for free -- at least from my Canadian IP address. I just read it within the last month and it is as enjoyable as you suggest, with a great tricky solution.

J F Norris said...

I recognize all of these writers except for Ellen Wilkinson though I do remember reading your review of DIVISION BELL MYSTERY. Of all the titles in this list it should be fairly easy to find in a US library as it was reprinted in the Barzun/Taylor "Top 50" series back in the 1980s. I've read at least one book by seven of the writers mentioned and nearly all of the Q Patrick books, but only three specific titles in your list. GRINDLE NIGHTMARE and SWEEPSTAKES MURDER are especially good and rather unique in the genre, too. I'd include them in a list of the best if I were ever to make one.

I'd like to read Cannan's earlier books that use crime in the plot, but not any more of her traditional detective novels. Inspector Price is a buffoon of a detective and not in a good way, IMO. I also didn't think much of THE BODY IN THE BECK though it was at times archly witty. I have FRIGHTENED ANGELS by Cannan in one of my TBR boxes and hope to get to it by the end of this year.

seana graham said...

Thanks for the great list, mostly by authors unknown to me, and even the ones I do, I haven't read the books mentioned. I wonder how many I will be able to find over the course of time, way out here in California.