Sunday, 27 September 2009

ALL ABOARD THE SS VAN DINE: A Guest Essay by Ronald Reichertz

Back in May, I wrote about an exhibition called THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, at Trinity College Dublin, which tracked early detective fiction. You can link to it in the Bullseyes list on the right, or directly here. It prompted, some months later, this response from Ronald Reichertz, former professor of English at McGill, in which position he was my thesis advisor when I took an MA in creative writing. Renowned in Montreal for his eclectic tastes in a department tightly wrapped in tradition, and as an expert in all things Italian (when he once used the word sundried in a handout for his students, most of them 'corrected' it to sun-dried!) Ron sent the following about the man who was SS Van Dine

by Ronald Reichertz

Your museum-piece was very interesting. Remember that S.S. Van Dine is an imagined character who is a Boswell/Watson (senza the Nigel Bruce bumbling) to Philo Vance in a number of crime case novels. And that that Philo Vance is a pseudonym used by a fictional narrator to protect a rich and apparently idle young man who seems to share linguistic features and attitudes with Lord Peter Whimsey. Then add that the author of the Van Dine books, Willard Huntington Wright, also wrote a book on modern art still circulating in many libraries and a book of commentary on all of Frederick Nietzsche"s major works. Further, consider that, mysteriously, some bios list him as a graduate of Harvard and some of Claremont College in California. Also note that some critics mark a decline in his crime fiction (calling him Van Dine) that culminates in a very nasty conceit suggesting that the last of the murder case books help stitch up the shroud of his literary reputation.

In addition to the telegram reproduction you saw, Wright also interspersed furniture layout in room diagrams and maps and recipes in these works. Joining such attempts to create authenticity are various class uses of language, includin' upper class snooty and slang. Equally important, he links his works by citing them in notes to other works, while using footnoted references to studies of theories of criminality and many works of sociology and psychology, all of which I checked out and found to be actual publications. He creates a reality by using the glue of facts to enliven crime. Even a brief mention of a 19th century French writer adds to the authenticity: "it's too Eugene Sue-ish," is the kind of background that accumulates to lend solidity. Sue wrote many novels including "Le Juif Errant" and was plagiarized by other writers who turned his fictional attack on Jesuits into an important part of "The Protocals of the Elders of Zion." Vance uses Sue to undercut the "melodramatic" and "gaudy journalistic imagination" behind belief in the Commora, etc.

Thus Philo Vance, as much as he may like a few "lower class" cops, finally gives up on North America and takes up residence in Firenzi. America is far too equalitarian, " donyt'cha know." But Wright was up to date with then contemporary murders, including Loeb among his murderers.

Which reminds me. A Chicago Dailey news reporter, a guy named Ed Lahey (most likely late of Notre Dame), celebrated Loeb's prison execution at the hands of one James E. Day (1936) with this couplet found and exhumed by myself and laid to rest in prose:

Richard Loeb, dispite his erudition,
Today ended his life with a proposition.

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