Mystery Books 1920-1929
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Written during World War I, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie’s first published novel. The story introduces the author’s world-famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, as well as Lieutenant (later Captain) Hastings and Inspector (later Chief Inspector) Japp. The mystery begins with Poirot settling in England near the home of Emily Inglethorp. When Emily is killed, Poirot must apply his detective skills to solve the mystery based on a few seemingly random clues. The book includes maps of the house, the murder scene, and a drawing of a fragment of a will.
The first publication of the story, as a serial in the UK’s The Times in February 1920, included these illustrations as well. John Lane (US) produced the story in novel form for the first time in October 1920, retailing for $2. Only 2000 copies of the true first edition were printed, and they were published on cheap paper and bound in thin cloth, making copies in good condition are incredibly rare, listing easily for over $10,000. The first UK edition was published by The Bodley Head in January 1921, and is more readily available, although like most editions from this time, without the original dust jacket.
Alias The Lone Wolf by Louis Joseph Vance
Alias The Lone Wolf was the third book in the Lone Wolf series by Louis Joseph Vance. The Lone Wolf, an alias for Michael Lanyard, is a jewel thief turned private eye. The Lone Wolf series consisted of eight books, which were turned into 24 movies, popular throughout the first half of the 20th century. The Lone Wolf also appeared on radio and television.
First editions of Alias The Lone Wolf in the dust jacket list for around $1,500 up to $2,000, whereas a near fine without a dust jacket could sell for under $100.
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
A.A. Milne is best known as the beloved author of Winnie-the-Pooh. This is Milne’s first and only venture into detective fiction, although it was immensely popular. A ‘locked-room whodunnit’ set in an English Country House, The Red House Mystery remained in print in the US for 16 years and went through dozens of UK editions. First US editions are hard to find, but there are recent Franklin Library and Folio editions that are smartly bound that would be a lovely addition to a collection if a first edition eludes you.
Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
The first of sixteen detective novels published by Dorothy Sayers, one of the Queens of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. First published in England by T. Fisher Unwin in 1923, this story introduces Lord Peter Wimsey and begins with the discovery of the naked body in a bathtub (Whose Body?). This book remains highly collectible as the first work of an important author and of an important series in the amateur detective genre. First UK editions can command up to $2,000, and first US editions, printed by Boni and Liveright the same year, can range up to $1,500.
The Rasp by Philip MacDonald
The Rasp is a whodunit mystery novel set at a country house in rural England and written by Philip MacDonald. It introduces the series character Colonel Anthony Gethryn, an ex-secret agent. In The Rasp, Gethryn works to solve the murder of cabinet minister John Hoode, who is bludgeoned to death by a woodworker's rasp. The first edition was published in the UK in 1924 by Collins and the US version was published in 1925 by Dial Press.
As with other early mystery books, collectors may resort to a ‘First Edition Thus,’ such as the 1936 printing by Mason Publishing Company in order to find an attractive copy in a dust jacket.
The House without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
The House without a Key is the first of the Charlie Chan mysteries written by Earl Derr Biggers. Although Chan was not a central character in this novel nor mentioned on the dust jacket of the first edition, he later became a popular character, prominent in five subsequent Biggers novels and films, television shows, radio programs, and comics.
Biggers sought to represent a character counter to the “Yellow Peril” stereotypes of the day, with Chan being a sympathetic character and on the right side of the law, but he didn’t manage to negate all of the negative stereotypes and Chan later fell out of favor with popular audiences.
In The House without a Key Detective Charlie Chan helps to solve the mystery, but the main character is a young Bostonian bond trader named John Quincey Winterslip. Biggers wrote this novel while staying at the Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii, which features a restaurant named The House Without A Key. First editions with a dust jacket are very scarce.
Payment Deferred by C.S. Forester
Payment Deferred is a crime novel by C.S. Forester, the pen name for Cecil Louis Troughton Smith. Forester was an English novelist who would later become famous for The African Queen (1935) and his 12-book Horatio Hornblower series. Payment Deferred is one of the novelist's early works, published when he was just 27 years old.
The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
S.S. Van Dine was the pen name of American art critic Willard Huntington Wright. Although he was popular in intellectual circles as a literary editor, art and literature critic, journalist, and writer of realistic fiction, he struggled financially. After World War I, he turned to writing mass-market detective fiction, at which he excelled, but he was ashamed of the popularity and attempted to hide his identity as the author.
The Benson Murder Case was the first of these works, featuring the snobbish and affluent amateur detective Philo Vance in a Jazz Age Manhattan setting. The Benson Murder Case was loosely based on the unsolved murder of bridge expert Joseph Bowne Elwell, a classic ‘locked room’ case because the victim was found shot to death in a room in his house that was found locked from the inside.
First editions published by Scribners have a 1926 date on the copyright page. A Haycraft-Queen cornerstone, this book is highly collectible, and lists for over $1,000 with a facsimile dust jacket, and would list close to $10,000 with an original dust jacket in good condition.
The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart
The Bellamy Trial was a pioneering work by Noyes Hart Frances that set the stage for court-room dramas in the decades following its release. Based on the real-life 1922 Hall-Mills murder case, in The Bellamy Trial, Stephen Bellamy and Susan Ives are on trial for killing Bellamy’s wife. A Haycraft-Queen cornerstone. First editions, published by Doubleday, Page & Company in 1927, list close to $2,000 with a dust jacket.
Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham
Ashenden: Or the British Agent, is a collection of loosely linked stories based on Maugham’s experiences as a member of the British Intelligence in Europe during World War I. The central character, Ashenden, is semi-autobiographical, and reappears in later Maugham novels like The Razor’s Edge.
In 1936, Alfred Hitchcock released the film The Secret Agent, adapted from a play by Campbell Dixon that was loosely based on two stories from the book. The cover of the first edition, published by William Heinemann in London in 1928, is stunning and copies with an intact dust jacket can list for over $6,800. A Haycraft Queen cornerstone and ‘Queen’s Quorum’ pick.
The Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett, considered one of the best mystery writers of all time, began publishing short detective stories in 1922, drawing on his experiences as a Pinkerton Operative. Most of his stories were based in San Francisco and on people in real life. Red Harvest, his first novel, is considered one of the best English language novels published between 1923 and 2005 by Time Magazine. First editions of Red Harvest, considered a landmark of hard-boiled crime novels, can list for over $50,000.
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Of Note for This Year:
Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth is the first of thirty-two books in the Miss Maud Silver series. The classic ‘whodunit’ crime novels feature Miss Silver, a retired governess, and teacher who becomes a professional private detective. First editions published by J.P. Lippincott in Philadelphia are hard to find but not expensive.
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Author Bio: Amy C. Manikowski is a writer, bookseller, trail-diverger, history buff, and pitbull lover. She graduated from Chatham University with an MFA a while ago, and after wandering aimlessly settled in Asheville NC.