Lillian de la Torre (1902 – 1993)

8578229-MLillian de la Torre Bueno McCue (née Bueno; pen name, Lillian de la Torre; 1902 – September 13, 1993) was an American novelist and a prolific writer of historical mysteries. She served as President of the Mystery Writers of America. Born in Manhattan in 1902, de la Torre received master’s degrees from Columbia University and Harvard. Her first novel was Elizabeth Is Missing, or Truth Triumphant, published by Knopf in 1945. Her most popular works were the Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector series of 33 detective stories that cast 18th century literary figures Samuel Johnson and James Boswell into Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson roles. This series, which de la Torre began in 1943 with The Great Seal of England, is one of the earliest examples of the historical mystery, a literary genre which combines historical fiction and the whodunit/detective story. She also wrote numerous books, short stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, reviews for The New York Times Book Review, poetry and plays. Her play Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden was adapted as the episode “The Older Sister” for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She was a President of the Mystery Writers of America, and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime for The Truth about Belle Gunness (1955). She died in 1993 at the age of 91. She was predeceased by her husband George McCue. (Source: Wikipedia)

As a child, Lillian de la Torre Bueno McCue became fascinated with detective stories shelved in her father’s library and later could hardly recall a time when she was not “addicted.” She did not, however, begin writing until her middle years, when she began to speculate about how Samuel Johnson might have approached mysteries of his era. Describing herself as a histo-detector, McCue used scholarly research to delve into old crimes and scandals, especially those in 18th-century Britain, and arrive at her own modern solutions. In related work, she also took real people and events and wove them into fictionalized plots. Her first book Elizabeth Is Missing or Truth Triumphant dismissed 12 theories on the famous 1753 disappearance of Elizabeth Canning , a maidservant near the Tower of London, and offered the author’s own. McCue had combined, said The New York Time s’ reviewer, “the scholarly patience of a candidate for a Ph.D.” with the “ingenuity of a Nero Wolfe.” She followed with a similar book, Villainy Detected (1947). But her most popular fiction comprised a series of short stories about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell under the title Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector. A founding member of the Colorado Springs Chorale and a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, McCue wrote for nearly 50 years and was working on a manuscript at the time of her death. (Source:

More information may be found in her obituary in the New York Times. A bibliography of works may be found at Fantastic Fiction web site.

The first author to write a detective series about a historical personage was probably Lillian de la Torre, who cast Dr. Samuel Johnson in the Sherlock Holmes role, with James Boswell as his Watson, for a 1943 short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. First collected in book form in Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector (1946), the series would eventually fill four volumes:
Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector
The Detections of Dr. Sam: Johnson
The Return of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector
(1985) and
The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector

Lillian de la Torre’s short stories about Dr. Sam Johnson are the ancestors of much of today’s historical mystery fiction. Real life personages and events are often woven into these stories, and there is a great deal of historical atmosphere and dialogue. Unusual aspects of 18th Century law enforcement are often worked into the tales. The cleverest puzzle plot in the series is “The Stroke of Thirteen” (1953). This tale has affinities to the impossible crime school. It does not deal with a locked room or other physical impossibility; instead it deals with events which seem to be absurd, and gives them an ultimately logical explanation. The elaborate complexity of the plot in this tale recalls Ellery Queen, who published de la Torre’s stories in EQMM. (Mike Grost on Lillian de la Torre).

Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector is on Haycraft Queen Cornerstones Definitive Library of Mystery Fiction.

22447Nine mystery tales starring lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson in “the finest series of historical detective stories ever written” (Ellery Queen)
For over two hundred years, devotees of English literature have lost themselves in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a biography of the great eighteenth-century thinker and writer, chronicling everything from kitchen chemistry experiments to tackling a pickpocket to his legendary investigation of the Cock Lane ghost. But Dr. Sam Johnson was more than a great thinker—he was also a talented sleuth.
From the chilling affair of the waxwork cadaver to the thrilling search for the stolen seal of England, the nine cases in this volume show Johnson at his very best—using his legendary intellect to apprehend the worst killers and thieves the era had to offer.
Written by Lillian de la Torre, a mystery author with “a finely tuned ear for eighteenth-century prose,” these charming stories are so believable, so perfectly in keeping with the Dr. Johnson we know and love, it’s hard to believe they aren’t true (The New York Times). (Source: Mysterious Press)

The whole first collection, Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector, is especially charming as a historical work. The tales’ events are often colorful, and de la Torre is a superb prose stylist with a grasp of the possibilities of 18th Century English usage. In some ways, it might be best just to recommend the whole collection. Still the tales are very different from each other, and vary in their success as mystery and historical works. (Mike Grost)

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946. First edition. (Source: John W. Knott, Jr. Bookseller)