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™‚

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

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