Friday, July 20, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse. (Part 2)

The ideal of the combined author character and critic in the field was not lost on two young cousins from New York City. Most critics indicate that Ellery Queen, character, owes much to Philo Vance. The mannerisms, the use of esoteric knowledge, and the superior knowledge all harken back to Van Dine’s detective.

Just as Van Dine had followed the The 6-letter word Murder Case titling, Queen as author did the same. All of the first xx books in the series follow a similar pattern, The Nationality Object Mystery, calling notice yet again to the similarities between the characters.

Queen was nearly as insufferable in terms of not telling what he knew when he knew it. However, at least his reluctance to expound on a solution was explained in The Greek Coffin Mystery, where the character proposed not one or two solutions, but four solutions before the correct answer was uncovered. Even so, the early books contain chapter quotes from famous criminologists and philosophers about the nature of crime and the chapter titles spell out the book title and author. 

Ellery’s knowledge of the esoteric is well-known. In The Siamese Twin Mystery, Queen goes to great lengths to discuss a playing card as a dying clue held in the murdered man’s hand. He analyzes the card as a playing card, message and goes as far as to translate the suits into other languages. Queen, the author, even toys with the idea of one twin being a murderer, and the subsequent lack of justice that would result from this situation. Would they release the killer so that the innocent twin could be free or would they jail the innocent twin to punish the killer?

Queen even goes as far as to create his own nursery rhyme murder mystery in There was an Old Woman. In that book, Queen does his level best to use parts of the Mother Goose rhyme about the old woman in the shoe as part of his case about the Potts family. Chapter titles use parts of the nursery rhyme and clues are left that fit into the rhyme as well.

Even though Queen had written Calamity Town about Wrightsville, which typically marks the third period of Queen’s work, There was an Old Woman seems to be more first period, albeit a slightly cock-eyed version of the first period. Queen’s involvement comes through his father, the solution depends on rather arcane cluing and the murders themselves are interesting problems of jurisprudence.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many aspects to the book that aren’t solely Queen’s. The use of another set of twins is definitely a Queenian touch. The characters come from a genetically tainted family, much like the one in The Tragedy of Y. Major Gotch is a throwback to the silent male companion in The Dragon’s Teeth.

Queen did not meet the same fate as Vance, in no small part because Queen the character did change over the course of the series. Vance was so set in stone as a dilettante that he could not change. Queen as a character slowly evolved from pedantic to more realistic. This change allowed the character to survive into the 1970s. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Something Borrowed, Something Brunette -- Erle Stanley Gardner's Birthday!

 The Case of the Borrowed Brunette borrows from Sherlock Holmes. The case begins with an advertisement for a brunette of a certain height, weight, age, and measurements to apply for a position. In using such a ploy, Gardner is recycling Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” which looked for a red-headed man to fill a position. While Gardner often claimed not to know much of the genre in which he wrote, works such as this, as well as comments made to editors and friends, reveal that he was well versed in mysteries both old and new. 
In this case, Helen Reedley is trying to deceive private investigators about her behavior. By hiring a woman who looks like her, Reedley is free to do as she pleases somewhere else. When the man who placed the ad for Reedley is murdered in Reedley’s apartment, the borrowed brunette and her chaperone are accused of murder. Mason agrees to represent them both, although he struggles more with the chaperone’s defense as the woman continues to change her story of what happened at the time of the murder. The book has an ending that is far more satisfying than other books of the period. The circumstantial evidence is read a different way by Mason, and the solution is fair to the reader.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse.

Cleverness is our national curse. ~ Philo Vance, The Kennel Murder Case

One of the most dismissed forms of the twentieth century detective stories is the esthete or dandy. Starting in 1926, Willard Huntington Wright, writing as SS Van Dine, introduced Philo Vance. The character, who seemed to be an encyclopedia of art, culture and crime, appeared in 1926 in The Benson Murder Case. Vance was called “a man of unusual culture and brilliance.”

He was accompanied by SS Van Dine, the character, who also served as biographer to Vance. Much has been made of the relationship between Van Dine and Vance, with some suggesting that Vance actually wrote as Van Dine,  while others have suggested a more intimate relationship.[1]

Vance was a youngish man, who wore a monocle, and had a habit of dropping the ending g’s on words, and peppering his speech with “don’t y’ know”. Over the course of his appearances, Vance showed a predilection for horse racing, dog breeding, Egyptology, ancient Chinese ceramics, chess, Renaissance art, fencing, golf, poker, archery to name a few. This was Nietzsche’s superman come to solve the mystery.

In The Bishop Murder Case, Van Dine, the author, develops a framework of the puzzle mystery. Cock Robin, better known as Joseph Cochrane Robin, was found shot through the heart with an arrow at the home of a famous professor of Vance’s acquaintance. Vance is immediately concerned, feeling that this pattern is the work of an above-average, albeit off-kilter, mind. As two other crimes are committed using nursery rhymes, the body count stacks up and Vance must solve a rather heinous series of crimes.

While the puzzle itself was extremely well done, many critics and readers objected to the ending of the book, where Vance plays God by offing the murderer in a rather cold-blooded fashion. For someone who knows everything, should not the fate of a particular man be up to him as well? While Vance does not set the stage for the final crime, his discourse on another subject certainly helps put the events into motion.

The Kennel Murder Case, the fifth book in the series, proved more pedantic and yet better plotted. When the body of an art collector is found dead and locked in a room, Vance is called into the case. Vance quickly decides that the crime was murder and not suicide, and an examination of the body shows that the corpse was coshed, stabbed and shot.

The discovery of an injured Scottie downstairs provides Vance with the only clue to determining who had killed the collector. Vance, who breeds Scotties of course, includes a section where he tracks down the pedigree of the Scottie, including his own real-life breeding friends as characters. It is with the knowledge of the dog that Vance is able to solve the case.

Julian Symons and Barzun and Taylor were not kind to Van Dine or Vance. Symons felt that the later books in the series were sub-par to the first six novels. Of course, his assessment of The Gracie Allen Murder Case is correct, in that the book felt pandering to the masses for a boost in sales. However, one could not include a Vaudevillian couple into the rarified world of Vance and expect the results to be pleasant. Barzun and Taylor were less kind, only liking the first and last books in the series.

Despite the snobbery of Wright as Van Dine, Van Dine did offer literary criticism to the genre. He wrote a rather involved introduction to The World’s Great Detective Stories, and later offered 20 rules for writing a detective story for American Magazine. Of course, being Van Dine, he would feel no qualms about breaking those rules when it suited him.

[1] Since a piece on Vance wouldn’t be complete without footnotes, the first case has Markham ask Vance if he is wearing a green carnation, which was a pre-Stonewall signal of solidarity between gay men.