Showing posts with label Philo Vance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philo Vance. Show all posts

08 May 2016

Professional Tips– S S Van Dine


by Leigh Lundin
I’d planned a different column for today, but due to a technical glitch, we were unable to get an important part of the article working, the audio mechanism. We’ll try again at another date. In the meantime, enjoy the following advice by the author of the 1920s-30s Philo Vance series, S.S. Van Dine, pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright.

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

by

S. S. Van Dine

Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound. — Wordsworth
The detective story is a game. It is more– it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader's interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws– unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:
  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions– not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective– that is, but one protagonist of deduction– one deus ex machine. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his co-deductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story– that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
  11. Servants– such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like– must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person– one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element– a super-radium, let us say– is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author's imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. 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. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary "popular" novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely ‘literary’ technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity– just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department– not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the homicide bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction– in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality.
    1. Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    2. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. Forged finger-prints.
    4. The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. The word-association test for guilt.
    10. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.
What are your thoughts?

14 May 2013

The Double Dippers


by Terence Faherty

I've always been as big a fan of old movies as I am of detective fiction, as anyone who's read my Scott Elliott series knows. In fact, I first discovered many literary detectives through movies and only later headed to the library to find their books. I was almost always blown away by the source material, but I never lost my fondness for the films.

Somewhere along the line, I spotted the odd fact that is the topic of this column and that I'm offering, free of charge, to anyone stuck for a doctoral dissertation subject. It is that an actor who played one famous detective from popular literature back in Hollywood's golden age often played a second.

Mr. Bogart
The most famous example is Humphrey Bogart, who played both Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The success of Bogart's 1941 The Maltese Falcon certainly inspired his 1946 The Big Sleep. In the trailer for the latter, Bogart enters a bookshop and asks for something similar to the Hammett book. The helpful clerk hands him the Chandler. But Bogart by no means repeated his Spade performance when playing Marlowe. Where he was sardonic and cocky in the first film, he was stalwart and self-deprecating in the second. (Although, you might argue that this was just the way Bogart's screen persona had evolved.)

Mr. Powell
William Powell was a much bigger star than Bogart in the 1930s, though he's not as well- known today. When he is remembered, it is most often as Nick Charles (another Hammett creation) or at least as the man who's always standing next to Nora Charles, as played by Myrna Loy. But Charles was Powell's second detective persona. The first was S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Powell first played Vance in the silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case in 1929 and then in three more films. The best is the last, The Kennel Murder Case, released in 1933, only a year before The Thin Man. Powell's Philo Vance, a well-dressed and serious clubman (often in gloves), would never be mistaken for his brilliantly freewheeling Nick Charles. But the Vance role was probably more important to Powell's career, as it lifted him out of the ranks of silent-screen supporting players and made him a talkie star.
Mr. Rathbone

In the middle of Powell's run as Philo Vance, a rival studio brought out Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, starring Basil Rathbone as Vance. Rathbone, as well turned out sartorially as Powell, was much stiffer in the part. He would only find career-changing success as a film detective nine years later, in 1939, when he was given the role he'd been born to play, Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. More on that epic performance at some later time.

Mr. Cortez
Ricardo Cortez is pretty much forgotten outside of film buff circles, but he was the screen's first Sam Spade. His Maltese Falcon was released in 1931, ten years before Bogart's, and, for an early talking picture, it wasn't bad. Cortez was especially good. He was an actor who smiled and laughed a lot, and his Spade was even better-humored than Bogie's. (If you're thinking that Cortez's performance was also a blow for Hispanic actors everywhere, don't let his stage name fool you. He acquired it when he arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, during the scramble to find another Rudolph Valentino. Up until then, Cortez had been a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz.) Cortez played a second famous detective in 1936's The Case of the Black Cat, taking over the role of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which had previously been played by Warren Williams. Cortez's Mason smiled a lot and acted like he'd actually cracked a law book or two.

Mr. Montgomery
There are further examples, like the aforementioned Warren Williams, who, in addition to playing Perry Mason, was yet a third Philo Vance, and George Sanders, who was both Leslie Charteris' Saint and Michael Arlen's Falcon (and good luck telling them apart), but I'd like to close with Robert Montgomery. When I was growing up, Montgomery was already fading from popular memory, being mostly known as the father of Bewitch's Elizabeth Montgomery. But old film lovers remember him as the star of classics like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and They Were Expendable. Montgomery also played two very famous literary detectives. He was another Philip Marlowe, in 1946's flawed but interesting Lady in the Lake. And earlier, in 1940, Montgomery had starred as Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey in Busman's Honeymoon. In both films, Montgomery was more or less miscast, but you have to admire the versatility of an actor who can play both Marlowe and Wimsey with even qualified success.

What does all this double dipping mean? What does it say about the film business or the actors named or the popular fictional detectives of the day? It's your doctoral dissertation; you work it out. And don't forget to send me a copy.