The Rue Morgue Press began operation in 1997, dedicated to the idea of reprinting what we like to call “mysteries for little old ladies of all ages and sexes.” Which is just another way of saying that our specialty is the traditional mystery which first came to prominence during the Golden Age of detective fiction (1920-1940). Books are chosen, edited and prepared for publication by Tom and Enid Schantz, who have been involved in the mystery community since 1970. They were awarded the Raven in 2001 by the Mystery Writers of America for their contributions to the genre. The following article (which first appeared in MysteryFile in a slightly different form) traces the history of the Schantzes and The Rue Morgue Press.
How the Rue Morgue Press Came To Be
It all goes back to Freeville, New York, where we spent the first years of our marriage and, in the spring of 1970, started selling used mysteries by mail. Doing business then as The Aspen Bookhouse, we at first listed general used books, discovered at the many book sales and second-hand bookshops we haunted around the area, but our mystery customers were so much nicer and more interesting than our others—and bought so many more books—that we soon narrowed our focus to detective fiction only. It was not a field either of us was widely read in at the time. Tom had read the Hardy Boys and a smattering of adult mysteries, but Enid had disdained Nancy Drew and hadn’t even read Sherlock Holmes.
But all that was soon to change. Enid read the canon straight through and couldn’t get over how good it was. Tom revisited Ngaio Marsh, whom he’d first read in his mother’s wartime book club edition of Colour Scheme. Then it was on to S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout, Edmund Crispin, Anthony Berkeley, Dashiell Hammett, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Dorothy L. Sayers, Richard Hull, Craig Rice, and scores of other memorable writers. Some, like Sayers, we disliked but kept on reading; others, like Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, we thought (and still think) to be vastly overrated.
In those days, used mystery books from the Golden Age were plentiful and cheap and not in wide demand, except by thrifty readers. Booksellers kept first editions in dusty back rooms and rejoiced when we came to town looking for them. Book sales had tables full of them, priced at a quarter apiece regardless of edition or condition. We would come back from buying trips with our Volvo station wagon crammed with boxes of old mysteries, to be shelved and cataloged posthaste to pay back the short-term loans we were always taking out from our little local bank when our stock got low. Remember, a book from 1935 had been out of print for only 35 years at that time, about the same length of time that books being published in 1970 have been out of print today.
And there were very few real mystery fiction collectors back then. Most of our sales were to little old ladies trying to fill in their collections of Mignon G. Eberhart or men (like Ron Goulart, an early customer) looking for John Rhode to help them sleep at night. But there were beginning to be serious collectors and students of the genre, and most of them could be reached through the pages of The Armchair Detective, the fanzine published by Al Hubin in his basement in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. We not only advertised our catalogs in it but read each issue of TAD from cover to cover; at one point we had to take out two subscriptions to maintain marital harmony. Other fanzines followed, like Robert Washer’s Queen Canon Bibliophile, Robert Briney’s The RohmerReview, Lianne Carlin’s Mystery Lovers Newsletter, Luther Norris’s The Pontine Dossier, and of course the original Mystery File.
During this period, serious collectors were concentrating on titles (and authors) cited in the cornerstone list developed by Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen (the Fred Dannay half), and more importantly, the short story collections listed in Queen’s Quorum, Dannay’s list of the most important short fiction collections in the genre. This is a collecting field that has become outdated today, but at the time Dannay (who was also undoubtedly trying to magnify the value and importance of his own holdings) had convinced many collectors that the short story was not only the original but the purest form of detective fiction, and therefore the most desirable.
Among the serious collectors on our mailing list was Otto Penzler, then working for ABC Sports and in the process of selling off his collection of first edition literature and replacing it with detective fiction. We had been sending catalogs to his first wife, who succeeding in hiding them from Otto until one day when he came across them in her closet. They had competing collections, and she eventually switched her mailing address to her mother’s house, where the mail was delivered some hours earlier than at their apartment. Another early collector was Bill Pronzini, then a budding writer who had made some magazine sales but not yet published a novel. He was, and is to this day, at least as interested in collecting mysteries as in writing them, and he has helped us obtain copies from which to reprint or put us in touch with people knowledgeable about our writers on more than one occasion.
After four years in rural New York we moved to Boulder, where Tom, a native Coloradan, had gone to school and we had always planned on settling. Living was costlier and the bookhunting not as good, but we had family nearby and Boulder became home for us in a way New York never was. We had begun publishing in a small way in Freeville, with the first Aspen Press chapbook, Sherlock Holmes and the Drood Mystery by Edmund L. Pearson, coming out in an edition of 400 copies in 1973. It was followed by more chapbooks, mostly Sherlockian pastiches and parodies, but we also did two full-length original novels: Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma by John H. Dirckx, a further adventure of R. Austin Freeman’s immortal detective, and The Adventure of the Peerless Peer by Philip Jose Farmer, in which Sherlock Holmes meets Lord Greystoke (known in most circles as Tarzan).
We continued to catalog used mysteries, mixing in a smattering of new titles from time to time, and in the late 1970s we changed the name of our business to The Rue Morgue to better reflect our specialty and in anticipation of opening a retail bookstore in downtown Boulder. That happened in 1980, and we moved our second-hand stock from the basement of our house to the new shop, adding as many new titles as we could afford to stock on our limited credit. After some lean years at the start, the business began to thrive (as much as any small bookstore can), and we became caught up in the world of new books (and the affairs of our young daughter, who was born in 1976). We continued to issue catalogs of out-of-print mysteries, and as the years went by we tried not to succumb to the phony mystique of the hypermodern first edition. But as the older mysteries that had once been our mainstay began disappearing from book sales and used bookstores, they began appearing in smaller numbers in our catalogs. (In recent years we’ve purchased several collections from former customers who have had to give up their books and we are once again concentrating on vintage material.)
We were also required to read quantities of new books in order to produce our monthly store newsletter and write our monthly mystery column for The Denver Post, as well as for the mystery section of What Do I Read Next?, a twice annual book in which we annotate approximately 450 crime fiction books. What was a refreshing change of pace at first eventually became irksome at times. It was no hardship to read the latest books by Robert Barnard, Peter Lovesey, Jonathan Gash, Dick Francis, Sarah Caudwell, and later Laurie R. King, Nevada Barr, Randy Wayne White, James D. Doss, and other gifted newcomers, but for every one of these there were dozens of books that were derivative, poorly executed, badly edited, or just plain boring, and we didn’t always have the luxury of simply ignoring them. Exhibiting at mystery conventions and hosting frequent book signings at the store had their down sides as well, not because of the authors—who are, for the most part, interesting or at least well-mannered people—but because of the publishers, who all too frequently use and abuse mystery bookstores to suit their own purposes. But this was offset by the privilege of meeting wonderful writers like James Lee Burke, Ellis Peters, Ed McBain, and many others.
For years we had talked about reprinting the kinds of books we had sold in our early years as booksellers. For example, the Australian-born sisters, Constance and Gwenyth Little, had always had an almost fanatical cult following among certain of our customers, and most of their 21 titles, beginning with The Grey Mist Murders in 1939, were extraordinarily difficult to come by on the used-book market. It’s hard to describe their appeal, as the books aren’t a series but feature a succession of different heroines, who are mostly full of attitude (to the point of being, as one fan described them, just plain snotty) and who might today be described as gold-diggers, although in fact they will marry for love as long as they can avoid doing any housework. As silly as they are, the books are still elaborately plotted with dozens of clues and red herrings, and they often seem to be poking sly fun at pulp writers like Cornell Woolrich, employing themes like amnesia, mistaken identity, and other well-worn staples of noir melodrama, but always to comic effect. All of their books were published by the Doubleday Crime Club between 1939 and 1953, when the sisters evidently tired of writing and decided to take up world travel instead. Declining sales due to television may have played a part in their decision.
We finally began our current publishing venture in 1997, not with a Little title but a reissue of a 1978 time-travel book called The Mirror by our friend and fellow Boulderite Marlys Millhiser, another book with a cult following that, despite its timeless appeal, no New York publisher was willing to republish. Now in its seventh printing, it’s not only our only non-vintage, non-mystery title but by far our most popular book to date; just check the reader comments at Amazon to see how beloved it is. It was followed by the first of our mystery line, a 1942 book called Murder, Chop Chop by James Norman, set in 1938 China. Titles by Charlotte Murray Russell, the Little sisters, Juanita Sheridan, Clyde B. Clason, Craig Rice, Norbert Davis, Glyn Carr, Maureen Sarsfield, Joan Coggin, Joanna Cannan, Sheila Pim, Manning Coles, Elizabeth Dean, and Torrey Chanslor followed. The second Chanslor mystery, Our Second Murder (a curious hybrid of the very cozy and the private eye novel featuring the elderly Beagle sisters), brought us to our 50th title.
In 2000 we sold our store and organized the Denver Bouchercon—a year to remember. We continued to sell new mysteries at conventions, but otherwise limited our sales to second-hand books by mail, and we stepped up our publication schedule as much as possible. Our goal has always been to publish one title a month, and after a setback in early 2003 when we sold our house in Boulder, bought another on 13 acres in the mountains near the small town of Lyons (halfway between Boulder and Estes Park), and spent a month recovering from a bout of pneumonia, we’ve come close to doing just that. It’s become a full-time job, as we do all the pre-production work ourselves, from locating original editions of the books (which are often quite elusive), scanning, editing, proofreading, and correcting the copy, researching and writing the introductions, and working closely with our cover artist, Rob Pudim, as well as writing and mailing all promotional copy, fulfilling all orders, and warehousing the books in our newly acquired barn. The only thing we don’t do is print and bind the books.
In 2001 we were awarded the Raven by the Mystery Writers of America for our contributions as mystery booksellers and publishers to the world of mystery fiction. To put that in perspective, previous recipients included Bill Clinton and the Muppets. It’s an award that might have meant more if the MWA had delivered it to us in a timely fashion (it was nearly a year before we actually saw it) and if our last name had been spelled correctly on the statuette when we finally received it. The year before we were presented with a granddaughter, who’s a lot cuter and more fun to have around than the Raven (though we truly do appreciate the honor).
Although people often ask us to, we’ve never been interested in reprinting the big names of mystery fiction, figuring they’re available, at least periodically, from other sources. Probably the best-known author we’ve reprinted is Craig Rice, and that was Home Sweet Homicide, a 1944 semi-autobiographical mystery outside of her popular John J. Malone series, with a far more domestic ambience and with children as the protagonists, never a strong selling point. Although in some ways atypical of her work, it’s just as funny as the Malone books and has an innocent charm of its own that’s at odds with the author’s own unhappy and self-destructive life.
But for the most part we’ve stayed with what might be called the second rank of mystery writers from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. There’s Clyde B. Clason, whose locked-room mysteries are comparable to those of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson, if more leisurely and less flamboyant. He gave up writing after only ten books, after a short period of trying to support himself as a writer came to an end and he had to seek honest work. There’s Norbert Davis, who wrote three side-splitting private eye novels beginning with The Mouse in the Mountain (1943), all featuring a chubby detective called Doan and his gargantuan Great Dane sidekick, Carstairs. Davis’s work was too funny for the pulp magazines like Black Mask, he never quite cracked the more lucrative slicks, and he ended up gassing himself at the age of 40 with carbon monoxide from a garden hose in the garage of a borrowed house.
We also have discovered, or at least rediscovered, several British women writers from this period who had been virtually unknown in this country. One is Joan Coggin, author of four books (beginning with 1944’s Who Killed the Curate?) featuring the young, pretty, and scatterbrained wife of a vicar, Lady Lupin Hastings. Coggin was recommended to us by Katherine Hall Page (who also writes a series about a minister’s wife) and Bill Deeck (a longtime fan and scholar of the genre best known for his deadpan treatises on the prolific and gloriously dreadful English thriller writer James Corbett). Both kindly lent us copies of their books, a real service as they are almost unobtainable in either England or the U.S. in their original editions, and we have taken great pleasure in introducing modern readers to their quirky charms. Another is Maureen Sarsfield, author of two books featuring Inspector Lane Parry of Scotland Yard, Murder at Shots Hall and Murder at Beechlands, both retitled from their original editions from the 1940s and both splendid examples of the old-fashioned classic British mystery, one with a village setting and the other set at a private hotel shut off from the outside world by a blizzard.
The Irish writer Sheila Pim, whose four mysteries all involve gardening and are gently witty and keenly observant of Irish life, is also not well-known in this country despite favorable mention in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s 1971 readers’ guide, A Catalogue of Crime. We’ve reprinted all four, beginning with Commonor Garden Crime (now out of print), set in a Dublin suburb while Ireland sat out World War II, and concluding with 1952’s A Hive of Suspects, involving beekeeping and village life. Joanna Cannan is a somewhat more familiar name, but her first mystery featuring young Inspector Guy Northeast, They Rang Up the Police (1939) had never been published in the U.S. prior to our edition, and his second and final case, Death at the Dog (1940), set in an Oxfordshire pub during the early days of World War II, had been long out of print.
It’s obvious that we are partial to mysteries that have at least some leavening of humor, whether it’s touches of dry wit, as in Pim, Clason, Carr, Dean, or Cannan, screwball comedy, as in the Littles, Davis, and Rice, or generous helpings of outright farce, as in Coggin, Coles, Norman, or Russell. We’re also drawn to mysteries that feature strong women protagonists from a period in which they are wrongly thought by modern readers not to exist. An example is Emma Marsh, the pretty, big-footed Boston antiques dealer created by Elizabeth Dean, whose adventures began in 1939 with Murder Is a Collector’s Item (now out of print), and who carried a three-book series into World War II Colorado. Juanita Sheridan wrote four books, beginning in 1949 with The Chinese Chop and concluding in 1953 with The Waikiki Widow, all featuring Lily Wu, the first Chinese-American female detective in mystery fiction and her sidekick, the novelist Janice Cameron. Both women are feminine without being reliant on men to solve their cases, and the books also display a surprisingly sympathetic and enlightened view of Hawaii’s native culture.
Even the Little heroines and the improbable Beagle sisters, who inherited their New York detective agency from their deceased elder brother, could be considered strong female sleuths, as they take no guff from men and are quite capable of taking care of business with no male intervention whatsoever. And as unorthodox as kindhearted Lady Lupin’s thought processes are, they always lead her to the villain, as do the steamroller tactics employed by the almost cartoonish spinster-detective, Charlotte Murray Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards, ever fiercely protective of her ne’er-do-well brother Arthur.
We do have a policy of avoiding books which display overt racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia, even though there are some who say that such attitudes are merely an inevitable product of the era from which we draw our material. Modern readers are generally unaware that much of this sort of bigotry has been gradually excised from the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but we prefer to reprint books in which it was never present. We were greatly impressed, for example, with the remarkably enlightened view of the Japanese and other Asians that Theocritus Westborough displays in Clason’s The Man from Tibet (1938), at a time when fictional characters from other authors were wringing their hands over the Yellow Peril. We’ve already mentioned Juanita Sheridan’s treatment of multicultural Hawaii, and it’s not her fault that the people she respectfully referred to as Oriental now prefer to be called Asian. Then there are writers like Leslie Ford, whose ubiquitous and unconscious racism automatically eliminates her from our consideration, customer requests notwithstanding. And on a different note, we’ll never publish any short story collections (with the possible exception of some Victorian books), leaving those to the capable hands of Doug Greene at Crippen & Landru.
Finally, one of the most rewarding things about reviving some of these obscure titles has been learning more about their authors, often turning up fascinating information about their lives and careers. Click on to the author biographies on this site to get a sampling of what we’ve turned up.
—Tom and Enid Schantz