Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"The Spectator Really Cares Very Little Whether A Was Murdered by B or by X, As Long As He Got Murdered by Somebody"

In a piece by Edmund Pearson (1880-1937), a true crime expert, published just after Philo Vance had burst upon the scene like an artillery shell (or, some would insist, a stink bomb), he expresses both favorable and unflattering ideas about detective fiction in general and Van Dine's The "Canary" Murder Case and Connington's Murder in the Maze in particular. 
A few excerpts:
THE best moment in a play, if we believe the followers of the crook drama, is when somebody, perhaps the butler, sits down at the telephone with an unusually serious face, takes the receiver from the hook, and remarks in a low, tense voice:
"Spring, Three One Hundred."
For this, as every New Yorker knows or is supposed to know, is the number of Police Headquarters.
The master has been found lying on the floor of the library, with a bullet wound through his heart and a pearl-handled revolver by his side. He had a stormy interview last night with his about-to-be-disinherited nephew; or else the handsome young man who wishes to marry his daughter and heiress, Yvonne, has been muttering threats against the old gentleman.
In the eyes of all experienced theater-goers things look very bright and fair for both these young men, for, as they very well know, the murder may have been committed by the butler himself, or by the winsome Yvonne, or even by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been seen lurking on the neighboring Long Island estate during the past day or two. But never, by any conceivable chance, did either of the young men do the deed, although the revolver belongs to one of them, and the finger prints of both are all over it.
. . . My objection to nine out of ten of them [mysteries] is the same for both plays and books. The writer does not take enough care to make his characters interesting; he plants too many false clues, and his plot is almost invariably too complicated.
. . . As the victim turns out to be a scoundrel, the spectator really cares very little whether A was murdered by B or by X, as long as he got murdered by somebody. Nobody on the stage behaves like a human being for three minutes together, and if at the final curtain any one in the audience has discovered what has emerged from this welter, he is far cleverer than I am.
. . . With the novelists the situation is much the same [as with the playwrights]. There are too many suspicious characters, inserted merely to confuse the reader; too great a complication of plot and an over-emphasis on mechanical tricks and appliances. The mysterious and baffling murders of real life have been simple in plot and personnel. The boldness of the perpetrator, and his ability to keep his own counsel, are what have usually made them mysterious and interesting.
. . . at the end of the book many novelists weaken . . . and let him [the murderer] commit suicide or otherwise cheat the hangman. Mr. Chesterton, in his stories about Father Brown, is perhaps the worst in this respect, since his homicidal ruffians seem to escape with no punishment other than a long talk with the reverend Father. This is treating murder as if it were an offense about on a par with being late to school.
[Philo] Vance is very nearly the most insufferable ass whom I have ever met in the pages of a novel. Any man who met him in a club would instantly get up and seek refuge in another room.
He is a diletantte, a flaneur, a poseur, a viveur, and if you can think of any other foreign terms, he is all of them to boot. He talks like a high school girl during her first year in studying French.
. . . The irritating personality of Vance is almost the only weak point in the book [The "Canary" Murder Case]. Its strength lies in the fact that it combines the deductive methods of Dupin or Holmes, with the actual methods which are used by the police everywhere.
 . . . Murder in the Maze is as typically English as the other [The "Canary" Murder Case] is American. It is a rural-English-countryside-garden crime, instead of one reeking of Broadway and the Roaring Forties.
A double murder in a maze or labyrinth is a good beginning, and the method of these murders is novel without being so impossible as to be denounced by Mr. Connington's compatriots as a bit thick. There is in this story no amateur detective making monkeys out of the regular police, but instead the Chief Constable himself from Scotland Yard, playing a lone hand with no amateur reasoner as his rival. — Edmund Pearson, "Spring, Three One Hundred," THE OUTLOOK (August 3, 1927)
Resources:
- THE "CANARY" MURDER CASE is online HERE.
- Patrick has a review of MURDER IN THE MAZE on his weblog HERE, as does Les Blatt HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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