Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

April 7, 2011

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Filed under: Uncategorized — Jon @ 4:01 am

August 21, 2009

The Van Dine Decline and Fall Narrative

Filed under: literary qualities,modern trends,Snobbery,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 2:10 am

I know this idea is pushed by Van Dine’s own biographer (who, granted, seems to
have loathed Van Dine and had little interest in the mystery form), but is it
really accurate to see his later books increasingly as artisitc and financial
failures? Is there any actual hard data on the sales of Van Dine’s detective
novels? I know that Canary, Greene and Bishop were actual bestsellers in the
1920s, a rare thing for detective novels in those days (their being mostly
borrowed from rental libraries). But I get the impression that many of his
later books were selling pretty well and were quite respectfully reviewed. It’s
clear he wasn’t the toast of the intelligentsia in 1935 like he was in, say,
1929, and that he had vocal detractors but I think he was seen still by many as
a major figure in the genre. Does it break down rather like this?

Benson Murder Case, 1926 (introduction to Philo Vance catches people’s eyes,
though relatively spartan compared to the following books; still, Vance is as
Vaneish as can be)
Canary Murder Case, 1927 (broadens appeal, poker game considered brilliant
Greene and Bishop, 1928/1929 (height of Golden Age Baroque (GAB), with bizarre
situations, elaborate footnote lecturettes and multiple murders)
Scarab, 1930 (continuation of GAB in Egytptology setting, though Van Dine has
crested in popularity)
Kennel, 1933 (three year gap, Van Dine driven by lavish lifestyle to writing
again? not quite as baroque though lots about terriers and ceramics; best of
Vance films made from this one, Vance films still getting top people)
Dragon, 1933(return to full GAB style, though with a less elaborate plot)
Casino/Garden 1934/1935 (a break here, Vance a bit less Vanceish and much less
baroque settings, though still emphasis on odd, wealthy families; but still
quite solid plotting)
Kidnap, 1936 (same as above, though intrusion of action and violence suggests to
his biographer that Van Dine is aesthetic ceding ground to the hardboiled
Gracie Allen/Winter, 1938/1939 (the film scenario novels, more of a sharp break,
with Vance second banana to a comedienne and a Scandinavian ice skater;
suggestion Van Dine running out of creative steam?)

I’m rereading Casino and actually finding quite enjoyable. Shorn of the more
elaborate footnotes and lecturettes of the earlier books, as well as Vance’s
more kick-in-the-panceish mannerisms, it’s actually rather like a English
Humdrum work, which is a complement form me!

I don’t think it’s fair to say Van Dine was a “goat” in 1934-35 though, do you?
I’d rank the real running out of steam period from 1936-38 (certainly death
would qualify).


June 5, 2009

In praise of pseudo-intellectualism

Filed under: Ellery Queen,Snobbery,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 4:44 am

There has been a lot of lose talk about Van Dine being pretentious. But after starting the “Bishop Murder Case”, I find him pretentious in a nice way. Let me explain.

“The distinctive quality of a detective story, in which it differs from all other types of fiction, is that the satisfaction that it offers to the reader is primarily an intellectual satisfaction.” – Freeman.

Van Dine enthusiasms are the enthusiasms of the pseudo-intellect. Like you and me.  🙂  The detailed map to show exactly where the action takes place and the relative locations of people and places of interests.  The endless foot notes. You HAVE to love it when Vance refers to being coached by Edward Lasker and has a footnote like this*. References to zugzwang in chess! Planck’s quantum theory! Passages like

“… discussing an astronomical expedition to South America.”

“The expedition of the Royal Astronomical Society to Sobral to test the Einsteinian deflection,” amplified Drukker.

What is there not to love? Some authors (Robert Howard cough cough) might fantasize about running around half naked cutting their enemies down to size while scantily clad big-breasted virgins cling on to them.

Others like Marlowe might fantasize about being a knight in shining armour in a cold and cruel world. Van Dine instead fantasizes about living in a world where there are independently rich intellectuals free to pursue their enthusiasms for chess, physics et al. This is somewhat reminiscent of  Dorothy Sayers with her literary allusions. Obviously she WAS enthusiastic, but in this (too?) scientific age, her enthusiasms are liable to strike one cold. Cold as in who the **** in his/her right mind could care to know such useless classical Greek/Latin stuff?  🙂

Van Dine, instead is at heart modern. His intellectual aspirations are modern aspirations. Unlike Sayers, he is not looking back with nostalgia at the literary giants of the past. Instead he is yearning to see further by standing on the shoulders of scientific giants. So what if he was not clever enough to do say? He gave voice to that yearning. And in a field that is totally comfortable with the idea of talking-cat cosy mysteries, he has the right to be called the founder of the pseudo-intellect’s cosy.

* The American chess master–sometimes confused with Doctor Emanuel Lasker, the former world champion. The footnote really works for pseudo-intellect wonks like me because I did learn quite a bit of my chess from Edward’s excellent books and I did confuse him with the world champ.  🙂

Thoughts on Dashiell Hammett

Filed under: Dashiell Hammett — Jon @ 4:38 am

I’m finishing reading a collection of short stories by Dashiell Hammett and I’d like to share some thoughts.

“Dash” was no fan of Van Dine, as evidenced by his scathing review of The Benson Murder Case. Still, his sparse prose and behaviorist approach fulfill Van Dine’s commandments regarding characterization, atmosphere and description in a way no attempt by a Golden Ager (including Van Dine himself) ever achieved – and yet manage to be extremely evocative and insightful.

Hammett’s refusal of getting inside his character’s heads eliminates one of the genre’s most enduring problems, that is, how can you build a character, offer him a background and give the reader a glimpse into his thoughts while at the same time keeping his/her guilt secret? P.D. James’ latest work is a good illustration of the contradictions to which attempts at having it both ways (in-depth psychological study and mystery plot) lead. Hammett’s approach works much better as it casts us as bystanders knowing nothing for certain of the characters but what they’re willing to show and tell.

Both of the reasons stated above make me wonder whether Hammett’s approach might not be used to great advantage in traditional mysteries.

Finally, I’m not hardboiled scholar and so I am open to correction, but it seems to me Hammett didn’t make much of a splash in the mystery field until the Queens “rehabilitated” him in the Forties. I mean, he was popular with hardboiled folks, but doesn’t seem to have elicited much reaction in other circles – JDC for instance was much more “interested” in Chandler, and regarded him as a bigger threat to traditional mystery writing, than Hammett. This might explain why Chandler was ultimately more influent, coming to set the template for later hardboiled fiction, while Hammett’s discoveries never enjoyed a crossover.



January 28, 2009

Sayers’ Gaudy Night — and Chandler

On the Poe’s Deadly Daughters weblog, Elizabeth Zelvin
selects her favorite mystery authors — and there’s not a
man among them:

“My feminist dander is up, and I’m ready to charge to the
defense of the traditional and especially the character-driven
mystery, as well as the matrilineage of mysteries by women.”

Dorothy L. Sayers,
Gaudy Night
The presiding genius of the Detective Club during the Golden Age of mystery in the 1930s, Sayers reached her peak in this mystery without a murder that is also a richly textured novel, which I believe earned her the right to be considered the mother of the character-driven mystery. I’ve posted this opinion elsewhere, but it bears saying again. The key passage is one in which Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey for advice about her novel.

“‘Well,’ said Harriet….”I admit that Wilfrid is the world’s worst goop. But if he doesn’t conceal the handkerchief, where’s my plot?’
[Peter suggests a way to define Wilfrid’s character that would give him motivation for concealing the handkerchief.] ….’He’d still be a goop, and a pathological goop, but he would be a bit more consistent.’
‘Yes–he’d be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.’
‘You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.’
….’It would hurt like hell.’
‘What would that matter, if it made a good book?'”

I suspect that Sayers and her muse had precisely this conversation in her head, and Gaudy Night was the result. The creation of Harriet and Sayers’s increasingly three-dimensional portrayal of her both in relation to Lord Peter and grappling with her own dilemmas regarding her work and what kind of life to choose ushered in the transition of the traditional mystery from primarily a puzzle to a puzzle embedded in a character-driven novel.”

Mike Tooney

November 23, 2008

Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” – is it fair play?

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play — Jon @ 2:07 am

I’ve recently reread Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” (aka “Thirteen at Dinner”) and was again troubled by the question of whether one of the key moments of misdirection is fair.

Hastings has narrated a scene between Poirot and Jane Wilkinson which concludes as follows. [Jane Wilkinson is speaking.]

“‘I shall always think you were wonderful.’

“I only saw Jane Wilkinson twice again. Once on the stage, once when I sat opposite her at a luncheon party. I always think of her as I saw her then, absorbed heart and soul in clothes . . . ” etc.

The tone of this passage is brilliantly designed to be valedictory. By ending with a line of dialogue that sounds like an envoi, and then recounting how he only sat opposite her once at “a luncheon,” Hastings is giving the impression that Jane Wilkinson will vanish from our story. But of course she doesn’t — she’s the culprit.

Brilliant, yes — but fair? I can’t decide. As Hastings somewhat sheepishly declares at the novel’s end, he was “suddenly recalled to the Argentine” and thus never saw Jane Wilkinson at her trial. Hmm! And while it’s true that he literally “sat opposite her at a luncheon party,” this does not happen in some unspecified future but is instead a crucial moment in our story, as JW provides an essential clue in a line of dialogue which Hastings overhears — as does another character who JW then murders. (Of course, a sharp reader, arriving at this moment, might realize that this has to be the luncheon to which Hastings earlier referred, and conceivably question the valedictory tone of the rest of Hastings’ statement.)

Now if Hastings were Dr. Sheppard, doing his best to mislead, that would be one thing. But if ever there was a reliable (if dense) narrator, it is Hastings. Can we really credit him with the cleverness to fool us like this? Or are we to believe that he’s so dense that he doesn’t realize the effect of his words? No, that’s surely impossible, since he’s at any rate smart enough to write up Poirot’s cases so they read like mysteries, with the important facts concealed, etc. He would have to know what he was doing, in writing that dubious passage. In short, the problem is that Christie decides to endow Hastings with her own brilliance here, just for a moment. She lets him make an observation that exceeds his function as a narrator. It has no narrative weight whatsoever — it’s strictly personal, so to speak. Its only purpose is misdirection, something I can’t recall Hastings ever doing elsewhere.

So, fair or not? As I said, I’m honestly not sure. Has anyone else ever had doubts about Christie’s legerdemain here?


October 5, 2008

‘Deregulation’ of detective stories

Filed under: General GAD,modern trends — Jon @ 8:20 pm

As world credit markets teeter on the abyss, the financial press is full of exposes about how business institutions were deregulated in the 00’s.

We have our own experiences with the deregulation of mystery fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s. How did this turn out? Time for a look back.

Golden Age mystery fiction was written based on Rules. These Rules were ridiculed and junked by the English language publishing industry around 1960, and the Golden Age came to an end.

Rules first emerged in the 1890’s. Israel Zangwill’s locked room masterpiece “The Big Bow Mystery” first appeared serialized in 1891. In his the introduction to the 1895 book version, Zangwill seems to be the first person to set forth the idea of “fair play”: the rule that everything in the solution must be logically based on clues that have been set forth to the reader. Zangwill did not use the words “fair play”: but the concept is fully there. Zangwill’s book, as Mary Reed highlighted in her recent review, also contains a compendium of locked room concepts. By the 1920’s, such theoreticians as S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox set forth explicit sets of Rules for writing detective fiction. In 1928, Van Dine wrote the pioneering survey of mystery fiction history, on which all later ones are based. And in 1935, John Dickson Carr’s Locked Room Lecture in “The Three Coffins” systematized the study of impossible crime fiction. Mystery fiction flourished under the Rules. The Rules gave a common language, for readers, writers and critics to understand and evaluate mystery fiction. Critics like Dorothy L. Sayers used the same criteria to evaluate a mystery as your aunt in Glasgow or your brother-in-law in Peoria. Much of Great Britain was able to have a National Conversation about Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1926 based on the Rules.

However, the English language book publishing industry junked the Rules after 1945. There is evidence that the publishing industry itself was in charge of this. Writers who followed the Rules and who were not best sellers, such as Hake Talbot, C. Daly King, Milton M. Propper and Joseph Commings, found themselves unable to publish novels. The most outspoken opponent of the Rules, Joan Kahn, was a leading editor in the US publishing industry. This was not something that came from writers or the public. This came from the publishing industry itself.

How good are English language mystery novels published after 1960? IMHO we have seen a huge decline in quality. It is a major cultural collapse. Deregulation – which means getting rid of rules – was supposed to lead to an outpouring of literary creativity. Instead, we have a mountain of junk.

Deregulation has been especially cruel to authors – above all, to new writers of detective fiction. Rules used to form objective criteria for measuring a mystery’s quality. They applied with equal fairness to little known and famous authors. Since deregulation, there is no longer any objective way to tell a book’s quality. Whether an author is famous or a best-seller is the only way to judge an author. Publicity and marketing campaigns rule. This is horrendous for new writers who try to produce a quality product. Paul Halter produces quality books – according to the Rules. But in the new system, he is simply a writer without publicity, and hence, human garbage. Editors, readers, reviewers: all turn a blind eye to his achievements under the Rules. Under our Rule-less publishing system, these achievements simply do not exist: at least Officially. You can’t talk about them. It is not allowed. What we have is an official system that depends on lying on a huge scale. People pretending that something that is real and valuable, simply is Not There.

Mike Grost

September 28, 2008

Dying clues

Filed under: Ellery Queen — Jon @ 2:32 am

One difficulty I have in liking a lot of Queen stories has absolutely nothing to do with stylistics or characterization (the usual complaints regarding this author). My problem is that I just don’t find the concept of a dying message motivationally believably, except in very rare cases. For in truth (as history has shown), people will continue in a vain, unrealistic attempt to stay alive long after they have any real chance of surviving . They will usually expend every last breath in this hopeless effort, even if clear-headed reason would tell them they haven’t a chance. Sure, if they were really certain that they had no chance to survive, then they might move on to their second highest desire: to have their death avenged. But if there is even a glimmer of hope (or, if they can even *imagine* a glimmer of hope), they will cling to that glimmer (for, after all, if they do survive, they can probably achieve *both* of their aims).

In the Tragedy of X, Queen goes to impressive lengths to impress upon the reader the motivational believability of someone leaving a dying clue, and through these efforts does a fair job of convincing us. But in subsequent Queen works, it is just taken as a given: people who have been fatally injured will spend their last moments trying to identify their killer. It just doesn’t work for me, and it usually too central to the plot to be overlooked as a flaw.

Often derided as it is, The Da Vinci Code is one of the few books that have ever satisfactorily justified (for me) the dying clue. This is primarily because the reason for leaving the clue in that case is not to identify the killer, but rather to carry on an import secret.

This all said, I just included a dying clue (with four different interpretations) in my recent musical whodunit “Murder on the High C’s.” But my story was a farcical endeavor in a cartoon-like musical comedy world (my victims were given false directions that lead them to unwittingly jump overboard, and were electrocuted en masse in musical kicklines, etc…), and I do believe that makes an important difference.

– Scott

September 3, 2008

Fairness and narration

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play,John Dickson Carr — Jon @ 9:12 pm

I’m probably going to be under fire for this, but I don’t think Seeing is Believing is unfair. An “established fact” is not necessarily a true one.. Natural science is a field of knowledge in which this is evident: the established facts of yesterday are today known (or supposed!) to be false. The same can be said of History. In more prosaic terms, even a fact proven in court may, after all, turn out to be false.

In Seeing is Believing, it is not the narrator that establishes the fact. The narrator merely states that the fact was established. Carr would have been unfair if, for instance, any of the evidence the narrator explicitly states as reliable in paragraphs 3-5 of Chapter I of The Hollow Man would in the end turn out to be false.

I agree this is a borderline case. But I believe it is pure, legitimate misdirection. A puzzle plot mystery is a battle of wits between author and reader in which the reader must be prepared for misdirection from the narrator; a novel is made of words, and words, being subject to multiple (and wrong) interpretations, are therefore a legitimate means of misdirection.

This doesn’t mean I hold Carr as a fair-play saint. In The Man Who Could Not Shudder, one of the characters tells a lie that is so unmotivated the reader has no chance of perceiving it as a lie. In And So To Murder, H.M. explicitly clears the killer – this could have been fair-play if the reader had any element to detect that H.M could be lying, which is not the case. There are also other minor instances. But I stick to Seeing is Believing.

Scott writes: «However, though Carr admitted to approving of and admiring brilliant violations of his Golden Maxim, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in fact *never did* violate his maxim that: “The criminal shall never turn out to be […] any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.”

I admit I’m confused by this. By definition, the reader is always allowed to share the thougths of a homodiegetic narrator (that is, one who is a character in the story), as the narration necessarily pressuposes the subjective perceptions (= thoughts) of the narrator. Therefore, Carr’s maxim directly invalidates the homodiegetic narrator as criminal. But it does more: it also invalidates the solution in which the culprit turns out to be a character whose thoughts have been revealed by an omniscient narrator, or by a heterodiegetic internal character focaliser (that is, a character that works as focus of perception, a device frequently used by Carr). For instance, in Brand’s Heads you Lose, which I’ve recently read, the reader is allowed to share the thoughts (and dreams) of the killer about his crimes without mentioning the fact that it wasactually he whodunnit. by Carr’s rule (and also by my standard), this is totally unfair. In the end, Brand explains that the criminal was insane and, when thinking about the crimes, he wasnt’t aware he had comitted them – this would provide an explanation for the fact that the omniscient narrator “forgot” to mention that slight detail. But it still is unfair because the reader is not supplied with evidence to point that the murderer might be mad (and, to make things worse, the supposed mental illness provided by Brand is total rubbish). In Carr’s The Emperor Snuff Box, a trick of similar scope is also played, but fairly and brilliantly: we see the facts trough the eyes of Eve Neill (the internal focalizer) and are therefore lead to believe her perception of them, which ends up being false (as a matter of fact this is so fair that I’ve spotted it).

Sayers article is interesting, but she confuses author and narrator. Only the narrator can vouchsafe anything in a narrtive, not the author. Therefore, it seems we must distinguish between:

a) Position of the narrator in relation to the narrative: homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrator. A heterodiegetic narrator must always tell the truth. But he/she is not obliged to tell anything, or to tell everything in the easiest way possible for the reader. If so, there would be no puzzle-plot mystery stories. This is why I believe Seeing is believing is fair. A Portuguese idiom goes: “Com a verdade me enganas” — it’s difficult to translate but Spanish-language readers will surely understand it; the point is that “Truthfulness may deceive”. This is indeed at the core of classic detective fiction; sometimes, as in Seeing is Believing, it may be stretched, but this is only a quantitative deviation, not a qualitative one, from the standard narrative devices used in all puzzle-plot detective fiction. A homodiegetic narrator may or may not tell the truth: I agree with Sayers on this, which I believe is contrary to the Carr Maxim. An extreme, doubtful case would be that of the narrator-detective-criminal.

b) Point of view: omniscient narrator and internal character focaliser. Here I am refering to heterodiegetic narrators (in fact, except in experimental literature, omniscients narrators are by definition heterodiegetic narrators). Following Carr, omniscient narrators shall not probe into the thoughts of the culprit. This is because, since the omniscient narrator is supposed to simultaneously know everything and tell the truth, there would be no excuse for not revealing who commited the crime before the time that is considered proper to the narrative. In order not to incurr in a narrative assymetry (the narrator probes the thoughts of some, but not of all characters) and in order not to disclose the culprit’s identity to the intelligent reader (the culprit must be one of the characters whose thoughts have not been probed into), from this seems to follow that, ideally, an omniscient narrator should not probe into the inner thoughts of any character. This is extremely difficult to do, technically speaking. I believe this is why Carr’s earlier books mostly use internal character focalisers; his later books may be weaker in many aspects but as soon as he managed to work well with an omniscient narrator within the framework of his own maxims he practically abandoned the internal character focalisers tecnique. I also believe this is why reading some modern authors that try to keep within the framework of the puzzle story while having concerns of “psychological density”, like PD James, is so uncomfortable for readers used to GAD standards. As to internal character focalisers, and still according to Carr, since their thoughts are by definition probed into by the narrator, they shall not be the culprits. I agree with Carr on all of this. In fact, I believe standards of narratorial fair-play must be more demanding in the case of a heterodiegetic narrator, because in this case the narrative is supposed to have a higher degree of objectivity, than in the case of an homodiegetic narrator.. Dr. Sheppard may be permitted to lie or omit not no reveal his guilt, but an objective narratorial instance has no such excuse.

Henrique Valle

July 27, 2008

Why are women [crime] writers ignored? Or are they?

“Natasha Cooper says the genre has a serious gender problem”


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