#865: There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So – Examining the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones List

If you’ve met me, firstly I apologise, and secondly it’ll come as no surprise that I have a tendency to ruminate on that which many others pass over without so much as a backward glance. Previously this resulted in me writing something in the region of 25,000 words on the Knox Decalogue, and today I’m going to turn my eye upon the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list. Prepare thyself…

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this list, a brief (and probably inaccurate) explanation.

Chapter 14 of Howard Haycraft’s overview of crime fiction to that point, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941) is entitled ‘A Detective Story Bookshelf’ and addresses itself, rather than to the book-collector of lore, “an individual of vast wealth and unlimited leisure, versed in ‘points’, prices, and bibliophilic lore and language”, to “the plain reader who enjoys accumulating books he has read and liked, blissfully unaware of their pecuniary worth, neither knowing nor caring whether he possesses invaluable ‘firsts’ or cheap reprints”. These “unpretentious detective story fans…may care to assemble for their own pleasure ‘cornerstone’ libraries of the best and most influential writing in the medium” and so Haycraft provides such a list.

There follows a tabulation of some 77 works, which Haycraft calls “a suggestive selection of the recognized ‘high spots'” of the century of mystery fiction he was celebrating, stating that “it may be truthfully said that no authors or titles have been included for historical reasons only” — meaning everything is here on merit alone, having played “developmental rôles which transcend…merely historical [consideration]”. This claim takes something of a hit when you realise that the entire Sherlock Holmes canon has been included — in fairness, there are excellent stories in every single collection, but really only three books would qualify whole cloth (you may debate which amongst yourselves) — but given how subjective the notion of “quality” is we’re not going to lose too much sleep over Haycraft’s choices.

It’s honestly a good idea not to debate the contents of the list too ardently because Haycraft muddies his waters somewhat as his introductory remarks go on, talking about the “influence” of some works and how the “developmental significance” of some authors compels them over others…so at the end of the day, it’s not terribly clear quite what his criteria were. I always thought the term “cornerstone” was significant, representing as it does something from which an edifice may be expanded — the preponderance of debut appearances (not slavishly adhered to, as Haycraft points out) would also fit here, since their first appearance represents the first brick in the building of their fictional career, and so justifies the preference of Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) over The Sea Mystery (1928)…pure sacrilege on any other grounds.

Sorry, sorry, couldn’t help myself.

“Hypocrite.”

In the years following the publication of Murder for Pleasure, the Frederic Dannay half of Ellery Queen suggested an update to the list, no doubt to pay homage to the work done in the detection genre during the Golden Age and being too contemporary to the original list. Haycraft was at pains to point out that he had included only current authors and works “whom critical or popular acclaim has raised above their fellows beyond any possibility of doubt” precisely because it was too soon to say what the lasting effect of works published in, say, 1940 would have. Dannay, a keen student of the detective fiction of his era, would have recognised the need to celebrate the recent achievements of his fellow writers…as well as acknowledge earlier works Haycraft’s reasoning had initially excluded. At the last count, Dannay added 69 titles, some of which are baffling if we’re looking at this as a list of works of detection — Dracula (1897), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) which Haycraft had deliberately excluded (well, Buchan was mentioned by name, and so it follows that etc., etc.) — and thus further obscure any underlying intent.

And yet certain titles really do suggest a desire to include books which, if not necessarily good mysteries or even good detection stories, are at least notable for trying to expand the purpose, the function, the scope, or the operation of the mystery story (I’ll have to use the catch-all term, since the list if nothing it not a weird mix of detection and crime when it’s not also seeking to include some baffling entries from other spheres of literature) throughout its history. Rocket to the Morgue (1942) by Anthony Boucher is apparently a fascinating roman à clef, relying on a tranche of real life soon-to-be successful SF writers, and as such shows how the mystery can attain a degree of social commentary; Lord of the Sorcerers, a.k.a. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1946) by Carter Dickson plays with one of the most ingrained tropes in the GAD rule book, but the revelation of this is much more elucidating than satisfying; A Taste for Honey (1941) by H.F. Heard is fascinating for how it enables existing properties to be taken in new and surprising directions, but it’s also a short story tediously drawn out to no particular end. None of these are good mysteries in my opinion, but I could write you 3,000 words about why each of them deserves consideration when it comes to stretching the reach of my beloved genre.

At time of writing, I have read 73 titles from the final Haycraft-Queen list — included at the end, for the curious — and would suggest that maybe 61 of those are worthy inclusions on the grounds of widening or contributing to the intent of what we’re calling the Golden Age. I see a sort of literary pretension in Danny’s inclusions of Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier, and Dickens’ incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Wipe out those six unworthy Holmes titles, of course — you know which ones. Raymond Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1950) comes too late and manages to miss the point of mystery fiction by an almost impressive distance (as did most of Chandler’s criticism of the works of others — the matchstick in their eye vs. the tree in his, etc., etc.). The Norths Meet Murder (1940) by Frances and Richard Lockridge is frothy and fun, but the inclusion of Edmund Crispin and RIchard Hull on the list already accounts for not taking crime quite so seriously; and I confess to remembering practically nothing of Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh, so if nothing about it stands out its inclusion is going to baffle me. Other than that — even though I may find The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart, or the two-thirds of Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley that I could manage, tedious in the extreme, say — everything else could probably also have 3,000 words written about its influence.

“Good grief, you’re not going to do that, are you?”

That, however, is not my intent in writing this.

“There is a god.”

It seems to me that the value of such a list, especially one that goes back so far before the origin of what could even be considered detective fiction, might be found in how the items on it grew the genre. Coupled with my increasing interest in the work done in crime and detective fiction before 1920, I’m therefore going to use Tuesdays in February — and perhaps in later months, too, since there are plenty of books I’ve not read here — to read new-to-me Cornerstone titles and try to examine whether I feel they deserve consideration as the base from which some aspect of the Golden Age was built. Did they bring something new and worthwhile to the genre, or were they simply rehashing work done elsewhere? And, hey, not bringing something new is not meant to be a castigation — plenty of great books were written simply because crime fiction was popular, plenty of 5-star books are not on this list in the same way that several 2-star books are — but as a criterion for assessing the validity of a title’s inclusion (lost, as I say above, with two contributors seemingly at odds with themselves and each other) this seems simple enough.

I’ll not tell you ahead of time which titles I’m going to be looking at, because I’d like the discussion of those books to ideally be kept to the posts about the books in question. You may want to tender guesses based on titles missing from the list below — and I’ll tell you that they’re all collections of short stories, because who’s gonna be bothered enough to check off titles? — but beyond that my lips are sealed. See you Tuesday for the first examination…!

~

Haycraft-Queen ‘Cornerstone’ titles I have read to date:

  1. Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham
  2. Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley
  3. The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley
  4. Trial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley
  5. The Beast Must Die (1938) by Nicholas Blake
  6. Rocket to the Morgue (1942) by Anthony Boucher
  7. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan
  8. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain
  9. The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr
  10. Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary
  11. The Big Sleep (1939) Raymond Chandler
  12. Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler
  13. The Simple Art of Murder [essay] (1950) by Raymond Chandler
  14. The Innocence of Father Brown [ss] (1911) by G.K. Chesterton
  15. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie
  16. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie
  17. The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins
  18. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins
  19. The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin
  20. Love Lies Bleeding (1948) by Edmund Crispin
  21. The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts
  22. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) by Freeman Wills Crofts
  23. Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens
  24. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) by Charles Dickens
  25. The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson
  26. Lord of the Sorcerers, a.k.a. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1946) by Carter Dickson
  27. A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  28. The Sign of the Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  29. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1894) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  30. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1894) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  31. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  32. The Return of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1905) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  33. The Valley of Fear (1915) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  34. His Last Bow [ss] (1917) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  35. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  36. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier
  37. The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman
  38. John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909) by R. Austin Freeman
  39. The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911) by R. Austin Freeman
  40. The Singing Bone, a.k.a. The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [ss] (1912) by R. Austin Freeman
  41. The Thinking Machine [ss] (1907) by Jacques Futrelle
  42. The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) by Erle Stanley Gardner
  43. The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933) by Erle Stanley Gardner
  44. The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett
  45. The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart
  46. A Taste for Honey (1941) by H.F. Heard
  47. The Murder of My Aunt (1935) by Richard Hull
  48. Before the Fact (1932) by Frances Iles
  49. The Eight Strokes of the Clock [ss] (1922) by Maurice Leblanc
  50. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux
  51. The Norths Meet Murder (1940) by Frances and Richard Lockridge
  52. Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh
  53. The House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason
  54. Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
  55. The Red House Mystery (1922) by A.A. Milne
  56. Martin Hewitt, Investigator [ss] (1894) by Arthur Morrison
  57. Detective Duff Unravels It [ss] (1929) by Harvey J. O’Higgins
  58. The Old Man in the Corner [ss] (1909) by Baroness Orczy
  59. Tales of Mystery and Imagination [ss] (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
  60. The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen
  61. Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
  62. The Murders in Praed Street (1928) by John Rhode
  63. Whose Body? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers
  64. The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers
  65. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  66. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
  67. Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout
  68. The League of Frightened Men (1935) by Rex Stout
  69. The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephine Tey
  70. The Department of Dead Ends [ss] (1946) by Roy Vickers
  71. The Mind of Mr. J.G. Reeder [ss] (1925) by Edgar Wallace
  72. The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich
  73. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill

Cornerstones read/reviewed since this post:

  1. Max Carrados [ss] (1914) by Ernest Bramah
  2. The Little Tales of Smethers [ss] (1952) by Lord Dunsany
  3. The Amateur Cracksman, a.k.a. Raffles [ss] (1899) by E.W. Hornung
  4. The Silent Bullet [ss] (1912) by Arthur B. Reeve

24 thoughts on “#865: There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So – Examining the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones List

    • Nick, I am flattered that you think I might be well-read enough for that. Perhaps in another 20 years, eh?

      For this, I’m just gonna look at the merits and in ovations of these works…and I suppose determine whether they’d make it onto my own Cornerstones list in 2042.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Very much look forward to this, especially as someone who takes a very broad view of what constitutes a mystery. Sorry to be thck but the titles highlighted in yellow are ..? (Or is my browser being weird?)

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  2. Going by what you wrote and read, my educated guess is that you have the following collections lined up: M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski, E.W. Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman and Arthur B. Reeve’s The Silent Bullet with the fourth collection being either Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados or H.C. Bailey’s Call Mr. Fortune.

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  3. I like lists like this. Not because I think they actually are authoritative or, as you noticed quickly, have any real criteria, but because it gives us a place to start. We are living in a golden age of books (whatever your genre pleasure might be) and doing the work of compiling a list is a job all unto its own. So I’m all for someone else doing that work and letting me reap the benefits.

    May you benefit greatly 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re quite correct in that lists are helpful as a place to start when one is new to the genre –TomCat’s various lists were helpful for me when I realised impossible crimes were a thing, as was the Locked Room Library list on Mystery*File.

      The Cornerstones list seems odd to me because it’s not really where you’d start with most of these authors if you were interested in crime and detective fiction….an effect not helped by the muddled motivations of Dannay adding to Haycraft’s original list by including certain titles that Haycraft had expressly verboten: Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab, for one. And then the earlier titles are just…not readable, nor representative of what the Golden Age was doing.

      The whole thing is…bizarre in a way I genuinely struggle to justify, which at least in part justifies the fascination I have with it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nearly four years ago the only detective fiction I had read were Holmes and Christie and I was ignorant that there was a Golden Age of Detection (GAD) with seemingly limitless authors/styles/tropes of murder mysteries. So I agree with Bookstooge that a list like this one was useful as a guide for the uninitiated.

    But then I discovered your blog and that of Brad, Sergio, Kate, Ben, John, Steve, Bev, Moira, Laura, TomCat, Martin, Curtis, Nick, Aidan, etc. and found those a far easier and invaluable way to curate which are the great books. Thanks to you for that.

    Now looking at this list again for the first time in a couple years, I have mixed views. The word, cornerstone, can be defined as “an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me why the above books were put on the list by Haycraft/Queen.

    Whilst there are some classics listed such as Christie’s Ackroyd, I see a number of titles that are at best average. So this doesn’t strike me as a “best of GAD” list or even one of Haycroft’s favourites. What then were the criteria for including these titles and not others?

    Could it simply be a more prosaic reason such as these were titles picked from the finite number to which Haycroft/Queen had access back then? They couldn’t search or order online and they may not have had broad access to GAD new or used copies in whatever city they resided whether in a shop or library.

    So at best for me the list is an illustrative one and was particularly helpful as a new GAD reader. Can you imagine though if someone’s first experience with GAD other than Christie or Holmes was to choose one of the weaker titles to read first, s/he may never have gone back for another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see a number of titles that are at best average.

      This makes a certain amount of sense to me, if what Dannay and Haycraft were seeking to include was the orignal instances of new concepts or attempts to stretch the genre. The first attempt at anything truly innovative isn’t likely to be the most successful, as seen in so much of Anthony Berkeley’s work.

      As for a “new readers start here” approach…I dunno. Seems you wouldn’t need to include the entirety of the Holmes canon for one, and certainly not the likes of Dracula and Dickens. Those seem more illustrative of the loose trend towards investigation that was eventually distilled into detection…but you wouldn’t say “Oh, you want to enjoy GAD? You must read Bleak House first…”, would you?

      I think it’s just an odd smear of mixed ideas, and maybe — as Nick suggests above — the time is ripe for a new Cornerstones list, one written by a single hand with a clear set of guiding principles. However, someone like Nick is far better placed than I to write it!

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  5. As a short story and early period fan, this is good news indeed. Really looking forward to your explorations!

    To me, the inclusion of the entire uneven Holmes canon seems like a reflection of Dannay’s fantastic origin story of reading so much in one go while sick in bed–with the baffling Lord of Sorcerers choice perhaps a reciprocal nod after Dickson/Carr’s dedicating that to him as Queen.

    It does seem as if exclusion from this revised list went a long way toward ensuring relative obscurity among future GAD fans. (My own overlooked favorite in that regard is Lorac, with whom I know you’ve had an up-and-down relationship!)

    Though Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is what I would currently recommend to a new reader in the genre, a set of new cornerstones from Edwards, Evans, Grost, or you–or an amalgamation of GAD experts and bloggers– seems like a great idea.

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      • Haha, you flatter me — I don’t belong in that august company!

        It does seem as if exclusion from this revised list went a long way toward ensuring relative obscurity among future GAD fans

        I dunno, it seems to me that you have a lot of authors here who are already famous and have sold in quantity because of their sheer availability, not because they’re on some obscure, occluded personal list from 80 years ago.

        Don’t forget, it’s only the recent raft of British Library investment in Lorac that has made her so accessible, Before that, there was maybe a title or two in the early 2000s and four from Ramble House…and no more. I mean, Detective Duff Unravels it by Harvey O’Higgins is on this list and reprinted by RH, and how many people can say they’ve read that? Not many, I’d wager, because it’s obscure and, if we’re honest, not especially good.

        No doubt Haycraft held some sway with fans in the 1940s, but I’d be amazed if his influence was so strong that certain authors went OOP on his say-so alone. Rather, there are so many GAD authors and so many new authors adding to the books available on a daily basis, that inevitably some fall out of awareness.

        But, hey, that just makes it all the more delightful when we discover them again and lov ’em!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think you’re right about all this. My retroactive frustration at not having had more GAD-friendly critical studies and communities back in the 70s can’t really be assigned to Dannay’s revision of this one list.

    I do think, though, that his push toward getting mystery fiction into the Literature Club combined rather toxically with the Symons Bloody Murder denigration, and it has only been the cleansing passage of time that has let a puzzle plot be a puzzle plot.

    I still count him as the biggest non-fictional hero in the genre, however!

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  7. “Detective Duff Unravels It [ss] (1929) by Harvey J. O’Higgins” now that’s one book you should review on the blog, since I’m sure I’m not the only one who has never heard of this author before 🙂

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    • It’s a series of short stories based around the principle of psychological detection. They’re…not good. Honestly, time spent reading that a second time would feel doubly wasted since I could be reading something I actually liked.

      I mean, never say never, but not any time soon. You know I’m running out of GAD when DDUI appears on the blog 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I was wondering about that as well—and even that brief reaction is a big help, with so many good obscurities left be discovered.

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    • Duff is a Cornerstone for two reasons: 1) because of the focus on the psychology of detection and the associated problems therewith and 2) because the character is an early example of the looks like a bruiser but has a brain” archetype now most popularly embodied by Jack Reacher. And both are important, and both deserve credit for the parts they’ve played in the genre, but the collection as a whole is tedious and singularly uningenious.

      Move on, find something else.

      Liked by 1 person

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