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
device)
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
school)
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).

Curt

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.

http://gadetection.pbworks.com/The+Art+of+the+Detective+Story

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.  🙂

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:

http://tinyurl.com/bdp5ke

“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

May 23, 2008

Snobbery with Violence

Filed under: Michael Innes,Snobbery — Jon @ 5:40 am
Tags:

I’ve been rereading some Michael Innes published in the ’60s and came upon this gem:

{“You know the Chief Constable? He’s — ?” Pendleton paused significantly.

“He’s a Colonel Morrison.” Appleby was conscious of a need for patience. “And not late-risen from the people, or anything disagreeable of that sort.”

“My dear John, if there’s anything I can’t be charged with, it’s being a snob. But there are times when one doesn’t want too many jumped-up fellows running around.”

Appleby found no reply to this — or no reply of any particular relevance. “I began on the beat myself, you know,” he said.}

In spite of which neat skewering, Innes himself has some very firm ideas about what’s proper behaviour for a gentleman.

I’ve also been reading some other ’60s published mysteries. I notice a considerable gulf between those written by authors who were first published in the GA and those by post-WWII authors. Few, if any, of the latter would have thought of penning this passage.

Carola

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