“The Case of the Haunted Husband,” a 1941 novel by the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner, listed on EBay at $26.99, with a reinforced dust jacket that might indicate a previous life in a lending library. (Note to millennials: A lending library was a business that rented books for a small fee. Sometimes the fare was popular fiction, other times it might be a little more off-color material that was considered out of bounds for the public library – now you understand the line in “Chinatown.”)
In case you just tuned in, I’m using Louella Parsons’ May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as the director of “Laura” to take a meandering look at the making of the film, which was released in Los Angeles in November 1944. Previous posts have looked at the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary, her original stories for the screen, her less than successful attempts to write plays – including the first version of “Laura” – and her work on the novel.
Before digging into “Laura” as a mystery novel, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the state of detective fiction as it was in 1941, when Caspary was sketching out the play and then writing the novel.
If we were to stroll into a well-furnished bookstore in 1941 and wander over to the mystery section, we would find a great number of detective novels. As the Saturday Review noted, 1941 was the centennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and was being marked as the 100th anniversary of the detective story, “Rue Morgue” having been published in 1841 in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. Poe followed with “Thou Art the Man!” (1844), also considered an early mystery story.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, via Archive.org.
Looking over the gaudy covers, even most casual mystery reader would recognize such stalwart authors as Erle Stanley Gardner (“The Case of the Haunted Husband”) and Agatha Christie (“The Patriotic Murders”). The more ardent mystery fan might smile in recognition at the names of Rex Stout (“The Broken Vase,”) Georges Simenon (“Maigret to the Rescue,”) Ngaio Marsh “Death in Ecstasy,”) A.A. Fair (“Spill the Jackpot”) and Ellery Queen (“101 Years of Entertainment,” an anthology of detective fiction). The film noir connoisseur might be pleased to see Steve Fisher’s “I Wake Up Screaming.” What you would not find is a new Raymond Chandler novel. “Farewell My Lovely” was published in late 1940 and “The Lady in the Lake” didn’t come out until late 1943.
And then there would be all the others. Dozens and dozens of them, some from big-name publishers – many of them now extinct — and an awful lot from the Crime Club. The Saturday Review’s “The Criminal Record” — edited by Judge Lynch – featured capsule reviews of about five mystery novels every week, or roughly 260 mystery novels a year, some from veterans and others from first-time authors. That’s quite a bit of competition for an untested mystery writer trying to break into the market, as Caspary was.
Aside from being surprised at the quantity of mystery novels, we also might be shocked by the price: $2 doesn’t sound like much today, but when adjusted for inflation, these books cost an average of $32.37 in 2014 dollars. Compare Michael Connelly’s current novel “The Gods of Guilt,” listed at $28 retail, or on Amazon at $25.20 in hardback, $15 for the paperback and $9.99 for the Kindle.
It is beyond the scope even of this meandering treatment to delve too deeply into the history of the mystery novel – as tempting as it is. But it’s worth briefly looking at the conventions and expectations of the detective novel – the various versions of “rules” that were well established and sometimes violated — when Caspary was grappling with her novel.
And although it’s tempting to digress even further into the mystery magazines of the era, I’m not even going to open that door. Anyone who knows about the pulp magazines of the era already knows what I would say.
But the covers are really fun:
A mystery magazine of the era: Black Book Detective, January 1941, courtesy of Archive.org.
To be continued.