Baker was a great fan of the detective novels of famed American mystery writer S. S. Van Dine and earlier in the decade he had made a habit of sending the Great Man the complete solutions to his Philo Vance mysteries while they were still in the early stages of serialization. Wise guy, eh?!
I feel confident that Baker would have been a blogger had he been around today--or at least a highly opinionated blog commenter!
The first of Richard Baker's detective novels, Death Stops the Manuscript, was published by S. S. Van Dine's publisher, Scribner's, in 1936, the year which also saw the publication of S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case, the tenth of the twelve detective novels in the Philo Vance series. You'll notice, in the illustration to the upper left, that Van Dine wrote an introduction to Baker's novel, which is mentioned under the author's name. Now I want to digress for a few moments from a discussion of Baker's novel to consider the position of S. S. Van Dine in mystery fiction at this time.
The popular critical view, which was perpetuated by Julian Symons in his mystery genre survey Bloody Murder (1972) and John Loughery in his Edgar Award winning 1992 Van Dine biography, Alias Van Dine, is that the later Philo Vance novels are all terrible and unappealing. However, this is vastly overstated, as Van Dine's detective novels in the Thirties, years after the author's Twenties heyday, continued to sell well by mystery novel standards and critical reviews of them remained largely respectful. However, things weren't what they once had been, to be sure.
Two of the Twenties Van Dine mysteries--The Greene and Bishop Murder Cases--reached number four on the American fiction bestseller lists--an almost unheard of achievement for a crime novel in those days--and they, along with the slightly earlier Benson and Canary Murder Cases, received long, rapturous reviews in major newspapers, where the books were treated as rare mental feasts for the brainiest of people. Decades later, a bemused Anthony Boucher caustically characterized this Twenties Van Dine mystery craze--this "belief that S. S. Van Dine wrote great detective stories" as he put it--as one of the "peculiar madnesses that beset Americans during the Nineteen Twenties."
|Philo Vance, as famously envisioned on film|
by actor William Powell
Nor, in Boucher's view, were the problems which Van Dine set for his readers truly of interest in themselves, like they were in certain "Humdrum" detective novels, such as those by Freeman Wills Crofts, for example.
Thus to Boucher, Van Dine thus was "something of a fraud"; and his deluded Twenties fans had simply been "overwhelmed by sheer weight of pretense" into believing that with his books they were reading not just mere puzzles but detective novels "of stature."
This may have been received critical opinion in 1960--although it should be noted that the reason Boucher was talking about Van Dine at all was that Scribner's had just republished The Canary Murder Case, suggesting that the publisher thought there was still some sort of audience for the man. However, in 1936, there was still cachet clinging to the names of S. S. Van Dine and Philo Vance. As mentioned above, a new Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case, was published that year, a new Philo Vance film, an adaptation of The Garden Murder Case, had opened at theaters, and Scribner's had additionally published a massive omnibus volume of three earlier Philo Vance murder cases. Most mystery writers, back then or today, would have been happy to have been this "unpopular"!
However much Van Dine's popularity had declined since the Twenties, he was still doing rather well by the standards of the mystery writing profession, which was not one that made a lot of people rich. (Just recall how Raymond Chandler would complain about his economic woes in the next decade.) After Van Dine died not long before Tax Day on April 11, 1939, his tangled estate was not settled for nearly two years, but it was publicly revealed, two days before Christmas 1940, that he had left a gross estate of nearly three quarters of a million dollars in modern value. Indeed, Fox had contracted before his death to pay Van Dine the modern day of equivalent of about $450, 000 for his final book, The Winter Murder Case, which was to be made into a film vehicle for renown ice skater Sonja Henie.
The problem for Van Dine was not that he was all washed up, but that he was still trying to live a millionaire's lifestyle, on something less than a millionaire's income. Most mystery writers only wished they had such problems! His debts at his death amounted to around a half million dollars (including $300, 000 owed his first wife, who divorced him for desertion in 1930), leaving him with about $250, 000 in actual assets (in modern value).
|Puttin' on the ritz|
S. S. Van Dine and friend
Baker's first novel included a 1000 word introduction by S. S. Van Dine himself, wherein the Old Master (Anthony Boucher notwithstanding) praised the novel, essentially, for adhering to Van Dine's own Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, propounded by him eight years earlier in 1928, back when Van Dine and his pure puzzle aesthetic seemingly held unchallenged sway within the world of mystery fiction.
Van Dine's rules were very much designed to elevate puzzle-solving as the be-all and end-all of the mystery novel. Some rules seem reasonable enough--there must be a detective who detects, all clues must be plainly stated and described, the solution must be arrived at through logical deduction--but some are decidedly anti-novel, like the prohibition on any love interest whatsoever and what Van Dine witheringly termed "literary dallying" and "atmospheric preoccupations." Van Dine stated right up front, in an interview in 1933, when his Kennel Murder Case was published, that "Detective novels...have nothing at all to do with literature."
The problem for the dogmatic Van Dineans, however, was that by the Thirties this assertion was being strenuously challenged on both sides of Atlantic, by Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anthony Berkeley, and Margery Allingham, and Georges Simenon, to name a few people, all of whom placed greater emphasis on character and atmosphere. Even a traditionalist like John Dickson Carr was implicitly challenging Van Dine, because Carr devoted a great deal of time in his novels to stoking atmosphere. Heck, even Van Dine himself spent time in his books stoking atmosphere: the Gothic mansion of the Greenes in The Greene Murder Case, the bizarre nursery rhyme murders in The Bishop Murder Case, all the heavy-breathing stuff about curses and "dragons" in The Dragon Murder Case. Arguably all that is of more interest to people today than the details of the puzzles themselves, which are workmanlike but rarely exceptionally ingenious.
But there's no question that Richard M. Baker at least was a confirmed Van Dinean. Indeed, he arguably was more Van Dineish than Vine Dine, at least when it came to conforming to those twenty rules of his. How gratifying this must have been to Van Dine, especially at a time when his influence was waning. So it's not surprising that Van Dine showered Baker with praise in his introduction, even pronouncing that Baker's murder problem "completely fooled" him, even though it was entirely fairly presented. "The book was simply too hard a nut for me to crack," Van Dine conceded, "but it stimulated my resolution to work harder when attacking his next problem." Sure enough, there would be another one from Baker's hand the next year, and another one after that.
When Death Stops the Manuscript opens, series detective Franklin Russell is invited by Detective-Sergeant Patrick McCoun, of the Newtown police force (probably Newton, near Boston, Massachusetts), to sit in on his investigation of the supposed suicide of a retired professor, George Edward Carson, who has been found shot dead in the study of his Victorian mansion. "The famous professor of Romance languages, known for his masterly translation of the works of Victor Hugo!" gasps Russell. Yup, it's that one. What an amazin' coincidence, as Philo Vance would have drawled--except he'd use a more highfalutin word than coincidence, I'm sure.
Franklin Russell is described as
|Richard Merriam Baker (1896-1952) in 1936|
He turned forty the year his first
detective novel was published
I have often suspected that fictional detectives are wish fulfillment figures for their creators and I think that is definitely the case here. That's a good description of the author himself!
Sergeant Patrick McCoun is Irish--ya think?--although the only way the author tries to show us this is by having him drop his "g's," which I didn't get, and calling Russell "young feller," which I didn't get either, because we learn that he and Russell were old classmates at the "Latin school." (Is this The Boston Latin School?)
Sergeant McCoun doesn't strike one as the brightest bulb in the candelabra, so his education must not have stuck much. For his part, Russell is very much in the brilliant amateur detective mode, except he's not obnoxious like Vance. But we readers are hard to satisfy, for while we may complain about Vance's obnoxiousness (Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance), we tend to find detectives without his over-the-top traits, like Franklin Russell, a bit colorless and dull. One reviewer asseverated that Franklin Russell needs some hustle in the bustle. True enough!
Baker's book has to stand or fall, in other words, on the strength of its puzzle, the characters being the flattest cardboard. So who killed Professor Carson? There are a fair number of suspects in the distinguished widower's death, like his stepdaughter and stepson, his doctor, his dead wife's sister, his housekeeper and his stepdaughter's playwright suitor. There are richly detailed two house plans, something Van Dine mysteries usually included. (I love these!) There are no intricate alibis or murder gadgets like Crofts and John Street give us, only lots and lots of questioning of suspects. There are only a few brief changes of scene from the mansion, the most interesting one to interview the stepson's gold digging girlfriend.
This will strike some people as dull in the extreme, but if you take it in the spirit in which it is offered you may enjoy it fairly well, like I did. The problem is clued, though important bits of it turn on "psychology" in the Vane Dinean manner. It's not remotely a thrilling or exciting detective novel, but it does give readers sober investigation of a problem. To be sure, I missed a Van Dine's baroque narrative flair and weirdness, though not so much Van Dine's gratuitous, showoff footnotes. There are brief mentions of La Chanson du Roland, for example, where Van Dine in the Twenties, eager to let us know how smart he is, would have given us a page long footnote about illuminated manuscripts during the reign of Charlemagne or the like. Like I said Baker is more of a purist than Van Dine.
Perhaps some of Van Dine's splendid weirdness will be in greater supply in the second Richard M. Baker mystery, Death Stops the Rehearsal (1937), which takes us into the theatrical world. I hope to let you know soon. I'll have more on the author too.