Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

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.ย  ๐Ÿ™‚ย  The detailed map to show exactly where the action takes place and the relative locations of people and places of interests.ย  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 ofย  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?ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

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.ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

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.



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