A Paperback Writer

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Carolyn Wells, of Rahway, New Jersey, wrote 170 popular books over the course of a forty-year career that started with her first book in 1896, At the Sign of the Sphinx. She specialized in children’s literature and generally humor books, but also detective stories. Roughly seventy of her books could be considered mysteries. She even wrote a guide on how to understand and craft these stories, The Technique of the Mystery Story. Perhaps because of her work on this book, Wells wrote a letter to Woodrow Wilson sometime in 1912. Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what she said. Still the governor of her state, Wilson replied in October, just as he was coming to the end of his first run for the presidency.

My dear Miss Wells:  [Trenton, N. J., c. Oct. 24, 1912]

I wish I could send you something that was worthwhile in response to your interesting letter of yesterday. The fact is that I am a somewhat indiscriminate reader of detective stories and would be at a loss to pick out my favorites. My real criticism of many of them, even including Anna Katharine Green’s, is that the mechanism of the whole thing too much subordinates the characters, and the characters are apt to be mere dummies with a very conventionalized way of talking and very little human nature except such as sets the plot forward. On the whole I have got the most authentic thrills out of Anna Katharine Green’s books and Gaboriau’s.

By the time her book on technique was published in 1913, Wilson had won the presidency. She included a quote from his letter along with mentions of some of the famous people who enjoyed mysteries. So, perhaps her initial question to Wilson had just been sort of a survey of famous readers. We do not know whether they had ever spoken before.

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Quite a few scholars have mentioned President Wilson’s love of mystery novels. Little evidence has been found to determine which authors he preferred, however. Not one of the authors he mentions, nor Wells, appears on the list of books shipped from his S Street house to the Library of Congress after he died. The list of books moved out of the White House in 1921 does not have them either, though there is The Haunted Bookshop published in 1919 and probably read while President Wilson was recovering from his stroke. Perhaps such books were considered unworthy of the library shelf. For instance, the Arthur Conan Doyle books in Wilson’s library contain no mysteries. More likely would be that Wilson read his detective stories like most people, in pulp magazines that were simply discarded.