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.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™‚

June 2, 2008

Favourite GAD film?

Filed under: Films,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 9:14 pm
Tags:

It would interest me if other GADers would vote on their favorite mystery films, much as we recently did regarding members’ favorite “Father Brown” stories.

Let me start (if anyone’s interested in such a thread), by suggesting a film even older than “The Kennel Murder Case,” and that’s Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic, “M;” although I admit that it may not fit the criteria for a pure detective story. More recent films I enjoyed would be the 1974 version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Usual Suspects” (1995), and “Murder by Decree” (1979). In the category of guilty pleasures, I’d even include “Malice” (1993).

Moreover, just to open myself to ridicule, I’ll also suggest a completely off-the-wall selection: A 37-episode(20-30 minutes per episode) anime (Japanese animation) series, “Death Note.” The synopsis of this series is bizarre and unique: a Japanese student finds a mystical book that lets him write the name of a person in that book, and as soon as he does, that person dies. This power quickly goes to his head, and to battle this brilliant megalomaniac, Japanese law enforcement hires an equally brilliant but enigmatic detective known only as “L.” The series is comprised of the extraordinarily well-written cat-and-mouse game between these two individuals. I dare you to rent the first DVD of this series–which contains the first four episodes–and not be hooked. But don’t confuse it with live-version movie, which–although I haven’t seen it — can’t be nearly as intricate; which is the chief allure of this series. Unfortunately, only the first 5 discs have been released in English, so I have no idea how this series will end. The full series will be 10 discs, released one disc at a time. The last disk will be released in spring 2009.

In any event, none of these films are necessarily my favorites — no doubt they’ll occur to me as soon as I post this — but they’re some that I’ve definitely enjoyed. I look forward to other opinions, if anyone cares to share.

Hal

May 17, 2008

Van Dine’s Rules

Filed under: General GAD,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 7:59 am
Tags: , ,

Eighty years ago, S.S. Van Dine – a pseudonym for Willard Huntingon Wright and the author, most notably, of the Philo Vance detective novels – came up with a list of twenty rules for how detective fiction should and should not be written. I’d invoked these rules at one of my panels at the LA Times Festival of Books and figured it would be fun to revisit them. Obviously, all of them have been broken in the 80 years since – sometimes well, often not so well – but #15, I think, still matters the most:

The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent – provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit – and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

Of course, that’s if your primary motive is to keep the reader on his or her toes. Van Dine thought of detective fiction as an intellectual game; what’s transpired in the eight decades since is how said novels have become more about the emotional and the visceral. Or to spell it out more clearly, empathy in classical detective fiction was an afterthought; now it’s a crucial component. I think that’s rather a good thing.

http://www.sarahweinman.com/confessions/2008/05/those-rules-wer.html

Sarah.

The Rules are at: http://gadetection.pbwiki.com/Van+Dine’s+Twenty+Rules+for+Writing+Detective+Stories

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