Foreword As a fan of mystery fiction for what is now approaching a half century (good grief! can it be?), I have read what some might regard as an inordinate number of short stories. It is impossible to count the thousands, but it is possible to count the great ones.
For me, it has always been the short story. It started when I was just a kid and loved the surprise endings of O. Henry, the bizarre situations of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the deliciously creepy nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe. My appreciation of the short form was enhanced when I discovered the quirky humor of Damon Runyon and Ring Larder, clearly at their peak in a twenty-page sidesplitter. Finally, my devotion was complete when I learned that Stanley Ellin needed a full month to polish his little masterpieces, explaining their meticulous perfection.
Most classic detective stories rely on a single clue, or gimmick, or bit of legerdemain, or realization (the "aha" moment); the rest is embellishment. The old-fashioned detective novel, when it was good, created a universe with a population about whom the reader cared. An antisocial act, usually murder, occurred to disrupt the comfortable progress of that universe, and the remainder of the narrative illustrated the consequences of that crime on the population and the efforts made to apprehend the villain. With the identification of the perpetrator of the very bad deed (or deeds, as it was common for the culprit to commit additional crimes in order to cover up the first one), the universe was restored to its original peaceful state. And the villain was always caught because, no matter how brilliant he was, he invariably made one small mistake, which was spotted by the hero detective (but rarely by the reader).
Because the entire denouement relied on the uncovering of that single element to complete the jigsaw puzzle, it is clear that many of those novels could have been told in short story form with no loss of cleverness by the protagonist. Some of those novels, stripped to their essentials, became the brilliant short stories included in this volume.
But do not misunderstand me. Originality and felicitousness of language, development of memorable characters, even the texture of a created universe, cannot all be condensed into a short story. The best mystery novels, just as the best in all literature, are far richer than their plots. The story line is merely a single element, albeit a vital one, of any good crime novel, just as it is of any novel. In many cases, the tighter constrictions of the short story enable, or even force, an author into an economy of words that produces a crisper, superior work.
Searching for these gems of storytelling led me to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as a young reader in my twenties. Making its first appearance in 1941, it is still being published, carrying the banner of the mystery story longer than any magazine in history.
By the 1940s, the pulp magazines had begun their plunge into oblivion. These nickel and dime story magazines, which once numbered more than a thousand titles a month, served as the training field for scores of writers who went on to distinguished careers as novelists and screenwriters. Called "pulps" because of the cheap newsprint on which they were printed, they were the major reading material for masses of America's readers. The rest read the "slicks," which were produced on superior paper, were illustrated throughout, often partially in color, and paid writers tremendous fees. While a writer for Black Mask, Dime Detective, or The Shadow, for example, might be paid a penny or two a word (if he was a big name), such mainstream authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John P. Marquand were paid $10,000 for stories in The Saturday Evening Post or Scribner's.
The slicks, too, were dying at the same rate as the pulps. The increased availability and popularity of radio shifted America's use of its leisure time, and the creation of the inexpensive paperbacks completed the task. The introduction of television on a large scale in the 1950s pretty much finished the publication of short fiction in any medium that was designed to be read by millions.
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine battled terrific odds by offering a digest-sized periodical containing only mystery fiction, thereby giving up that substantial portion of readers who preferred more diversity. By commissioning new stories from the best mystery writers on both sides of the Atlantic, and reprinting classic (though frequently forgotten) fiction, the magazine flourished.
It is a tribute to Frederic Dannay, one half of the writing team of Ellery Queen, that he devoted so much time and energy to the risky vennture. His was not a celebrity endorsement or franchised name on a masthead. For nearly half a century, Dannay edited stories, corresponded with authors, suggested new (and usually better) story titles, and had his hand in every phase of the editorial content of what can only be regarded as his magazine.
Dannay was also a superb anthologist, breaking ground in a variety of fashions. Perhaps the finest anthology of mystery stories ever conceived and executed is his 101 Years' Entertainment, which I read in a Modern Library edition as a teenager. It introduced me to so many of the detectives and authors who became a major part of my reading life that I still regard it as one of the half dozen most influential books in my development as a lifelong addict of the written word.
It is largely Dannay's tireless efforts to preserve distinguished mystery fiction in his numerous anthologies (more than two hundred bear his name as editor) that rescued so many first-rate writers from obscurity, lifting a story from the futurelessness of an ephemeral magazine appearance to the enduring substance of a hardcover book.
I doubt that any good stories escaped Dannay's eye, making it dramatically easier to produce this volume of the century's greatest American mystery stories. It would have been virtually impossible to locate every fiction magazine of the twentieth century in order to identify which works were appropriate for consideration, much less read them all.
Other anthologies proved useful, too, of course, notably The Best Detective Stories of the Year series, begun in 1946 (and now defunct) by Dutton; the annual theme anthologies produced under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; and numerous solo efforts, but nothing approaches the contributions made by Frederic Dannay.
Having read many hundreds of these anthologies over the years, I had a pretty good idea of many of the stories that deserved consideration for inclusion in this important volume. Or I thought I did. The memory can play nasty tricks. Stories that I remembered with tremendous affection turned out, on rereading, to be disappointing, sometimes astonishingly so. Where was my taste, I wondered, when I reread two or three collections of stories by an author I'd once admired and couldn't find a single story that held my interest or that had even one important thought or original use of language?
What surprised me is how few pulp stories hold up today. Most are dated, both in outlook and in language. Characters are seldom multidimensional, dialogue is stilted as everyone tries to be tougher than a two-dollar steak. Chandler, arguably the greatest mystery writer who ever lived, transcends his venue, of course, and so does Hammett, and even the purple prose of Woolrich remains intensely readable a half century or more after it was written. But the fast- paced adventures of Carroll John Daly, Raoul Whitfield, Frank Gruber, Frederick Nebel, Norbert Davis, and Erle Stanley Gardner, once read with such avidity, don't stay in the memory a day later. They remain entertaining, li...