Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Enigma of the New McClure's Mystery Contest

Yesterday, I wrote a review about Murder Yet To Come.  I mentioned in passing that the novel won a whopping $7500 prize in a mystery writing contest. If you have a copy of the CAPT 1995 reprint you will find this as part of their introduction to the book:

This will lead you to believe that Ellery Queen was beaten by Myers. Not true. Both writers won the contest - but only Myers won the $7500. Here's the lowdown.

New McClure's Magazine, the original sponsor, of the contest was a reformed, restructured version of the venerable McClure's magazine. Exactly why New McClure's thought they could sponsor an astonishing $7500 writing contest prize baffles me. The magazine was in dire financial straits after its reorganization from the old McClure's. The tail end of the disaster is described in this paragraph taken from a fascinating article I found about the demise of McClure's.
McClure's was never the same after the insurgent staff departed to continue their journalistic crusade elsewhere. To satisfy the terms of the purchase agreement negotiated by Phillips, McClure was forced to place his stock under the control of a board of trustees to whom he was held accountable. The cost of the new Long Island publishing facility, originally estimated at $105,000, increased three-fold, while McClure's Book Company, a subsidiary of the magazine, went heavily into debt. With the arrival of a depression in 1907, McClure's advertising revenues plummeted as manufacturers tightened their belts. From 1906 onward, the magazine never again declared stock dividends. $800,000 in debt, McClure was continuously at the mercy of a string of creditors, to whom the periodical was finally surrendered in the autumn of 1911. Under the management of financiers unsympathetic to muckraking, the magazine's journalistic crusades were squelched. In reality, however, McClure's was the victim of idealistic "explosions" begun more than five years earlier, when the high moral standards of a staff bent upon reforming society were shattered by the man who had created the medium for their expression.
Despite the fact the New McClure's was on shaky financial ground the contest continued with a co-sponsorship from book publisher Frederick A. Stokes. When the winner was declared it wasn't Isabel Briggs Myers. It was a novice writing duo calling themselves Ellery Queen and the novel was The Roman Hat Mystery. Before the prize was fully awarded New McClure's Magazine went bankrupt and folded in March 1929. The magazine was absorbed by Smart Set and they also took over the contest. The new magazine editors decided to re-judge the contest because the original rules stated that the winning manuscript would appear first in serial format in the magazine. Taking into account their mostly female readership they decided to choose a woman writer and awarded the full prize to Myers -- serial magazine rights for $5000, and $2500 for book publication.

Here is more background on the contest taken from Columbia Pictures Movie Series, 1926-1955: The Harry Cohn Years (McFarland, 2011) by Gene Blottner:

But the Queen writing duo had their revenge of sorts when Frederick A. Stokes stepped in and saved the day, so to speak, by publishing the winning book. And thanks to some clever work on the author's part The Roman Hat Mystery was released a full year before Murder Yet to Come.

My big clue that led me to digging up the real truth of the writing contest was the copyright info in my copy of Myer's book seen below. I knew something was up.

The clincher is that "Second printing before publication" statement.  This tells us that the publisher's marketing department did a superior job of selling the book. Due to the book's anticipated popularity there were a larger than anticipated number of pre-orders from bookstores and the publisher printed more copies of the book before the actual planned publication date and after the initial run of their first edition.  I am inferring here that it was Stokes' marketing of Murder Yet to Come as a prize-winning novel that led to the larger number of books being printed.

The people at CAPT have no business stating that Myers bested Queen. The contest was judged twice by two different magazine staffs. Essentially, the two authors both won. And while Myers got the money, Dannay and Lee as Ellery Queen got the fame.


  1. John: Well done! I love true detective stories. After reading your post I think Ellery Queen was robbed.

  2. Very interesting. There's another interesting wrinkle on this matter, but I can't say more, except to people who have read all the books involved....