Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

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).


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

July 27, 2008

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

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


June 25, 2008

Does Size Matter?

Curt asked: “Why are crime novels so long these days?”

Because most of them are throwbacks to the nineteenth and early twentieth style of wide-ranging psychological/realistic novels, and those were usually and almost by definition long, very long books. It’s one of the most fascinating paradoxes about *modern* crime fiction that it’s actually not *modernistic* – the genre has eschewed surrealism, structuralism, Nouveau Roman, stream of consciousness, magical realism, oulipianism and other movements that shaped literature in the last century, and basically remained stuck in the era when it was born. Which in turn raises another question: is it possible for crime fiction to be genuinely modern and accept, if not embrace, the state of the art?


May 22, 2008

Declining puzzles and rising characterization

Filed under: modern trends,Simon Brett — Jon @ 3:54 am
Tags: , ,

I was surprised that Simon Brett’s brief article produced such passionate responses, including even a sideways (or is sidewise?) swipe at the Detection Club for electing him its President. It seems to me that, except perhaps for the tone, that Simon’s article was non-controversial. Like it or not, the pure puzzle novel, the unadulterated Whodunit, that dominated between WWI and WWII is no longer the major form. I also think it is obvious that characterization has become of greater importance than it was 80 years ago. Indeed, I would argue that the greater depth of character has saved the Whodunit — and it has made Julian Symon’s prophecy completely wrong that the detective novel would give way to the crime novel. The detective novel is still very much with us; the puzzle is still a major part of the genre; but characterization has become just as important as trickiness in the telling.

Look at the current Members of the Detection Club — some of course (eg, le Carre) write spy stories, but most still retain the puzzle and mystery and genuine detection. And the Members remain the most proficient practitioners of the genre. One of the greatest honors a British (or Colonial) mystery writer can receive is to be chosen a Member. Except for a couple of crime thrillers, Simon Brett himself has remained loyal to the Whodunit in his own books.

I argue in JOHN DICKSON CARR: THE MAN WHO EXPLAINED MIRACLES that the effect of WWI for English writers was the emphasis on the puzzle and its solution, the proclamation that (all evidence to the contrary) the world still was orderly, still made sense. The 1920’s was (were?) also the era of the crossword puzzle, of board games, of contract bridge and canasta, of the Murder Game — and the chess puzzle detective story.

But WW2 had a different effect — (unlike WWI with minor exceptions) England was directly bombed by the Germans — and the immediate postwar era was grim, with rationing and shortages. Doing a crossword puzzle no longer made the world seem rational. And even the metaphysical world seemed to collapse — churchgoing declined radically. The Whodunit in England survived because it recognized those changes.

I say all this even though I love the GAD formalism.

And now I have probably (re-)opened a can of worms.

Doug G

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