Sunday, October 20, 2019

Philo Fidelis: Death Stops the Manuscript (1936), by Richard M. Baker

recent post of mine was about accused Victorian-era poisoner Florence Maybrick, who ended her days in a tiny cottage near South Kent School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys located in northwestern Connecticut in the village of South Kent.  Crime writer Hugh Wheeler, one half of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, claimed briefly to have encountered Florence while en route to see some friends in South Kent, not knowing who she really was.

Could these friends have been Richard Merriam Baker and his wife Leota?  At the time of Hugh's road trip, Richard Baker was a teacher of French and Drama at South Kent School.  He was also the author, in the late 1930s, of three detective novels about amateur detective Franklin Russell, who just happens to be a schoolmaster who teaches French "in a well-known college preparatory school for boys."

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
For some reason, Boucher observed, it had briefly become part of the American Credo "that the cases of Philo Vance existed on a somehow higher cultural level than any other murder mystery," when in reality the books were nothing but tediously lengthy "anti-novels": "100,000 words of nothing but investigation of a puzzle, adorned by the pretentious erudition of Philo Vance...which is apt to be wrong on anything from the meaning of 'corpus delecti' to the odds of filling a straight flush."

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
So in 1936, when Richard M. Baker published Death Stops the Manuscript, a novice fiction detective writer still had reason to hope there was life yet in the old Van Dine writing model, which placed emphasis on a highfalutin' gentleman amateur detective investigating a fairly clued murder problem.  

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
a man of medium height, rather stout in build, with a slightly Oriental cast to his features....He had a high forehead, and his black hair, which receded from a widow's peak, was going gray about the temples.  He wore a small toothbrush mustache--an item that made many of his students consider him much older than he really was.  His eyes were magnified by the unusually thick lenses of his silver-framed spectacles to an unnatural size, so that they were like two black disks under his very pronounced bony ridges and thick eyebrows.  His mouth was mobile and drooped at the corners.  He might have been about forty.

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.

11 comments:

  1. I have the second (Rehersal) book. Interesting plot

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  2. If this were a Philo Vance case...

    "Roland? Surely you geste, old dear! Eheu, Calais," he chortled in his joy.

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  3. Russell is also a French teacher. The character couldn't be more modeled on the author himself. I tried this book back in July, but for me it's an inert detective novel. Nothing actually happens. It's too cerebral and dry. I got bored and couldn't finish it. In the summer I spent a good four days doing research into Baker for a piece on my blog which never happened because I lost interest in the book and didn't think he was worth writing about. One thing I discovered about Baker -- there is a prize for the best French student at Kent named in his honor that is still awarded at the school. Utterly coincidental that you were doing exactly the same thing. The Van Dine similarities are hard to miss for a diehard mystery fan familiar with those books. Is it a coincidence that Scribner published the Philo Vance books and Baker's books? Not at all. I thought the essay was written purely as a gimmick and was most likely the publisher's idea, not Wright's.

    I have the last book about bell ringing and murder and was going to try that one to see if he improved his storytelling ability by his last book. Still have yet to crack it open. Interestingly, my copy of DEATH STOPS THE BELLS was formerly owned by Bill Pronzini. His stamp is on the front endpaper.

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    Replies
    1. The consensus seems to be that the best is the second one, but we'll see. It's definitely dry, but a perfectly valid example of that sort of detective novel. Scribner's certainly tried to make '36 the year of Van Dine. But it was all downhill from there, artistically, even if Van Dine managed to squeeze a lot of money out of Fox for a Sonja Henie film treatment!

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  4. I've always rather liked Hammett's review of "The Benson Murder Case"

    "This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong. His exposition of the technique employed by a gentleman shooting another gentleman who sits six feet in front of him deserves a place in a How to be a detective by mail course."

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  5. My review of Baker's third book is here, assuming that this link works:

    http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=44347

    Mediocre at best, and it didn't prompt me to seek out the first two.

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    1. Yeah, I remember you kind of hated it. I think I liked it better than you, but you have to be ready for dry detection. I might be able to get them reprinted, but I'm interested to see what the other two are like. The third doesn't even seem to have a plan, which I kind of expect in these things.

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