The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

It’s the Jury Box custom to review newly published mysteries. This time, however, we’re going to review the reviewers! Come with me as we travel back in time, meeting EQMM’s past reviewers, reading their words, comparing their styles, and getting a sense of their tastes. After running through our roster of reviewers, we’ll go back to almost a decade before the first issue of EQMM was published and meet our original reviewer: Ellery Queen himself.

***** Howard Haycraft, Speaking of Crime: A Department of Comment and Criticism. (February 1946 to October 1949). Minnesota native Howard Haycraft (1905-1991) was an avid mystery fan and a historian of the genre. Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941) was the first history of detective fiction and the first work about mystery fiction published in the U.S. The book included a list of “cornerstones”—around one hundred books he considered the most important for the serious mystery reader. Frederic Dannay (Ellery Queen) supplemented the list, which became known as “The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones,” which to this day is considered the gold standard for mystery collectors.

Although Haycraft’s Speaking of Crime columns were sporadic and only lasted for around ten issues, they were entertaining and instructive. Haycraft’s columns were long—the longest review columns to appear in EQMM—one of them running 2,210 words, almost double the length of current Jury Box columns.

Reading Haycraft’s columns gives a spirited glimpse of the history of American mystery fiction. In his first column, he attacked the New Yorker magazine’s book critic Edmund Wilson. A year earlier, Wilson had mercilessly vilified detective fiction in his famous article “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, calling the genre “rubbish” and berating the people who read it. Haycraft responded: “When he . . . virtually advocates the prohibition of detective stories . . . because he, Wilson, does not like them, he has abused the critical prerogative and come perilously close to suppressive censorship of the genus blue-nose.”

Haycraft’s columns included news about the mystery world, death notices, and Mystery Writers of America updates, as well as details about the publishing business. In his November 1947 and March 1948 columns, Haycraft admonished the publishing industry for “unwisely squeezing the golden goose” by glutting the market with bad mysteries. “. . . too many publishers who did not previously publish whodunits have leaped blithely aboard the gravy train, without bothering to find out that building a sound mystery list requires specialized knowledge, patience, and unremitting attention.” (EQMM 11/47 p. 59).

***** Anthony Boucher, Speaking of Crime (February 1949 to August 1949); Best Mystery Books of the Month (February 1950 to May 1950); Best Mysteries of the Month (November 1957 to February 1968). When Haycraft stepped down, the position was filled by Anthony Boucher, a novelist, short-story writer, and reviewer for the San Fransisco Chronicle. Boucher’s Speaking of Crime columns followed the general pattern of Haycraft’s but were more tightly focused on reviewing. Boucher had broad taste in mysteries and wanted to share the best of what he found with his readers. In the February 1950 issue, his column was retitled The Best Mystery Books of 1949 followed in subsequent issues by The Best Mystery Books of the Month. In two pages, published roughly every other issue, Boucher provided brief capsule reviews of between six and thirteen books and additional short commentary. His column stopped abruptly after the May 1950 issue, and there was no review column in EQMM for the next eight years aside from Robert P. Mills’s Detective Directory (December 1951 to October 1957), which provided brief quotes from outside reviews.

Boucher returned in the November 1957 issue and would continue for another decade, making him the longest-running reviewer in EQMM until Jon L. Breen. Boucher’s Best Mysteries column contained brief, concise reviews and a star-rating system. This format had a lasting influence, and with slight variation was essentially the style followed by Jon Breen and later by me. Boucher’s final column was in the February 1968 issue, and he passed away in April 1968. The Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was established in 1970 in his honor.

***** John Dickson Carr, Best Mysteries of the Month (January 1969 to April 1970); The Jury Box (May 1970 to late 1976). The author of over seventy novels and short-story collections, a member of Britain’s Detection Club, and to this day, the world’s foremost practitioner of the locked-room mystery, Carr was the biggest name to serve as reviewer in the pages of this magazine. He was also the liveliest. While Haycraft’s columns were passionate and erudite, Carr’s were spirited and rollicking. His style was rambling, filled with his unique humor as he discussed all matters related to mysteries. In the May 1970 issue, Carr retitled his column “The Jury Box” and opened with: “Attention, please! Beginning with this issue, under the new format above, your well-intentioned if maundering critic will be allowed more space wherein to maunder on about mystery in general and current mysteries in particular.   Kindly refrain from audible groans or hisses.” Even with his health failing, Carr continued to bring readers his humor and his insights.

***** Jon L. Breen, The Jury Box (January 1977 to 1981, 1988 to present). Jon Breen’s first contribution to EQMM was a quiz (“Attention Getters”) in the January 1967 issue. He was back in May 1967 with his first short story “The Crowded Hours.” Breen’s sense of humor and knowledge of mysteries has made him one of EQMM’s most prolific pastiche writers. He’s the author of several novels and his reviews have appeared in magazines as diverse as Mystery Scene and The Weekly Standard. To date, Breen is EQMM’s longest running reviewer. Aside from a hiatus between 1984 and 1988, he wrote The Jury Box from 1977 to 2011, when I took over, and continues to provide one column per year. His reviews are noted for their clarity and conciseness as well as fairness.

***** Allen J. Hubin, The Jury Box (December 1983 to October 1988). A Minnesota native like Haycraft, Allen J. Hubin is a remarkable collector and researcher. The Bibliography of Crime Fiction 1749-1975, which he compiled, is the standard reference to the genre used by collectors, historians, and librarians. In 1967, Hubin began publishing The Armchair Detective, a quarterly journal of mystery fiction. From 1968 to 1971 he was the mystery reviewer for the New York Times. When Hubin took over from Breen, he dropped the star-rating system and gave the column his own easy, conversational tone. His columns covered six to ten titles, usually loosely centered around a theme.

****** Ellery Queen, To the Queen’s Taste (Mystery League, October 1933). Eight years before the first issue of EQMM came off the press, Ellery Queen (the world didn’t yet know that “Ellery Queen” was the pen name of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) edited a brilliant but sadly short-lived magazine called Mystery League. In the first issue, in a column called “To the Queen’s Taste,” Queen outlined a clever method for evaluating mysteries and encouraged readers to follow his lead.

Queen listed ten fundamental elements of a mystery: (1) Plot, (2) Suspense, (3) Surprise Solution, (4) Analysis of Solution, (5) Style, (6) Characters, (7) Setting, (8) Method of Murder, (9) Clues, (10) Fairness to the Reader. Each of these elements are graded. “My first element, for example, is Plot,” Queen explained. “How good is the plot compared with 10 percent as perfection? Put down your figure—5 per cent, 6 per cent, whatever you judge Plot is worth.” Repeating the same for all ten elements, Queen then added the totals. “A book which totals 50 per cent or less is poor . . . 70 percent means quite good. 80 percent connotes excellent, and 90 percent or over classic.” Queen admits that this system, and particularly his elements, “applies only to mystery fiction of the ratiocinative type.” Finally, he applied the system to six works. S.S. Van Dine’s The Greene Murder Case, for example, scored 79% (“Just short of excellent. Strong in suspense, analysis, fairness to reader. The best of Mr. Van Dine’s books.”) The highest score went to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” at 86%.

Copyright © 2022 Steve Steinbock