Sunday, May 29, 2016

IMPRESSIVE IMPRINTS: The Mystery League, 1930-1933

In 1930 the creators of The Mystery League decided to take advantage of the popularity of detective fiction craze and develop an inexpensive, easy to buy, line of crime fiction titles that would directly compete with the higher priced mainline hardcover publishers. They spared no expense in the design of the books which were handsomely bound in three different bindings over its short five and half year life and got at least three different artists to design eye catching, Art Deco inspired, dust jackets which turned out to be their main draw to collectors as the years went by.

Initially, the books were priced at a mere quarter. This was nine years before the idea of the cheaply priced mass market paperback book had been invented which didn't happen until after World War 2 when Simon & Schuster developed the idea with Pocket Books. The odd thing about the Mystery League was choosing as their main distribution point the United Cigar Stores. Later, they added Whelan Drugstores and a few discount department stores like Kaufmann's to their list of places to sell their books. I guess when they realized that women were the main purchasers of these types of books ("According to Sydney M. Bidden, the young executive of the Mystery League which supplies a book a month to the detective-minded public, 60 per cent of the buyers of mystery novels are women" - New York Evening Post,  8/22/32) they decided to look for other places to sell the books. In the final years they found they needed to double the price to fifty cents per book. Apparently, that didn't save them and shortly after the price increase the entire imprint as originally envisioned ceased operation.

In an attempt to increase the sales they also added a mystery solving contest. With the help of the authors of the popular Baffle Books (solve them yourself mysteries published by Doubleday Doran's Crime Club) the publishers placed original mysteries in the back of three books (two shown below) asking readers to send in their solutions with the promise of cash prizes for first, second and third place entries. The answers along with winners' names were published in the next month's book. The answer and winner for the third and last contest never appeared due to the demise of the imprint.

Interestingly, they also stole the idea of the Harper Sealed Mystery for at least one title, perhaps more. In my copy of The Ebony Bed Murder the seal is still intact (see photos below) though it has cracked and chipped over time. I've not read the book and will now probably have to find a reading copy if I ever want to since I have no intention of opening the seal all the way.

The Hand of Power, 1929
The first Mystery League book
The House of Sudden Sleep, 1930
(pseudonym of Helen Cournos)

The Day of Uniting, 1930
(falling bodies was a popular motif on these DJs)
Standard rear DJ panel
explaining the imprint

Death Walks in Eastrepps, 1931
The Secret of High Eldersham, 1931

The Merrivale Mystery, 1931

The Hunterstone Outrage, 1931
The Bungalow on the Roof, 1931

Rules for the first Baffle Contest
Page two of the rules

Map of crime scene included in the six page mini solve-it-yourself mystery

The Ebony Bed Murder, 1932
The Mardi Gras Murders, 1932

The stolen "Harper Seal" idea
appears in The Ebony Bed Murder
Rear half of the seal is an ad for next title
(seal intact though badly cracked)

The False Purple, 1932
(at one time the hardest to find of these DJs)
Death Points a Finger, 1933
The last Mystery League book

Above you'll see the announcement for what was intended as "next month's mystery" after Death Points a Finger.  It was never published by The Mystery League, but it's not a phantom title for the "David Frome" portion of Zenith Brown's bibliography. The book was published in the US as Scotland Yard Can Wait (Farrar, 1933) and in the UK as That's Your Man , Inspector! (Longman's, 1934).

MORE ABOUT THE MYSTERY LEAGUE:  I thought maybe this imprint had been written about already and I was correct. The possible identity of the artist "Gene" is discussed in great detail in a genealogical detective story of sorts at the blog Tenth Letter of the Alphabet. You'll also find a huge gallery of advertisements showing how the books were marketed over the years as well as the entire article "Women Love Gore" about the fan mail from women readers of The Mystery League books that I quoted above. Diane Plumley covers the books and writers of The Mystery League imprint in her usual cynically amusing way in an article at the Bookshop Blog.


  1. These books lovely, sadly I don't have the money or room to collect.

    Interesting to see Edgar Wallace used for the 1st as he famously started his career with a prize with the Four just men.


    1. This is the only imprint for which I own all of the books, but less than half of those have DJs. Between 1999 and around 2005 these books were extremely cheap with or without DJ. Now some of them with DJ are so scarce, like TWO AND TWO MAKE TWENTY-TWO, that they sell for between $200 and $500.

  2. Wow, that is some fantastic design work.

  3. Some among these book I own (into italian editions): Gillmore, Bristow & Manning, Beeding; but Horler, Corbett i don't know. Who are they? This demonstrates one thing: the Mystery Literature is very extended. Someone italian should read these surnames to understand the error, i.e. the important writers in Italy have been published. It's not true. Probably some among those you quote will not be important, but surely someone will be it.

    1. Believe me, Pietro you're better off not knowing anything about Corbett or Horler, two writers best forgotten. Many of the Mystery League writers were bottom of the barrel as far as mystery writing and plotting goes. I read Horler's The Curse of Doone and it's ridiculous even for 1931. The dialogue, especially, is laughably horrible. Also, I've also read three Corbett books (one was a sci-fi novel about a man from Mars trying to conquer Earth) and each one was pretty damn bad. I doubt anything Horler or Corbett wrote would be worth translating into Italian. Some of their writing, IMO, is untranslatable. You'd have to rewrite the books to have them make any sense in another language.

  4. Another fascinating post on a mystery imprint. I'm happy to see these posts, John. I really like the artwork and typeface used on these. Sounds like their gimmick - low price - put them out of business.

    1. I'm surprised you've not seen any of these. Is the vintage mystery portion of your collection mostly paperbacks? That might explain it. These books used to pop up all over the place in used bookstores between the 1970s and 1990s. You can still get them without the DJ at library book sales and other fundraising book sales for under $5 a piece.

    2. My " vintage mystery" portion is almost non-existent, unfortunately, unless you count old SF and mystery paperbacks.

  5. That is a very distinctive looking line of books John - thanks for this, utterly fascinated as I have so few first editions (usually just happy to read the text) but am really loving this :)

  6. What a fine posting and tribute. You lead me to think again(as I often do): I was probably born half a century too late, especially as I so much prefer the style of mysteries from the era you've spotlighted. Thanks for the seductive posting. All the best from the U.S. Gulf coast and Past Perfect Murders,

  7. A fine piece on "The Mystery League" imprints — thanks, John. I liked the cover designs and illustrations, particularly the Edgar Wallace cover.

  8. Love this post, John. Love seeing the fabulous artwork/design. You always manage to find something intriguing, something which shows your love of books from the past. How I wish I'd begun collecting when I was young - think of all the great stuff I'd have by now. :) But, who knew?

  9. Thank you for this post. I have managed to collect all 30 titles, some in rough shape but readable, and have now read most of them. On a recent trip to NYC, just for fun, I went to their published address of 11 West 42nd St to take a look. It is directly across 42nd St from the NY Public Library. The building still exists, a magnificent ornate art deco office building, lobby open to the public. A beautiful space. The original mail boxes are still in the lobby, where all those contest entries wound up! Worth a peek if you are in NYC sometime. Rick M, Maine.

    1. Thanks, Rick, for stopping by and for your anecdote.

  10. I know "The Bungalow on the Roof" had the solution to the first Baffle Mystery ("The McCumber Murder"), but which book had the solution to the second Baffle Mystery? Was it Two and Two Make Twenty Two?

    1. The solution to Baffle #2 (The Crime at Laurel Lodge, which appears in Murder in the French Room) never appeared so we are at a loss for the solution. Nor did the solution to Baffle #3 (The Alexander Mystery) which appeared in Bungalow on the Roof.

  11. I have a small but attractive collection of Mystery League books, but I am writing to ask you what made you choose the portrait of Dr. Nikola as your icon?

    1. Because I like the books by Guy Boothby, I'm a scholar of Victorian sensation fiction, and he's the perfect avatar for a blog called Pretty Sinister Books. A huge gold star for recognizing the illustration. Most people haven't a clue what the illustration signifies.