‘The admiration that existed for all things American’: 1959 books

Every month on Past Offences I gather together blog posts about crime fiction written or filmed in a particular year. I’ve called it Crimes of the Century. Regular player Bernadette of Reactions to Reading chose us 1959 for January. Here’s the roundup…

deathofaracehorseBev at My Reader’s Block rode into town with John Creasey’s Death of a Racehorse, the 25th entry in his police procedural series starring Inspector Roger West of the Yard.

Creasey creates a good balance between descriptive, classic mystery scenes and the standard police procedural. He provides enough twists to keep the reader guessing and still manages to display the clues necessary to solve the puzzle. I did balk a bit at the brutal killings and the total tally is a bit high–but, overall a very satisfying read.

cat_among_the_pigeons_first_edition_cover_1959Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise picked Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, as part of a plan to read a Christie a month this year, and found much in it to justify a re-read:

There were a couple of aspects of particular interest. Firstly the background is a revolution in the Middle East in a fictitious Sheikdom. Prince Ali Yusuf has tried to force change on his kingdom too quickly and has to flee the country. Politics in the Middle East were obviously of great interest to Agatha Christie. Since reading the novel in 2013 I have visited Abu Dhabi a couple of times. Sheik Zayed I modernised his country too, but didn’t suffer a revolution.


Last month Brad watched Psycho, this month he caught some more Hitchcock with North by Northwest, the one with Cary Grant and the plane:

The crop duster sequence demonstrates the director’s mastery with the camera and his ability to manipulate what we see and feel. Much of it was filmed on location, with Southern California substituting for northern Indiana, but a great deal was shot in the studio, Hitchcock’s preferred location for filming. It’s fun trying to pick out what was shot where, It’s also fun to watch Cary Grant, decked out in his finest suit, become inundated with dust and dirt. Most significantly, this sequence shows the master at work, as Hitchcock delivers a lengthy sequence that scares the pants off us with no music and almost no words. Hitchcock didn’t need those typical aids to deliver suspense.

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading fixed herself a Gin and Murder by pony writer (not in the Cockney sense, I’m sure) Josephine Pullein-Thompson.

Even though this book has horses rather than ponies, as befits a book for adults, there is rather a significant focus on things equine. I wasn’t a pony girl nor am I a horse-y adult so this element left me a bit confused on occasion but I did get a few chuckles out of it. There’s a sequence in which some old duffer loses track of the hounds the hunt group he leads is meant to be following and I liked the imagery of both fox and hounds getting one up on the humans.

ivy-league-killers-movie-poster-1959-1010537177John at Noirish revved up with groundbreaking Canadian film noir Ivy League Killers, which gives Google Images a headache by actually being called The Fast Ones.

[Canadian directors] Klenman and Davidson succeeded in creating, out of a minuscule budget and a group of unknown actors, a movie that is actually rather fine, and one that could quite reasonably be considered a film noir.

Four rich kids in posh sports cars exchange words with a biker gang, the Black Diamond Riders, led by Don Gibson. Andy, the leader of the posh kids, is pretty rude to the bikers, and Don is rather reluctantly goaded by his jittery deputy, Bruno, into running the sports cars off the road.

asmellofsmokeJJ at The Invisible Event whiffed A Smell of Smoke (1959) by Miles Burton, which sounds like a stinker:

It’s worth considering that of those 130+ books Cecil John Charles Street published under these two pseudonyms this is about number 130 and so the barrel was probably all but empty by this stage.  There are millions of us out there, myself included, to who the idea of completing and publishing even a single novel seems like some kind of hilarious pipe dream, but it’s entirely reasonable that long before you’ve cracked the century it becomes just another chore and so you take whatever idea you have and fill it out as best you can.

widowscruiseKate at crossexaminingcrime set sail for a 1959 reread, Nicholas Blake’s The Widow’s Cruise, which finds Nigel Strangeways on a Mediterranean cruise:

As the cruise progresses the tension within the group, which Strangeways terms as ‘explosive material’ reaches a crescendo and in the space of a matter of hours there is a dead body and a mysterious disappearance. Strangeways dives straight into an investigation and as the boat nears Athens, a final gathering of the suspects reveals the answer to the mystery.

mitchell_man_who_grew_tomatoesMoira at Clothes in Books pulled on her probably very stylish wellies for Gladys Mitchell’s The Man Who Grew Tomatoes:

My favourite part of the book has nothing to do with tomatoes or (really) the murder. Mrs B is investigating a former boyfriend of the heroine, who explains that he had proposed to Catherine Tolley at a Ball in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich during the Festival of Britain in 1951. He explains his role in the many different local Festival celebrations -‘hoped I’d be Parson Woodforde in the pageant but a better man got it’ – and discusses the choirs: ‘Interesting Magnificat and a really beautiful Nunc Dimittis.’
And then we get this:
‘I cannot imagine,’ said Dame Beatrice, gazing with mild benevolence at Maitland, ‘why Miss Tolley did not wish to marry you.’

manchuriancandidateRichard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate was one of my favourite reads from last year (see Best Offences). Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery describes it as…

a political thriller about a very serious subject, but its black humor provides relief from the tension. The narrative style is not smooth, but the story is entertaining.  In many cases, Condon picks up on a subject, like the Medal of Honor and what it means, and goes off on an essay on that subject. I did not mind those lengthy asides at all. The story is very much of its time, but it also reminds of the political situations we live with now.

psycho-1959-robert-bloch-first-editionRobert Bloch’s Psycho appeared in 1959, and RogerBW was the first to draw aside the shower curtain.

Horror writers of the 1940s and 1950s seem to have been at a bit of a loss as to what to do next; Jamesian ghost stories and “a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill” may have seemed like weak tea to men who’d been to or read about Burma or Auschwitz. At least that seems to me a good reason for the wholesale shift from supernatural horror to things one might actually meet, horror generated from people.

I followed with my thoughts here.


The Puzzle Doctor found little to celebrate in the character of Carolus Deene in Leo Bruce’s Our Jubilee Is Death:

After writing eight Sergeant Beef mysteries – Case For Three Detectives being the most well known – Rupert Croft-Cooke abandoned the good sergeant in favour of Carolus Deene, who featured in his next twenty three novels. Which is a shame, really, as I liked Beef. Deene, however, is another kettle of fish. Reluctant to even investigate the crime at first, he has to be persuaded into spending his time looking into an obvious case of murder (and a good thing, as the police seem to be doing spit all) and at one point needs leaning on quite heavily as he’s planning on quitting for no particularly good reason. He’s rude and impatient to the people he questions and generally comes across as pretty tiresome.

crushJose Ignacio read Crush by Frédéric Dard, a roman de la nuit which:

tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, Louise Lacroix. Louise, desperate to flee a bleak and anodyne life, sees an opportunity to break away from her family and her job in a  factory when a young American couple settles in her neighbourhood. Louise, fascinated with their lifestyle, offers to work for them as in-house maid, with the healthy intention of building a better future for herself.  But things don’t turn out to be as she was expecting. The tale describes very well the atmosphere in Europe at the time in which it was written and the admiration that existed for all things American.

An admiration that persists today, right? Right?

alistair_maclean_-_night_withour_end_book_coverRoger BW found two novels by thriller mainstay Alistair MacLean in 1959, starting with Night Without End, in which an airliner makes a rough landing in Greenland.

But the basic plot is: among those survivors is at least one Bad Guy. The villainous plan, whatever it may have been, has gone wrong, and said Bad Guy(s) be trying to salvage whatever can be had. There’s little evidence, and Mason spends much of the book accusing the wrong people and then blaming himself for having been such an idiot, but eventually everything will be resolved.

It’s decent MacLean, but not his best work.


The Last Frontier was also, perhaps, not vintage MacLean.

If this book were badly translated, it might well end up with the title “aha, really I am working for the other side”. That sort of thing has been endlessly re-run and parodied since, of course, but this is a book from 1959 when it was rather fresher; the days when one could expect that readers might have to have it explained to them what a Molotov cocktail, or a Dobermann pinscher, was, and when the obvious possible subversions of “we send our hostage towards you, you send your hostage towards us” weren’t quite as obvious.

wrongnumberA rare film review from Kate at crossexaminingcrime:  Wrong Number relates what happens when a wrong number leads to overhearing a criminal plot:

The film quickly sets up the inner tensions of the criminal gang and most of the story is seen from their increasingly doubting and fearful point of view. Of course they soon begin to turn on each other and divide. My two favourite characters were the two women. One of them is a young female within the gang, played by Lisa Gastoni and she definitely wins the award for the most glamorous act of theft. The psychological tension within the gang is also partially centred on her, as there are two others within the group who desire her affections. The other female character I enjoyed was Miss Crystal, (played by Olive Sloane), who I felt was a good comic foil to the grimmer crime plot, though at times she was a little bit too dippy for my liking.



Sergio at Tipping My Fedora Jim Thompson’s The Getaway:

This tale of thieves falling out is lifted out of the ordinary by  Thompson’s uncanny ability to create chillingly credible portraits of criminals, misfits, felons and psychopaths at the extremes of human behaviour. He then caps it all with a hellish finale that goes where no pulp paperback had gone before, which was predictably excised from both movie versions .. but which unexpectedly surfaced in a George Clooney movie written by Quentin Tarantino …



Scott snuck in at the last minute with Carter Brown’s Terror Comes Creeping:

The brunette was very beautiful and very scared. She looked private Danny Boyd in the eye and shuddered once. Then she calmly told him that her father was planning on killing her. She claimed he had murdered her brother and was trying to get rid of her sister. And that she was third on the list. She had no proof to back her story, only cold green cash. She might be crazy, but she was also crazy rich. She was Danny’s favorite kind of client. So Danny decided to take the lovely lady’s case. And tag her father a killer.

John at Pretty Sinister Books rattled Joan Fleming’s Miss Bones:

There were some neat bits about 1959 culture throughout the book. The ugly shadow of WW2 hangs ominously over the story with the anecdotes of the Sloane Square bombing already mentioned. Several passages on clothing and dining out added to the verisimilitude. But the best section was when Thomas visits Coffin Joe’s Coffee Bar when Fleming turns her satiric pen to describing the women and the general habits of the poseur clientele who frequent the café.

the_snake_on_99Finally, an honourable mention for Bev, who read Stewart Farrar’s The Snake on 99 even though it was published a year previous to 1959. Still:

This was a delightful surprise. Farrar has a way with characterization that make this a great read. The interactions between Morgan and Pitt are fun and realistic–you can tell that the two have worked together for some time and know how to pull each other’s leg without stepping on anybody’s toes. They make a good investigative team. And the boarding house inmates are also well-drawn and given a fairly good chance at the spot-light, especially when you consider how short the book is at 191 pages. The plot is interesting, though I will admit that old hands at the mystery game will probably spot most of the solution before the wrap-up–I certainly did. But I was interested enough in the characters and finding out the fine details that I didn’t mind.

Thanks to everyone who played, see you all next month for 1943…

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Information Received, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ‘The admiration that existed for all things American’: 1959 books

  1. realthog says:

    which gives Google Images a headache by actually being called The Fast Ones

    Ahem. It isn’t “actually . . . called The Fast Ones. It’s actually called Ivy League Killers, with The Fast Ones as a later variant title.


  2. jasonhalf says:

    Thank you, Rich, and all the contributors for your round-up and reviews! I’m visiting the sites and reading more about some familiar and some new titles. North by Northwest, The Widow’s Cruise, The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Bloch’s Psycho each evoke positive memories for me, and it’s been fun to revisit them vicariously through the smart group here.

    I tried to tackle 1959, truly I did. Good faith effort and all that. I made it about 40 pages into Strip Death Naked by Norman Longmate – a recommended title from Barzun & Taylor – and just couldn’t get into the story or its British bureaucratic setting. Theodore Roscoe’s Only in New England: the story of a Gaslight crime was more engaging, and I got near the 100-page mark before the historical tangents and banter between the writer looking into the decades-old murder and the townsfolk defeated me.

    I’m on the lookout for a 1943 book, and hope to contribute to the current chase….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    Great round-up, as always! Thanks for letting me sneak that snake in there. 🙂


  4. Nice round-up! As for all things American – not so high on my list of likes just now…


  5. tracybham says:

    A very interesting list this time. Thanks very much for again pulling this together.

    Other than the one I read, I have read only one of these (Widow’s Cruise) and that was so long ago I might as well have not. So lots to follow up on here.


Make a statement...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s