Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.


C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)

The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.





Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)



10 crime fiction cliches I can live without

I read a lot of crime fiction — and in the past I have read more crime fiction than any dozen people of your acquaintance, unless your acquaintance includes people who read incredibly fast, are moderately obsessive about doing so, and have arranged their lives so as to yield a constant inflow of books. Noah’s Archives is what most people would call “the guest bedroom”, for instance; guests for me would be impossible, since it’s stacked pretty much floor-to-ceiling with boxes of books.

In my youth, it used to be that I could plough through just about anything for the sake of being able to say that I’d read it, and there were only a very, very few books that annoyed me sufficiently to make me shut them down and move on to the next volume in my teetering chest-high stack of “to be read”.  But I am older now, there are more calls on my time, and my disposition has transited from generally sunny to generally surly 😉  And in the intervening years, I’ve developed mechanisms for avoiding books that I have learned from experience will neither amuse nor instruct me.

This started by my realizing that there was no point in my even starting a book that had a swastika on the cover; neither World War II stories nor thrillers where some Nazi plot rooted in WWII is coming to fruition in the present day is likely to hold my attention, since I just don’t find those stories very interesting.  I expanded this to include any story which had the word “Templar” in the title, or on the cover. “Intrepid archaeologist fights against an organization of Knights Templar determined to keep their secrets while they strive towards world domination” is a story that might have interested me the first time, but the 50th or 100th time left me cold.

Over the years, I’ve found that there are certain story elements — let’s call them cliches — that authors are fond of including in their stories that annoy me, for various reasons, but which are not helpfully signalled by a swastika on the cover. I don’t expect writers to stop using most of these any time soon, but there’s a small chance that I might prevent one or two from moving forward down the path of least resistance.  In the meantime, I may be able to help you identify these cliches in books that you might consider reading, and perhaps I’ll save you the time and trouble of ploughing through them … you may even realize that you actually like this sort of story and gravitate towards it.  (Apparently there are myriads of middle-aged men who like nothing more than a 900-page paperback with a swastika on the cover, written by someone pretending to be Robert Ludlum.  All I’m saying is, I’m not one of those guys.)

1. The detective’s close friend is sociopathic and violent

I first noticed this in the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker; it seemed obvious that Hawk was in the stories to do things that were violent and intimidating, which allowed Spenser to keep his hands clean. Spenser could stand by while Hawk broke someone’s bones in pursuit of information, then take that information and use it to solve his case. You’ll notice that Hawk doesn’t seem to actually solve any problems or answer any questions; he’s the heavy. There’s also a character like this in some Harlan Coben novels; a wealthy sociopath who enjoys it when the detective asks him to do something violent. (I got so bored with Harlan Coben’s stories that I got rid of all my copies of his novels, so I can’t check the name or details.) This is kind of like having Dexter on speed-dial. I really think this is cheating the reader. The author needs things to happen to move the the plot forward; has figured out that those things won’t logically happen without violence being done; but can’t bring himself to make his precious detective do those violent and inappropriate things because he thinks, probably correctly, that the reader will think the worse of the detective. So he invents a character who is there to do the violence that the protagonist cannot. That’s cheap.

2. “My BFF Velma” syndrome.

The detective has a best friend who is unattractive, or somehow challenged, or bitchy and gay, who is willing to endlessly listen to the theories of the detective, ask stupid questions, run errands, and make phone calls at pre-arranged times, but who never actually contributes anything original to the plot. The BFF is pretty much there to keep the detective from having to do chapters in internal monologue. That’s not a friend, that’s a spear-carrier. When the author couples this with a BFF who is from a background such that the detective gets to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance of different racial origins, or sexual preferences, or ability levels — that’s just tacky, tacky, tacky.

3. The amateur detective as wish-fulfilment fantasy

When I read about an amateur detective who has a lovely house, three well-behaved kids, a husband who cares about her feelings and initiates sex three times a week; a career that doesn’t seem to require her to actually do anything to maintain it (she can stay away from the office for weeks at a time); a slender figure and a large clothing budget; the ability to invite 6 people over for dinner at a moment’s notice and produce a gourmet meal; attracts admiring male glances whenever she goes anywhere; has great landscaping, pets, vehicles, handyperson skills, credit, exercise habits, etc., etc. — I don’t see a detective.  What I see is an author who is trying to live out a fantasy life. This has a long history; Dorothy L. Sayers is quoted as saying something like, “Whenever I am short of cash, Lord Peter gets a new piano.” It’s an indication to me that the books are worthless, because if the detective is required to demonstrate some skill, ability, or knowledge, she automatically has it instead of having to go to the effort of acquiring it. And most of the events of the books are more for the author’s pleasure than the reader’s.

4. Characters in historic times exhibit societal attitudes and mores that reflect more modern values.

99% of women in Victorian England did not treat their female servants as equals, agitate for the right to vote, argue with their husbands, have extra-marital affairs at the drop of a hat, pursue careers reserved to men, and prove themselves capable of unarmed combat or marksmanship. Similarly, ancient Romans did not consult their slaves’ opinions nor refrain from whipping them for reasons connected with conscience, people of colour in 1930s southern US states did not converse as equals with white people, and mediaeval monks did not regard non-Christian religions as potentially equivalent. Most of these are laudable and even highly desirable social tropes, and we are lucky to have achieved a higher degree of enlightenment and equality than our historic predecessors. But putting modern values into the mouths and lives of people in historic times does not, as some authors fondly think, mean that we’re all the same and always have been. What it means is that you have failed to understand historical context and are lying to your readers. I accept that, say, Florence Nightingale was at the cutting edge of social change. What I do not accept is that there were hundreds of Victorian Englishwomen who felt the same way and who solved mysteries while maintaining a lifestyle so onerous that they had to make their own soap.

5. The detective relies upon extra-sensory perception, witchcraft, telepathy, pseudo-science, and, to quote the oath of the Detection Club, “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.  

Or, rather, they may do so in books that do not qualify as mysteries. But if you have a detective who tries to solve mysteries by having seances, using tarot cards, sucking blood from the veins of potential witnesses, discovering poisons hitherto unknown to science, practising naturopathy, palmistry or Lombrosian face-reading, or by having an unaccountable FEELING about someone’s guilt, not only do you not have a mystery, you do not have me as a reader. If we actually could solve mysteries with telepathy or Scientology, there would be no point in having a police force.

6. Detectives with an unusually specialized area of knowledge who constantly run across crimes that involve that area of knowledge.

For instance, the proprietor of the only “rare yarn” store in the world, headquartered in a small town, is constantly encountering book-length situations where someone nearby is strangled with yarn, or a piece of rare yarn is lying beside the body, or a yarn collector is killed, or the proprietor of a yarn museum comes to town and is killed just before making an important announcement to the national press. One such novel is fine. Two are barely possible. Four is entirely beyond the bounds of probability, and twelve is just asinine.

7. The female detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous men, one of whom is a police officer and the other a constant source of useful information; the male detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous women, one of whom is his ex-wife and the other a constant source of sexual interludes.

These ideas demonstrate both an inability to create realistic characters and an inability to plot sensibly. The reason the female detective has two gorgeous men at her beck and call is that her police officer friend gets her places that she can’t legitimately go, and her other friend does things like look up credit history that the detective cannot legitimately acquire, and the female detective gets laid a lot. Meanwhile, neither of the men does the realistic thing and finds another girlfriend, or beat up the other guy and send him packing, or occasionally run away with the other guy. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy coupled with cheating the plot into place. Usually male detectives with two girlfriends follow the same pattern; both provide useful plot material like arrest records and credit information, and sexual interludes that the author fondly thinks are interesting to the reader. One of the women is usually an ex-wife because the author wants to demonstrate that the man has qualities sufficient to attract a quality woman, but is single because he gets laid more that way, and gets to have twinges of regret for his sexy ex that make him more human for half a chapter. What usually happens in real life in these situations is that both women come to the realization that the man in question is a two-timing asshole and both leave, occasionally with each other.

8. An interesting plot hook in chapter 1 that is promptly forgotten as the book moves forward.

Erle Stanley Gardner was good at creating interesting plot hooks — for instance, a pretty young woman is being well paid to gain weight and comes to Perry Mason for advice. In Gardner’s books, the weight gain is the tip of the iceberg and leads inevitably to a complicated and illegal plot and a murder that, crucially, remain connected with the pretty young woman and her weight gain. In the work of lesser authors, the young woman is merely a pawn in a larger scheme and disappears offstage after about chapter four. I rarely find out what is really happening because I so object to being treated like a forgetful nitwit that I usually don’t get beyond chapter six or so.

9. Cats who solve mysteries and display human-like qualities in the process.

Also probably dogs, gerbils, chimpanzees and any other animal you can think of, but for some reason writers mostly seem to like to suggest that cats have innate detecting skills. These emphatically are not mysteries; they are fantasy novels with mystery elements, because cats in real life do not solve mysteries, are not telepathic, and have a brain the size of a walnut that is focused 99% on food and sleep. And I personally am not fond of reading books about cats unless they act like real cats. If you are the kind of person who likes to fantasize that cats are not amoral and vicious, but instead interested in cooperating with humans in the solving of crimes, then I’m in touch with the heirs of a deposed Nigerian prince and only need a few thousand to get his millions out of Africa.

10. People who act against their own best interests or simple common sense, just to make the plot move forward.

The second victim who refuses to bother the police with the unusual piece of evidence she discovered right after the first murder. In fact, second victims who do all kinds of crazy and stupid things against their best interests or any sane person’s better judgment; I usually visualize these characters as having “Next to Die” written on their foreheads in red Sharpie.  “I won’t tell anyone about the rare postage stamp I found beside the body until I have a chance to talk in a lonely location at midnight with my friend the philatelist” is really not something people do outside of books, and it’s unfair to suggest that anyone is such a complete suicidal nitwit merely to keep the plot moving. To quote Ogden Nash on the topic of the Had I But Known novel, “And when the killer is finally trapped into a confession by some elaborate device of the Had I But Known-er some hundred pages later than if they hadn’t held their knowledge aloof,/Why, they say, why Inspector I knew all along it was he but I couldn’t tell you, you would have laughed at me unless I had absolute proof.” Trust me, the inspector rarely laughs at anyone who is offering him information. And I object to those hundred pages of padding merely because you think I’m willing to accept that people who pick up rare postage stamps beside corpses are stupid enough not to mention it to the police, let alone wave it triumphantly on camera on CNN.

Well, that’s ten — or, rather, that’s the FIRST ten I can think of.  What are yours?








The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)


S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector: has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.