Vincent Starrett among the Critics, Part 2: Electric (Purple) Boogaloo.

The 1976 Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection published by McGraw-Hill.


Take a look at that dust jacket and besides the Secret Squirrel image, the first question I have is this: Why the purple?  It’s such an odd color. And that lettering?  What font is that? With all due respect to Dan Nevins, who is credited with the design, I really question these choices for an encyclopedia that was making the case for a serious study of mysteries and detective fiction.

It’s like using grape jelly and a paintbrush on a PhD dissertation.

And then it hits me: It was the 70s, man.

Every guy had a pastel colored leisure suit and rock stars were sporting mullets. “Disco Duck” was a hit and George Burns starred with a barrel full of Gibb brothers in “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” 

In other words, everyone in the U.S. was a little insane.

Thus, purple.

This is the second in an occasional series that looks at how Starrett’s work was judged by critics, historians and reference guides. The first time out we looked at two books by Howard Haycraft from the 1940s, just as Starrett was abandoning fiction for a career as a bookman. Jump forward 30 years and we have the efforts of two men whose passion for mystery and detective fiction rivaled Haycraft’s: Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. 

Chris came to mysteries through film and television. A long-time member of the Mystery Writers of America and editor of the New York chapter’s newsletter, Chris would also oversee The Films of Sherlock Holmes, one of the first attempts to comprehensively consider how the character has evolved over the decades. There are many such works today. Chris got there first. He was invested in the Baker Street Irregulars as The Tankerville Club Scandal in 1957 and was a founding member of The Priory Scholars of Fordham University, his alma mater.

Otto Penzler has showed up in this blog before. When it comes to mysteries, he has gone everywhere, knows everyone, and overheard more than just about anyone in the business. And it has been a business with Otto. His Mysterious Bookshop has been a “must” stop for Baker Street Irregulars for decades, and his various publishing efforts have rescued old works and introduced new writers alike. (See The More You Know, below.)

Before we review how Chris and Otto treated Vincent Starrett, let’s have a bit more purple, shall we?

The spine to the book's cover.

Published by McGraw-Hill in 1976, the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection had an impressive parentage. Besides Chris and Otto, it boasted the efforts of Marvin Lachman and Charles Shibuk as senior editors, and eight contributing editors whose expertise spanned the genre, from pulp fiction to radio and hard boiled to tea cosies.

As Chris and Otto make plain in their preface, they believe that all detective fiction owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes. It was a view that was shared by Starrett himself.

The Mysterious Press sold autographed copies of the book for $19.95, tax included.

“While Poe’s Dupin was pure intellect, however, Conan Doyle’s colorful Sherlock Holmes became surely the most enduring figure in all the literature as well as its keenest investigator. Additionally, his creation of Professor Moriarty provided the detective with an adversary worthy of his skills, the model of many master criminals—some masked to be unmasked—to follow. The Age of the Detectives had begun.”

The resulting volume was as comprehensive as space and cost would allow. Some 600 articles with 300,000 words are included in its 436 pages. And the volume was profusely illustrated, showing rare images of pulp magazines, movie stills and radio show stars.

The entry for Sherlock Holmes alone spans eight pages and touches on every aspect of the Holmes world, from the original stories through the various stage and screen representations.

Starrett’s entry is a humble half page, with a heavy emphasis on his contributions to the Holmes world. (With the book’s publication in 1976, Starrett’s entry was likely written just around the time of his death in 1974.) After acknowledging Starrett’s variety as an author, they note he had also “produced innumerable essays, biographical and bibliographical works, and critical studies of a wide range of authors and is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s three or four outstanding writers about books and bookmen."

It doesn’t take long to get to Starrett’s Holmes work, noting that he was a “distinguished scholar of detective fiction and Sherlock Holmes for a half century.”

My copy was a gift by Charles E. Henry Jr., as the handsome bookplate attests. You can learn more about him below.

They also note:

“Starrett’s finest work is probably the erudite study The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933). … In "The Unique Hamlet" (1920), generally conceded to be the best Holmes pastiche ever written, the great detective deals with the loss of the ultimate Shakespearean rarity, an inscribed first edition of Hamlet.”

The entry is a good overview of Starrett’s fictional writing career, and even notes the only film adaptation of his work, a 1935 film that had the same time as his “The Great Hotel Murder”, but which perplexed Starrett as well as the audience when he went to see it.

I suspect Starrett would have been pleased to be in such august company. He always felt his talents had not been fully appreciated and while he was proud of the fame that came to friends like Robert Frost, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, there was also a bit in envy there too.

Mixed in with so many other hundreds of writers, actors and detectives, Starrett tends to get a little lost in the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. But he is there, and that’s what counts.

Whenever genre historians look at the history of detective fiction, the name Vincent Starrett will remain a part of the mix. Chris and Otto made sure of that.

The More You Know

  • Otto is responsible for two editions of Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The Mysterious Press reprint of the 1933 original edition was published in 1988, and in 1993 he did it again as part of the Otto Penzler Sherlock Holmes Library series.
  • My copy of the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection was a gift from Dr. Charles E. Henry, BSI. Chuck gave me many of his books over the years and even though he is no longer with us, I remember him well each time I go to his books for research or pleasure.