Mystery Books 1950-1959
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith’s first and best-known novel, Strangers on a Train involves two strangers who meet on a train and casually talk of trading murders - one potential victim is the estranged wife of Guy, a successful young architect, and the other the hated father of Bruno, a charming psychopath. The novel was turned into a classic Hitchcock movie of the same name in 1951.
Published in the US by Harper & Brothers, and the UK by Cresset Press in 1950. The first US edition has a dust jacket design by Irv Docktor. Patricia Highsmith is regarded as one of the best noir authors for her ability to tap into the unsettling forces that lie just beneath the veneer of everyday life. First editions can range from $5,000 to upwards of $15,000 if they contain a rare Highsmith inscription or signature.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
A classic British mystery, The Daughter of Time revolves around the Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant’s interest in the historic reign of Richard III. While confined to bed with a broken leg, Grant tries to figure out if there really was a murderer of the young ‘princes in the tower’ in the 1400s in order to ascend to the throne. The book investigates how history is constructed, and how common beliefs can stem from ruling parties' clever propaganda. The title is taken from the old proverb “Truth is the Daughter of Time.” In 1990 the British-based Crime Writers Association voted The Daughter of Time number one on their list of Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
The Daughter of Time was first published in London by Peter Davies in 1951. The Franklin Library published a collectible leather-bound edition in 1990. Although relatively scarce, first editions of this classic book are generally under $1,000.
Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay
A young Australian woman makes a journey to New Guinea to find out why her husband, a distinguished anthropologist, has killed himself. Beat Not the Bones was praised for its buildup of suspense and for the unique setting, one of few mysteries published at the time that took place outside of the United States, United Kingdom, or Europe. It is considered an early anti-colonial novel, with comparisons drawn to Heart of Darkness. It won the inaugural Edgar Award for best novel.
First editions of Beat Not the Bones were published by Harper & Brothers, New York and Collins, London in 1952. Charlotte Jay was the pseudonym of Australian Mystery writer Geraldine Halls, whose first book, The Knife is Feminine, was released just the year before in 1951.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
The Killer Inside Me is told in the first person from the viewpoint of Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas. Although Ford puts on an innocent dumb-cop act, he’s actually a cunning sadistic psychopath. The cast of characters includes a steady girlfriend and a prostitute, a foster brother who did jail time for Lou over a sexual assault, and a construction boss that is to blame for the foster brother’s death after his release from jail. This novel is considered a classic in the hard-boiled genre and a brilliant narrative on the criminal psyche. Two film adaptations have been made, one in 1976, and one in 2010 starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson.
The Killer Inside Me was first printed as a paperback original in 1952 by Lion Books and has only been released in paperback. First editions list between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on condition. Jim Thompson was called the ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky’ and wrote over thirty novels, most of them paperback originals.
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
A Kiss Before Dying is written as three books in the one, all revolving around the relentless drive of Bud Corliss to rise above his working-class roots. When he returns from serving in WWII, he meets the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon and thinks his future is made...but is it?
First editions, published by Simon and Schuster in 1953, list for around $500, slightly more if signed. A Kiss Before Dying is Ira Levin’s debut novel. He would later gain acclaim for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, both of which, like A Kiss Before Dying, were adapted into films. A Kiss Before Dying won the 1954 Edgar Award for the best first novel.
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
The Caves of Steel is a detective story by the prolific science fiction writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov. Asimov reportedly wrote the novel in response to the claim by science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell that mystery and science fiction were incompatible genres.
First published in 1954 by Doubleday & Company in Garden City, NY, The Caves of Steel was nominated in 2004 for a retroactive Hugo Award for Best Novel of 1954. First editions have a $2.95 price stamp and First Edition on the copyright page and is bound in publisher’s blue boards. with a blue dust jacket. Signed first editions can range from just under $5,000 to upwards of $12,500.
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Helen Clarvoe is a financially comfortable loner who is pulled out of her isolated existence when she receives a prank call. She hires her family lawyer as an amateur private eye as they try to find the deadly voice on the other side of the line. Set in Southern California in the 1950s, the setting and social attitudes are dated but the psychological drama and twists still captivate.
The first edition of Beast in View was published in 1955 by Random House, with ‘First Printing’ on the copyright page. The original dust jacket has a $3.50 price on the front flap. Beast in View won the Edgar Award in 1956 and is considered by many to be Millar’s masterpiece. First editions list for around $1250 depending on condition.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is a smooth confidence-man; the product of a broken home and the ultimate sociopathic striver. When he is hired by a shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to convince his son Dickie to return to the United States and join the family business, Ripley travels to Italy and becomes obsessed with the young heir, eventually killing him and taking on his persona. Although it seems he gets away with murder, his paranoia is waiting for him at every new turn. The Talented Mr. Ripley was followed up by four subsequent novels involving the same captivating character.
The first edition of The Talented Mr. Ripley was published in the US by Coward-McCann and in the UK by Cresset Press in 1955. In 1999 a film adaptation starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, received five Academy Award nominations.
A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong
Poetry instructor Kenneth Gibson has remained a bachelor for 55 years. After a colleague dies Gibson decides to offer care to the deceased man’s 32-year-old daughter Rosemary in the form of a platonic marriage. After they’ve tied the knot Gibson realizes that he has fallen for his young bride, and things seem to be moving forward, until the couple is involved in a car crash, making Gibson lame. His sister moves in with the married couple, creating tension and driving them apart. Gibson is sure Rosemary would be better off with someone else, and he resolves to kill himself with a dram of poison. When he accidentally loses the poison the characters join together in search of the deadly vial.
Written by Charlotte Armstrong, and first published in 1956 by Coward-McCann in the US and Peter Davies in the UK, A Dram of Poison won the Edgar Award Winner for best novel 1957. The original dust jacket illustration is by Rus Anderson. First editions in fine or near fine condition can list upwards of $1,250.
Room to Swing by Ed Lacy
Room to Swing is best known for featuring the first credible black private-eye, Toissant Moore. A decorated war hero, Moore finds that even in New York City and with outstanding experience and credentials his work is relegated to small jobs allowed to ‘Negroes.’ When Moore is framed for a white man’s murder he travels to a small town in Ohio, on the Kentucky border, to prove his innocence. Negotiating a country still very restricted by race, Moore’s interaction with the law and societal assumptions provides a revealing commentary on race relations in the 1950s.
A 1958 Edgar Award winner, the first edition of Room to Swing was published by Harper and Brothers in 1957 with stated ‘First Edition’ on copyright page. First editions in Fine condition can list for $2,500.
Knock and Wait a While by William Rawle Weeks
Knock and Wait a While is the first and only book by author William Rawle Weeks. Weeks was born in Denver in 1920 to a prominent frontier family and attended Stanford University. He enlisted in the Army in the 1940s before becoming a CIA agent. The 1958 Bantam paperback describes this espionage novel set during the Cold War as a “blistering, white-hot story of two young Americans in love, and the bloody undercover war of secret agents in Europe” by “A great, new, young storyteller.”
The first edition was published in 1957 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Knock and Wait a While won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1958. Long out of print, this is an uncommon book to find. First editions can list around $1,000.
The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin
Set in New York in the 1950s, The Eighth Circle features Murray Kirk, a successful private eye who is hired to clear the name of a young officer accused of bribery. When Kirk meets the officer’s fiancée he wants her for himself and seeks to prove his client’s guilt so he can have her. The title comes from Dante’s Inferno, and the first edition cover has a quote directly that work: “so in THE EIGHTH CIRCLE are the liars, flatterers, and sellers of office, the fortune-tellers, hypocrites, and thieves, the pimps and grafters, and all such scum.”
The Eight Circle was first published by Random House, New York, in 1958. The first British edition was published in 1959 by T. V. Boardman & Company Limited.
The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald
Lew Archer is hired by an elderly woman to find her son, Anthony Galton, who disappeared twenty-three years before with his streetwise bride and the family fortune. Archer knew the son was either dead or didn’t want to be found. His investigation turns up a headless skeleton, a boy who claims to be Galton's son, and a con game whose stakes are so high that someone is still willing to kill for them.
The Galton Case is the eighth book in the Lew Archer series by Ross MacDonald, pen name for Kenneth Millar. Considered by many, including MacDonald, to be his pinnacle, the author stated he found his writing stride with this book. First published in 1959 by Alfred A. Knopf, ‘First Edition’ is stated on the copyright page, and the book is bound in pink and white decorative boards.
Killer's Wedge by Ed McBain
The widow of a recently deceased convict, Virginia Dodge is bent on avenging her husband’s death. She marches into the police station and holds the men of the 87th Precinct hostage with her homemade bomb of nitroglycerin held at point-blank range. Killer’s Wedge is the first American hardcover of an 87th precinct novel and the author’s first American hardcover as Ed McBain. McBain was one of many pseudonyms used by prolific author Evan Hunter.
First published in 1959 by Simon & Schuster, Killer’s Wedge can be listed upwards of $1,200 with signature, depending on condition.
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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.