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.
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.
That, however, is not my intent in writing this.
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:
- Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham
- Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley
- The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley
- Trial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley
- The Beast Must Die (1938) by Nicholas Blake
- Rocket to the Morgue (1942) by Anthony Boucher
- The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain
- The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr
- Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary
- The Big Sleep (1939) Raymond Chandler
- Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler
- The Simple Art of Murder [essay] (1950) by Raymond Chandler
- The Innocence of Father Brown [ss] (1911) by G.K. Chesterton
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie
- The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins
- The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins
- The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin
- Love Lies Bleeding (1948) by Edmund Crispin
- The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts
- Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) by Freeman Wills Crofts
- Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) by Charles Dickens
- The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson
- Lord of the Sorcerers, a.k.a. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1946) by Carter Dickson
- A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Sign of the Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1894) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1894) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Return of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1905) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Valley of Fear (1915) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- His Last Bow [ss] (1917) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes [ss] (1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier
- The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman
- John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909) by R. Austin Freeman
- The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911) by R. Austin Freeman
- The Singing Bone, a.k.a. The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [ss] (1912) by R. Austin Freeman
- The Thinking Machine [ss] (1907) by Jacques Futrelle
- The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) by Erle Stanley Gardner
- The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933) by Erle Stanley Gardner
- The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett
- The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart
- A Taste for Honey (1941) by H.F. Heard
- The Murder of My Aunt (1935) by Richard Hull
- Before the Fact (1932) by Frances Iles
- The Eight Strokes of the Clock [ss] (1922) by Maurice Leblanc
- The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux
- The Norths Meet Murder (1940) by Frances and Richard Lockridge
- Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh
- The House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason
- Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
- The Red House Mystery (1922) by A.A. Milne
- Martin Hewitt, Investigator [ss] (1894) by Arthur Morrison
- Detective Duff Unravels It [ss] (1929) by Harvey J. O’Higgins
- The Old Man in the Corner [ss] (1909) by Baroness Orczy
- Tales of Mystery and Imagination [ss] (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen
- Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
- The Murders in Praed Street (1928) by John Rhode
- Whose Body? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
- Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout
- The League of Frightened Men (1935) by Rex Stout
- The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephine Tey
- The Department of Dead Ends [ss] (1946) by Roy Vickers
- The Mind of Mr. J.G. Reeder [ss] (1925) by Edgar Wallace
- The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich
- The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill
Cornerstones read/reviewed since this post: