THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE - An Introduction, by Allen J. Hubin
When The Armchair Detective emerged in 1967, no one – least of all I – knew what the future would hold. The idea that TAD would still be appearing almost twenty years later, with thousands of pages and with subscribers around the world and with an Edgar in between, would surely have been greeted with polite incredulity if not pyrotechnics of derision.
For me, in those early years, it was one issue at a time. Type those manuscripts, find those printers, collate those pages, staple those sheets, stuff those envelopes, attach those addresses, mail those bundles, type those manuscripts... and establish a host of relationships with other mystery fans that more than compensated for the work.
The story of TAD has been told at various times and places, but this seems an appropriate spot for another retelling (I hope there’s some similarity among the various accounts) and a for another thank you to all the contributors and readers who made TAD happen.
I date my love affair with detective fiction from a reading of the complete Sherlock Holmes one cold winter in the Minnesota wilds near Grey Eagle when I was ten years old. Having consumed the canon in one gulp, as it were, I wondered what else of this sort was available. Erle Stanley Gardner was discovered along with John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen; Leslie Charteris and Agatha Christie and others followed. The books – paperbacks in those days – seemed to accumulate as from our new small-town Minnesota base (Sandstone) second-hand bookstores were uncovered in Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Hardcover books then drew my attention, first book-club editions (it was Dollar Mystery Guild in those pre-inflation years), subsequently original editions, so that by 1958 the collection filled a couple of good-sized bookcases. That year I graduated from college and married (my wife, Marilyn, couldn't later say she wasn't warned of the bibliomania to come). We moved into an apartment near the University of Minnesota – an apartment in happy proximity to several used book stores. I began to collect crime fiction systematically and with increasing fervor. Used book sales organized by local charities also began about this time. With no other collectors nearby and no dealers interested in crime fiction hereabouts, I had no competition and the books rolled in. A book-hunting trip to Chicago (depressing) and Milwaukee (fruitful) contributed to the flow.
By 1966 I had been at this seriously for eight years, to the tune of about five thousand volumes, and I was aware of a growing frustration. In all this time I had made contact with only one other collector of mystery fiction (Elmore Mundell of Portage, Indiana). But our purchases alone surely weren’t supporting the specialist antiquarian book dealers who had by now appeared. I knew there were other collectors – dozens, hundreds? How much more pleasurable would be our mutual passion if it could be shared!
My earlier and now abandoned interest in science fiction had made clear that a flourishing, communicating, publishing, and conventioning fandom had existed in that field for decades (this was subsequently documented in such accounts as All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner, Jr.). Why not in mysteries, whose readership was larger and whose fare was more abundant.
This question has never been satisfactorily answered to my knowledge, and the facts remained: no general fan publication had ever existed in the mystery fiction field; no fan gathering had ever taken place. Was a fan publication a good idea, and if so, who would publish it? One thing was fairly certain: this chemist in Minnesota wasn’t the person.
But at least I could solicit some views concerning the first question. The one logical person to query was Anthony Boucher, the most respected and influential crime-fiction commentator in the U.S., if not the world.
A letter to Boucher produced a quick response, from which I would quote here if I could find his letter among twenty years accumulation of correspondence (sigh...). In any event, Boucher’s reply was extremely positive and encouraging. He indicated he had recently bemoaned in print the absence of mystery fan publications (in “The Third Degree,” monthly publication of the Mystery Writers of America, from which he included a tearsheet). He promised that if anything developed, access to the public would be available through his review columns in The New York Times Book Review and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
This was very nice, and I supposed as things turned out Anthony Boucher should at least be regarded as TAD’s godfather. But for the moment, who was going to produce this publication?
Surely not I. But perhaps some useful input (and a volunteer?) could be obtained from other fans, and at least I could work on that.
It isn’t true that no fan publication of any kind had appeared in crime fiction up to that time. Sherlockians had already demonstrated their love for scholarly utterances, notably in The Baker Street Journal (1946- ). And Len and June Moffatt’s tribute to John D. MacDonald and his works, The JDM Bibliophile, had been coming out for a number of months.
I had by this time made contact with the Moffatts and exchanged a few letters on this mad idea percolating in my fevered brain – mad and fevered because I was now beginning to entertain the thought that if this publication were to appear I would have to be its publisher/editor.
Through the Moffatts – who were very supportive – I reached Rick Sneary, primarily a science-fiction enthusiast, whose checklist of John Dickson Carr’s works had been mentioned by Boucher in the Times. Sneary had retained the names and addresses of those who requested a copy of the checklist, and it seemed reasonable to use these presumably serious fans (and hence potentially both contributors and subscribers to the proposed journal) to test the “market.”
Rick Sneary kindly supplied the list of about 225 names (and the paternal advice that I had no idea what I was getting myself into; right he was, of course). I sent out a form letter in which I outlined the idea and asked for reactions to it and for expressions of willingness to contribute material for publication.
The enthusiastic responses were most encouraging, and with commitments to write material (one or two said “for every issue”!), my course was clear. I wrote to those who had promised to write and said “write!” This was the summer of 1967.
This second letter also invited suggestions concerning a name for the publication. Out of this and subsequent discussion emerged the notion that since the journal would convey the researches and discoveries and criminous joys of us who sat and read and dueled with fictional sleuths to identify equally imaginary malefactors, it should be named for us – the armchair detectives.
Those who said they’d write, wrote, and when I typed what I’d thought would be about ten pages I found I had thirty. And then, thanks to the increasing flow of material, good, spirited, varied material, it grew and grew and grew as the years passed, reaching 110 pages of small print at its largest.
But that gets ahead of the story.
A friend of mine in Minneapolis, Walter Schwartz, had access to an offset press. Neither of us had the slightest offset experience, the press was old, and the day was humid. The outcome can be imagined. After many hours of stop-swear-start, we had 200 semi-legible copies of each page. And after 200 trips around a table, we had 200 completed copies of that first issue.
A certain amount of faith was involved since only about sixty subscribers were in hand as a result of that second mailing to Sneary’s list. But Tony Boucher had promised, and off to him went a copy of the issue.
Would he find it worth mentioning? What would he say?
Time passed, and I kept the 140 extra copies in case they might be needed.
In the December 3, 1967, Christmas issue of the Book Review, Boucher launched TAD, well and truly launched it. After noting the absence of a generalist periodical for crime-fiction fandom, he said: “Now at last, however, to make 1967 a historic year, we do have just such a learned if laical quarterly: The Armchair Detective.... This is the periodical that so many of your letters have requested. It is now good, and with support it should rapidly become even better....” Boucher was in the most benign of moods.
The following Wednesday forty new subscriptions turned up in my mailbox.
But a curious thing happened. My family and I have lived at our Minnesota address for since 1962, collecting our mail from a streetside box six days a week for all that time. Only once has anyone interfered with our mail. What day? You guessed it.
When I went to the box that day it was totally empty. I had no thought of forty subscribers, but I rather expected something. I called the White Bear Lake post office, where the route man indicated that he’d put quite a stack of envelopes in our box.
With his help we traced the mail to a schoolyard several blocks away, where envelopes, letters, checks, cash were strewn with gay abandon. You can imagine the scene; remember, this was winter in Minnesota. It appeared that kids had playfully plundered our box and decorated their playground with the proceeds, but evidently we recovered all the money and at least some portion of each letter; no one ever wrote to complain about a lack of response to his letter.
Each week, each day thereafter at the outset, new subscribers were added. Soon the 200 copies were gone. A second printing (300, as I recall) was also exhausted surprisingly quickly. With new subscribers came new enthusiasms, new contributions, strengthened support, extended lines of communication, new relationships, expanded circulation – eventually to Canada, South America, England, Europe, Australia, Japan.
As I look back at the issues, one by one, they remind me of some of the faces, events, experiences, triumphs, and, yes, even frustrations that enriched my life. I can recall some of the influences that contributed in certain measure to the creation over the years of numerous other fan publications, to the founding of the annual mystery conventions (Bouchercons), to the launching of one or two writers into larger seas, to greater acceptance of mystery fiction as significant writing worthy of serious and scholarly attention.
Here are some of those high points, some first TAD appearances, some annotations of the first four issues of TAD.
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 1.
William S. Baring-Gould, noted Sherlockian (The Annotated Sherlock Holmes) and authority on Rex Stout’s rotund investigator (Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street), was one of the important figures in our field, whose encouragemnet and support were crucial to the launching of TAD. So it was appropriate that he should appear first in the first issue. He died, alas, before the issue saw print.
James Keddie, Jr., a pioneering collector, began TAD attention to that addictive pursuit. Charles Shibuk, who became a good friend, initiated his column of reviews (“The Paperback Revolution”), which appeared in every issue of TAD- -the only writer and the only column for which that claim can be made.
The use of movie notes by film authority William K. Everson as fillers also began with this issue, as Everson generously gave permission to publish the commentaries he handed out to attendees of his film society in New York City. And Marvin Lachman, a dedicated TADian over the years and still a friend active in the field, here made his first contribution to TAD.
Gordon C. Ramsey had recently published the first of what has now become a flood of book-length studies of Agatha Christie and her works, and he allowed me to reprint an article that had previously had only limited distribution. (A minor note: no contributors to TAD received any compensation for their efforts – they wrote out of love for the field – no contributor, that is, except Mr. Ramsey, who asked for, and received, a nominal sum – something like $5, as I recall – for reprint rights.)
I always expected reviews to be an important part of any fan publication – where else could “amateurs” record their reactions? – so commentary on books both old and new has also appeared in every issue. My first published review appeared here as well – and who would have thought that so humble a beginning would have led to reviews in the Minneapolis Tribune, to nearly three years of doing “Criminals at Large” for The New York Times Book Review, to editing seven volumes of “Best Detective Stories of the Year” anthologies for Dutton, to.... But that’s another story altogether.
In this issue I also recorded some thoughts on what TAD might become and from whence it had arisen. And letters, letters from TAD readers: some would argue, and have, that the letters section at least for those early years was the richest treasure TAD provided and the first section subscribers turned to. I don’t doubt this: TAD was created for fan communication, and letters – scholarly; humorous, querilous, informative, opinionated, questioning, recommending – flourished in TAD’s pages. (To emphasize the importance of letters, a fan publication called Mystery & Detective Monthly ran for 200 issues and contained almost nothing but letters from fans.)
Finally came the Book Exchange, in which subscribers identified their wanted and surplus books (access to this department was free to all subscribers, at least during the eight and a half years I published TAD). I should also say that the cover for the four issues of Volume 1 was created by family friend and mystery-fiction aficionado Sandy King.
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 2.
By this time I had abandoned the nutty notion that personally running an offset press was a good idea and had located a gentleman named George Ott who ran a small after-hours printing operation out of his basement, so the printing quality of TAD began to improve.
This issue started with an article by Norman Donaldson on his favorite subject, on which he subsequently published a book-length study (In Search of Dr. Thorndyke) and a pastiche (Goodbye, Dr. Thorndyke). James Sandoe, noted critic who became a friend as the years went by, allowed reprinting of his scarce, privately published survey of hardboiled detectives.
One of the consequences of my efforts toward TAD and my joining the Mystery Writers of America was to discover Ordean Hagen, a North Dakota librarian attempting what had hitherto been thought impossible – a bibliography of the whole of the very broad field of crime fiction. Ordean wrote to me, and after we had eliminated the initial confusion about what I was working on (not a rival bibliography), we met and visited each other; he spent many days among my books, using them as resources for his bibliography; and he here described his project for TAD. Alas, Hagen died before his groundbreaking Who Done It? appeared.
I have long had an interest in what academia does with mystery fiction, and Mary S. Cameron described the collection at the University of North Carolina Library. John Bennett Shaw; world-renowned Holmesian who amassed the world's largest collection of Sherlockiana, offered a first TAD look at the canonical writings, and J. R. Christopher, a very loyal TADian, considered a non-Holmes story by A. Conan Doyle.
Jon L. Breen, another loyal TADian who subsequently appeared as a novelist (Listen for the Click and others), short-story writer (in EQMM, collected as Hair of the Sleuthhound), book-length commentator (Novel Verdicts: A Guide to Courtroom Fiction and What About Murder?: A Guide to Books About Mystery and Detective Fiction), and highly respected reviewer, provided the first of a goodly number of mystery quizzes to occupy TAD’s pages.
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 3.
Support for TAD also came from overseas. Nigel Morland, prolific English crime novelist and editor of periodicals in our field (The Criminologist, Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, and, later, Current Crime), was not only a contributor to TAD’ s letters section but also here reflected on his long acquaintance with the even more prolific Edgar Wallace; appended was a checklist of Wallace’s works.
Then came the first of many appearances in TAD by Francis M. Nevins, Jr., at that time a newly minted attorney and in the intervening years, a law professor and author of book-length studies of Ellery Queen (Royal Bloodline, an Edgar winner) and Cornell Woolrich (First You Dream, Then You Die) as well as crime novels, short stories and other studies. Nevins’s subject was Harry Stephen Keeler, a Chicago mystery writer whose novels have to be read to be believed ... no, even that does not normally produce belief.
In addition to the usual reviews and letters, in an editorial note I indicated that subscribers were approaching five hundred and suggested that this was a comfortable place to level out – yet the number was to double and then, in due course, to double again.
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 4.
The steady progression in size was continuing: 158 large-sized pages of small print was not bad value for a $2 annual subscription. But, of course, even though the financial objectve – always met in my years of publishing TAD – was only to break even, subscription prices couldn’t remain at $2, and were one issue away from a fifty-percent increase.
Here Charles Shibuk presented the first example of a popular form: biographical sketch of a respected writer followed by an annotated bibliography of his criminous work. An eminent Sherlockian, Nathan L. Bengis, drew parallels between an 1890s short-story collection and canonical tales. James Keddie, Jr., returned with an introduction to staged mysteries, a subject to receive book-length coverage (in serial form) in TAD many years later.
Frank P. Donovan, railroad enthusiast and author of seven books on that subject, started his series on novels and short stories combining the twin themes of railroads and mystery. Bernard Beauchesne, the other U.S. fan of Harry Stephen Keeler, gave us more on that subject.
*****What Steve Lewis and I propose to do in the coming weeks is to upload to the Internet as much of the material from the first four issues of TAD as possible. Unfortunately there is much that we will not be able to use. Checklists of books and authors, so important and essential at the time, have become outdated. Nor do we do not intend to put any material online without permission. In some cases this means tracking down old friends for whom we no longer have addresses. Some of the contributors to the first volume of TAD have, of course, passed away. Unless we obtain an OK from their estates, we do not intend to reprint any of their material.
Some material has already appeared in other forms. If generally available elsewhere, putting it online would serve no good purpose. But a wealth of material remains, and you will be seeing here soon. Nor is there any need to stop with Volume One. Take that as the starting point. There is plenty to come.
Before anything else, however, here is the editor/publisher’s statement of purpose which appeared in the very first issue (October 1967), as mentioned briefly above.
THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE: THE PAST, PRESENT
AND HOPEFUL FUTURE OF THIS JOURNAL
This journal began about a year ago with a growing conviction in my mind that a publication for and by mystery fiction fans would greatly heighten enjoyment of their common interest. Feeling fairly certain that no such publication was in existence, I began a discussion (by letter) of the idea with a fellow mystery reader/collector with whom I was corresponding at the time. We agreed that Anthony Boucher, respected writer, editor and critic in the field, was an ideal person to sound out on the subject.
Mr. Boucher was kind enough to reply immediately and with much encouragement to carry out the project. He verified our suspicions that no current publication served the need we felt, that of supplying fans with a place to present their ideas, the reasoned results of years of contact with the mystery field, to those persons most likely to be interested, fellow fans. Mr. Boucher also offered, by including a copy of an article he had written a few years before, some suggestions on contents and possible market. He closed his letter by saying, “Anything like this hangs fire for years until there comes along someone who can spark it into activity. Let us hope you may be that spark.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the spark; I just hoped someone would be. But no one volunteered.
Mr. Boucher’s letter was a promising development, and I mulled the matter over for several months. I then decided a useful next step would be to obtain a wider range of opinion. I sent more than 200 form letters to persons around the country alleged to have some interest in mystery fiction. I inquired about their interest in a fan magazine and their willingness to participate in its production.
The results were most gratifying. A very high level of interest was expressed in the replies, and many wondered why something of this sort had not been done before. Among those to whom my survey letter went were several persons very well known and respected in this field – and their replies were also enthusiastic and encouraging. But more gratifying and promising than enthusiasm and encouragement were the promises made by many to provide articles, letters and reviews for publication.
With the evident good appetite among mystery fans for a publication for which they could write, and in which they could read, material relevant to their field of interest, my decision became almost inescapable: “The Armchair Detective” was born.
The present format of this journal is the outgrowth of some guidelines I proposed in my survey letter and the suggestions of the many interested fans who responded. However, the format and content of the journal shall be subject to change as a better understanding of interests develops – through letters to the editor, which will always be welcome. If a policy statement were to be made, it would likely read: “This journal will publish all types of short material relevant to the mystery-detective-suspense fiction field and of fairly general interest to its fans.” Needless to say, in a highly nonprofit publication of this type there will be no enumeration for contributors of material for publication, but article writers will be sent an extra copy of that issue of the journal.
The journal will consist of four “departments”:
1) Feature articles. These will form the “meat” of each issue. I would like to hear from those interested in writing for this department. Subjects will range from discussions of specific authors to treatments of types of stories, authors and fictional characters. Reprinting of material from relatively inaccessible sources, when permission can be secured, will also be undertaken.
2) Letters. Readers of the journal are encouraged to use this department as a forum for expressing their reactions to contents of past issues and their suggestions for future issues (contributors will take note!). In addition this department can be used to ask and answer questions relating to our field.
3) Reviews. Readers are urged to submit book reviews in two categories: (a) new books of particular merit or newsworthiness, and (b) old and forgotten books which deserve rediscovery.
4) Book exchange. Journal subscribers may list wanted or surplus books without charge.
In addition to these departments, the journal will contain other types of material not so readily classified, for example quizzes and notes on mystery and detective movies of long ago. The journal will also attempt to compile a news section related to the mystery fiction field, and relevant items should be called to my attention.
The future of the journal is largely in the hands of its vocal and contributing readers. However, I have fond hopes of accomplishing some of the following: (1) When the circulation of this journal reaches a suitable level, I would like to take some polls of subscribers regarding their ten favorite mystery (detective) writers, novels and short stories. The results, which would be published in the journal, should be meaningful provided the readership of the journal is representative. (2) As the prestige (!) of the journal grows, I hope it will be possible to induce highly regarded mystery writers and critics to write feature articles. (3) I would like to publish a series of interviews with important mystery writers. (4) Authoritative articles on the state of the mystery story in certain foreign countries by persons living in those countries (for example, England, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Australia) would, I feel, be most revealing and contribute materially to the stature of the journal.
As far as the proximate and more assured future of the journal is concerned, the next few issues will contain, among other things, an article on the books of Henry Wade, a discussion of the use of railroads in mystery and detective fiction, an article by Ordean Hagen about his forthcoming complete bibliography of the mystery story (Who Done It, An Encyclopedic Guide to Mystery, Detective and Suspense Fiction, R. R. Bowker, Co., 1968), and a discussion of the content and origins of the detective fiction collection held by the University of North Carolina.
The introduction is slightly modified from its first appearance in The Armchair Detective: The First Ten Years (Garland Publishing, 1986; seven volumes). Copyright © 1986, 2005 by Allen J. Hubin.
“The Armchair Detective: The Past, Present and Hopeful Future of This Journal” first appeared in The Armchair Detective, Volume 1, Number 1, October 1967. Copyright © 1967, 2005 by Allen J. Hubin.
All other material copyright © 2005 by Allen J. Hubin.
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