Monday, December 27, 2021

Book Intros Year in Review: Nobody Works Harder Than a Passing Tramp!

good murders are never out of style

I thought, now that the year is ending, I would *finally* list all the intro work, etc., I have done this year.  It's actually been quite quite a lot and I have been remiss in nor discussing it sooner.  But better late than never!  Here we go:

For Dean Street Press things slowed down a bit this year for me, what with all that Flynntlesmania, but at the beginning of the year we had the Anne Morice reissues, which were a lot of fun, with all their Seventies/Eighties style and brittle repartee between murders.  Some people disliked the covers, evidently, but I think they capture that these books represent the Golden Age updated to another era, now itself long past.  Morice herself was a great Agatha Christie fan and relished murder performed in the grand manner, in grand manors.

At the end of the year there was the great Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning revival, as The Invisible Host entertained again.  Next year the other three Bristow Manning mysteries will be brought back into print, as well as the last batch by GA great Christopher Bush (I've already written the introductory piece for that one) and the second tranche of ten by Moray Dalton, which I've been eager to get back to doing, as Dalton is one of my favorite "forgotten" authors.

And yet another "new" vintage author will be reprinted as well, a member of the Detection Club who has been out-of-print for seven decades now.

Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and their Host
reissued by DSP with its original creepy art deco design

For Coachwhip there was a Sally Wood twofer, combining Death in Lord Byron's Room, a fun post-WW2 espionage story, with the author's prewar mystery, Murder of a Novelist.  

People had been asking for years now when these would be reprinted, but it took a bit of effort to track down the heir and secure the rights to Novelist.  These are most excellent stories with a really appealing pair of series characters in the amateur middle-aged "spinster" sleuth (who will change your notion of such characters in those days) and her niece.  If they ever leave off remaking Agatha Christies for the nth time, these two books would be very filmable.  Sally herself was a great Christie fan.

With Coachwhip early next year I'll be working another reissue of a vintage American woman mystery writer, one from my native state!

I also did an intro for Coachwhip to the two Baron von Kaz mystery twofers, containing The Ticking Terror Murders, The Feather Cloak Murders, The Crimson Hair Murders and The Broken Face Murders.  This quartet of mysteries, by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet, have enjoyed a following of connoisseurs ever since their publication back in the Thirties, Anthony Boucher, Bill Pronzini and Douglas Greene being among their prominent fans, but they have been oop for eight decades.  (IPL reprinted the non-series The Talking Sparrow Murders, with an introduction by Doug, in the Eighties.)



Then with Moonstone there were the reissues of D. Erskine Muir's three mysteries In Muffled Night, Five to Five and In Memory of Charles.  "D." aka Dorothy (the other Dorothy) was an an Oxford educated historian whose three detective novels all were based on true crimes, the first two of which are classics of Scottish murder, the Jesse McLachlan and Oscar Slater cases.  (I never discovered the third one.)  These were fun to do because, at least with the first two, I got to write about the true crimes as well.  I have a major project with Moonstone next year, where we are reprinting another long oop Detection Club member from the Golden Age.

Then there were the reprints with Stark House, who has very definitely branched out from American hard-boiled and noir into "domestic suspense" now.  I've been thrilled to be a part of this domestic suspense revival and recognition of mid-century American women mystery writers.  

For this series I did intros this year to twofers by Bernice Carey, Dolores Hichens, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Nielsen, Jean Potts and Ruth Sawtell Wallis.  

Several of these intros contain significant new biographical information.  These were a lot of fun and there will be more of them next year.

Also coming next year are two pieces I did for Otto Penzler's long-esteemed Mysterious Press

(1) an introduction, including lots of new biographical information, to Roger Scarlett's Catspaw, which has been included in paperback in Otto's superb American Mystery Classics series I'm thrilled to say (I was instrumental in reviving Roger Scarlett, actually two women, a few years back with Coachwhip)

(2) an introduction to, finally, a preliminary batch of John Rhode reissues

These all will be out early next year, the Rhodes imminently.  So there are many more vintage mysteries in your futures, I hope.

See the Stark House book covers below.  I'm posting separately on MP's coming John Rhode reissues in the next next year, which of course is in a few days now!






Saturday, December 25, 2021

Have Yourselves a Very Cornell Christmas! (or Maybe Not)

I thought this Sixties Christmas card from Cornell Woolrich to his friend Don Yates (pictured below) was very characteristic of the moody author in its calculated sense of ambiguity.  On the plus side, from most of the sad accounts of Woolrich's life, you'd be surprised to learn that he even owned Christmas cards and actually took the time to send them to people.

But let me assure all readers of The Passing Tramp that I always miss you when you're not here!  Unless you only ever comment about typos. ;)

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you all.  And may there be many mysteries in your futures.

Just a Gigolo: Blind Date with Death (1985 short story collection), Cornell Woolrich

"Buddy, you don't know it, but you've just sent out your last gigolo in this lousy racket!"

--"Blind Date with Death" (1937), Cornell Woolrich

A product of the "first wave" Cornell Woolrich revival (we're currently amidst the second, courtesy of Mysterious Press and Centipede Press and some others), Woolrich's Blind Date with Death is a 1985 Carroll & Graf paperback collection of eight Woolrich novelettes, these being, besides the 1937 title story

"The Living Lie down with the Dead" (1936)

Flowers from the Dead (1940)

The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips (1940)

The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist (1941)

Crazy House (1941)

If the Shoe Fits (1943) 

Leg Man (1943)

As usual with these Woolrich collections it's a somewhat mixed bag,   I'd recommend four or perhaps five of them, which means the glass is a bit more than half full.  One of these days maybe a publisher will ask me to choose my own selection!  

Of course since Woolrich wrote over 200 pieces of short fiction, almost entirely for publication in the pulps, you are going to find repetitions of devices, even plots themselves.  (Incredibly, Woolrich published about a-third of his short fiction output in 1936-37 alone.)  Here, for example, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" (catchy title, that) is a reworking of the title story.  I preferred Woolrich's original take, but make your own choice by all means.

In "Blind Date with Death" the protagonist is a young cop named Bill Armstrong, "six-one, weight one-eighty, chest forty-two, weight thirty-four, batting average, 100, I. Q., medium....with a corn-fed look that wouldn't come off."  When the story opens he strides "into the squad room with a noise like the heavy cavalry coming up at Balaklava.  His gondolas preceded him by a good twelve inches or so, after which their owner showed up."  (As an aside, this is one of the things I like about this sort of fiction, I learn new words, or usages for words.  I had no idea gondolas was slang for feet.)

Ingenuous Bill gets duped into volunteering for an undercover job concerning jewelry robberies committed against three wealthy women (the last of whom was murdered during the job).  Suspiciously, all of these ladies had recently been clients of the P. E. S.--aka, the Personal Escort Society.  As gruff Captain of Detectives Moran explains it to Bill, the P. E. S. "farm out guys that take these old, broken-down hens around town, at so much per hour.  Gigolos on a business basis."

Of course when he finally realizes what is going on, corn-fed Bill is aghast over the prospect of taking on a job as an undercover gigolo: "Those guys with vaseline hair who do tangoes all the time?  Aw, Cap!"  As any vintage mystery reader knows, gigolos had rather a bad reputation in the era of Golden Age detective fiction, when they were commonly portrayed as suspiciously smooth, objectionably handsome "oily dagos" of Mediterranean vintage, or occasionally as √©migr√© White Russians, typically claiming ersatz aristocratic lineage.  (Dorothy L. Sayers has a great portrayal of the latter type in her 1932 detective novel Have His Carcase.)  

too pretty for words--
the Thirties notion of the "proper" gigolo

Of course the truth is gigolos could come in any male form, as long as that form was sufficiently charming and could trip the light fantastic.  Gigolos could even be--gasp!--All-American (and all-British) boys.  (See Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.)

All-American boys like Bill Armstrong, to get back to Woolrich.  You see, Bill wants to succeed as a cop, so, appalling as he deems the prospect, off he goes to the P. E. S. to start escorting and, hopefully, crack the case of those old hens' pilfered sparklers.  Of course in the P. E. S. Bill finds more than he bargained for, but then so do the crooks in Bill!  Soon, like many another Woolrich pulp hero and heroine, Bill is putting his very life in jeopardy to get the goods on the goons behind this gigolo racket.

This is a very enjoyable Woolrich novelette, which has also been praised by Mike Grost.  Though it relies on a Detection Club no-no--the organized criminal gang--nevertheless there is detection; and Woolrich, whose biographer says he had no sense of humor whatsoever, manages to inject considerable mirth into the story, of the fish-out-of-water type.  People expect a gigolo to be a sleek and sophisticated continental type, don't you know, not some hulking Midwest dude with size twelve gondolas (though you know what they say about shoe size).

Happily for Bill his first client desires the services of a "cave-man type" and Bill fits that, um, bill, to a "T"--or "C," as the case may be.  This good lady is named Miss Agatha Van Dine, by the way, and if you think her having the first name of the Queen of Crime and the surname of the Pasha of Pretentiousness (aka Agatha Christie and S. S. Van Dine), I would advise you to think again. 

"The Living Lie Down with the Dead" is, in my view, one of Woolrich's very best (it was adapted for the American anthology series Thriller in the Sixties), but I have already reviewed that one elsewhere.

"Flowers from the Dead" tells about a Hollywood actress who has is desperately reluctant to go on a tour back East to promote her new film.  Why is she so deathly afraid to go back, particularly to her home town?  This one is pretty good, though rather silly in its central premise (that she has nothing to fear in California). 

Most striking me about "Flowers," however, to was how it resembles the plot to Ngaio Marsh's Photo-Finish (1980) and P. D. James The Skull beneath the Skin (1982).  I always assumed James read Marsh's novel, but somehow I doubt Marsh read Woolrich--though ya never know!  Woolrich stories pop up in anthologies all the time.

As mentioned above, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" is a reworking of "Blind Date with Death" with a police woman instead of a policeman and kleptomaniacs rather than gigolos. ("Dips," you see is slang for pickpockets or thieves generally.)  But it lacks the humor of the original.

"The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist," now, is a lot of fun and a genuine detective story.  Sure, it could have been a little more fairly clued in places, but the murder method is cute indeed, just like our imperiled manicurist, Joan Blaine.  With that title, by the by, it sounds like a Perry Mason detective novel that Erle Stanley Gardner should have written!

in "The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist"
all of Joan Blaine's most loyal customers are men
for some reason--though she's not very good at the job

Of the last three, "Crazy House" and "If the Shoe Fits" have echoes of Woolrich's mystery novel The Black Curtain (the former takes place in San Francisco, where Woolrich's father once lived), but "Leg Man" to me seems more original, for the most part.  Here the protagonist, Clint Burgess, works for a newspaper as a lowly "leg man" (he gather information for stories but doesn't get his own byline), who dreams, like American icon Benjamin Franklin, of making his way to the top of the print racket--um business, I mean.  

When the owner of Mike's Tavern is shot to death soon after opening the bar, it's Clint, once on the scene, who spots a telltale piece of evidence and put his life in jeopardy to catch the correct culprit.  Does this lead to his career advancement?  You'll have to read it and see!

This story was included in the 1946 Woolrich collection The Dancing Detective and it didn't make an impression on me when I reviewed this collection here, but I found I quite liked it this go round.  It's very much a genuine detective story with some clever cluing.  Sure you could substitute policemen for the press witha little tinkering, but the press bits are nicely done.

Woolrich's biographer, Francis Nevins--who, in addition to his having heaped derision for decades on the author as a "self-hating homosexual," frequently has mocked his plotting capacity--calls "Leg Man" "one of Woolrich's silliest stories" with "a dumb plot unrelieved by noir overtones."   In doing so Nevins pits himself against no less an authority (and practitioner) than Fredric Dannay of Ellery Queen renown, who praised "Leg Man" as an adroit half-and-half mixture of "pure action and pure deduction" that would satisfy thrill-seekers as well as "those who insist on a pure deductive thread plus scrupulous fairness to the reader."  

But, hey, what would Dannay know, right?  I mean, didn't Nevins write some detective fiction or something at some point?  There you go!  Of course Nevins has also written the standard Ellery Queen reference book and obviously considers himself quite the expert on plotting.  In his Queen book he never hesitates to take Queen to task for "dumb plotting" as well, when he feels the occasion demands it.  (And it seems that Nevins feels the occasion often does.)  However, I though "Leg Man" had some cute clueing and I was pleased to find that Dannay thought so before me.  

Nevins scoffs at Dannay's declaration that Woolrich excelled at "point-counter-point ingenuity," dismissing what he terms the author's "often preposterous plot gimmicks"; yet Nevins reveals here his own preference (and bias) for a certain type of crime fiction, at least in Woolrich's case, which is noir.  When Woolrich doesn't write noir (which in his pulp fiction actually was quite frequently), Nevins tends not to like him.  

Again revealing his bias, Nevins takes issue with Dannay's praise of Woolrich's handling of what Dannay called the "straightforward police tale," sniffing disdainfully that straightforward is "not the proper adjective for his tales of warped psychotics with badges in their pockets.

Yet in truth Dannay had it right again: Woolrich did often write straightforward police tales where the police characters are not "warped psychotics" but recognizably normal people (to most of us anyway).  Like "Blind Date with Death," for example.  

If police run roughshod over rules in these tales, well, welcome to the world of vintage crime fiction.  Woolrich, "self-hating homosexual" that he may (or may not) have been, was hardly alone in such depictions. 

Nevins began writing about crime fiction in the late Sixties/early Seventies, a time when disdain for the police, contrary to what may be claimed about our present day, was at an all time high in the U. S.  The word "pigs," for example, came into parlance among leftist radicals when referring to police back then--and I think there is a carry-over of this attitude in Nevins' criticism of both Woolrich and Queen.  (Certainly there was plenty of criticism to go around.)

"Wouldn't it be useful if there were a word for the kind of fiction Woolrich almost singlehandedly created?" asks Woolrich rhetorically, before declaring: "In time such a word surfaced, and it is noir."  Well, sure, but Woolrich did other things too and his fiction wasn't always as dark as people seem to think.  

Following Nevins, people love to stress Woolrich's affinity with noir, justifiably, but the truth is his pulp tales (as opposed to his novels) often are more hard-boiled than noir and are even known to include detection and happy endings, with what one might called a restoration of order, as in classic British mystery--though the order being restored is American order, so let's put an bloody red asterisk by that!  

What did Nevins have to say about "Blind Date with Death" you might be wondering?  About the story itself, nothing at all (oddly enough, given its gigolo subject matter and Nevins' firm conviction that Woolrich was a closeted gay).  About the collection he states that it represents "Woolrich at his pulpiest if not always his best."  Yes, "Leg Man" gets kicked again!  But some of us like pulp--if not in orange juice (though I do), then in mystery fiction.

pulp does a body good

Friday, December 17, 2021

Noiry Not Noiry: Walls That Hear You (2021), by Cornell Woolrich

Centipede Press is still going full bore with its remarkably attractive, high-end reissues of Cornell Woolrich volumes.  They have reprinted the great American crime writer's six "Black" novels as well as his William Irish novels Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Waltz into Darkness and I Married a Dead Man and four volumes of short fiction: Dark Melody of Madness (a collection of supernatural tales), Speak to Me of Death (reviewed by me seven years ago here), Stories to be Whispered and, most recently from this year, Walls That Hear You.  (Woolrich's two George Hopley novels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Fright, and his last Irish novel, Strangler's Serenade, have not yet been reissued by CP.)

Cornell Woolrich has the reputation for being the bleakest of crime writers, both in terms of what he wrote and how he actually lived, and there's certainly a lot to that.  Certainly too that's the view stressed in the introduction to this new Centipede volume, where Francis Nevins hits all the usual black notes which he has stressed (and stressed) for decades now about how miserable Woolrich was, primarily because he was, Nevins believes, a "self-hating homosexual" filled with, yes, "homosexual self-contempt."  Or as he bluntly put it again, Sam, over at Mystery*File in 2010: "Woolrich was perhaps the most deeply closeted, self-hating homosexual male author that ever lived."

Indeed, it seems that Woolrich was so deeply closeted that he left no actual evidence that we know of that he was gay, self-hating or not!  (No one today can say whether the infamous purported Woolrich sex diary ever really existed.)  The truth is that it is Nevins who has interpreted Woolrich this way, the gay part coming from hearsay evidence from two elderly women he interviewed back in the 1970s and the self-hating part from his own inferences.  He also has written about Milton Propper and Patricia Highsmith as self-hating homosexuals, so it seems to be the theme with him when looking at queer crime writers.   

However, we don't actually know whether Woolrich really was gay and while he well may have had contempt for himself, we don't know whether or not this feeling was motivated by homosexuality (if he was really gay).  Woolrich, to be honest, had a lot of issues, as they say, stemming in my view both from inheritance and a dysfunctional childhood upbringing which produced in him extreme social anxiety.  He had trouble dealing with with people generally, putting aside the matter of his own sexuality.  

I've written an 11,000 word essay on the writer based on my own original research, which is shortly to be published elsewhere, and in it I take considerable issue with how the episode of Woolrich's short-lived, unhappy marriage has been portrayed in the vintage mystery media.  I hope the piece may prompt us to take a more nuanced and sympathetic look at the author than what has usually been the case, regrettably.  That Woolrich's story for decades has been held firmly in the hands of someone who so evidently holds him in contempt as a person (though he loves his writing) is an irony which the mordant author himself likely would have keenly felt.

But enough about that, how are the stories (really mostly pulp novelettes, a form of which Woolrich was a master) which have been collected in Walls That Hear You?  Well, there are seventeen of them here and I really liked about eight of them so I suppose you can say we are batting fifty-fifty.  It's not as good a collection as Speak to Me of Death in my view, but still pretty good.  

It opens up with Woolrich's first published piece of short crime fiction, "Death Sits in the Dentist's Chair," published when Woolrich was thirty years old, way back in 1934 in Detective Fiction Weekly.  It's been collected several times before, but it's a fun story, well worth reading again.

Fun I say?  Cornell Woolrich fun?  Well, in a grisly sort of way, yes.  It's about a devilish murder conducted by a diabolical dentist and there's genuine detection in it, of the Wills Crofts/Austin Freeman sort, and a good suspense passage at the end.  Yes, there is some Thirties social consciousness in it, an awareness of the problems of poor ethnic minorities (although it's also a necessary plot device).  But really it's a clever gadgety murder tale of the sort that John Rhode might have constructed.  It also uses the suspense devices of the wrong accused man and the friend trying to help him, which you often see in later Woolrich stories.

The title story, "Walls That Hear You," is another one, very pulpy and lurid, which I have to admit was a bit much for me.  (It involves a man who has his fingers and tongue removed but still lives--no thanks!)  Equally wild is "Kiss of the Cobra."  We are a long way off from noir here and more in purple pulps land, where the words may turn your stomach but they certainly won't break the heart.

"Hot Water," published in Argosy in 1935, is more in the hard-boiled vein, about the kidnapping of an actress at a gambling den in a Mexican town across the border from California.  Despite being about crime and violence there's a rather humorous edge to it and it's cleverly plotted and quite entertaining indeed.

nightmarish nights and daze

We're in more noirish territory with "Johnny on the Spot," about a girl who will do anything to rescue her man from gangsters.  It's both tender and tough, with true love and some really nasty scenes of violence, which I suppose Nevins would attribute to Woolrich's "homosexuals' self-contempt" even though it's the sort of thing you get in hard-boiled tales.

"Double Feature" is one of Woolrich's better-known tales, about what happens when a cop out on a date with his girl at the movie theater realizes they are sitting next to a "most wanted" criminal.  It's a great suspenser, crying out to be televised, but rather less noirish that "Johnny on the Spot."

"One and a Half Murders" is about a superannuated private detective who investigates on his own dime when his nephew is arrested for a murder he didn't commit.  The prevailing tone here is a bit humorous (the retired detective wanting to prove he's still got it), but when he finally resorts to terrorizing the guilty party to get his confession from the real murderer it's not very funny to me.  

Nevins thinks this reflects Woolrich's bleak world view, but again it's the sort of thing you see in a lot of crime fiction from that era, when crime writers tended to look sympathetically on private individuals taking the law into their own hands.  Many of us still feel this way today.  (Look at the reaction to "hero" Kyle Rittenhouse, for example.)

Woolrich's famous tale "Momentum" appears here as well and this is authentic bleak Woolrich, about how murder, Macbeth-like, dreadfully accumulates.  The protagonist has sympathetic qualities, but makes a series of disastrous choices, and it's all very dark, much more so that most of the stories in this collection.  The story was televised as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that somehow utterly failed to capture its power.

"Mind Over Murder," about a woman living in the tropics who comes up with a plot to frighten her hated husband to death, is really nasty and a corrosive portrait indeed of a marriage. Perhaps Woolrich was looking back on his own!  This feels more like a Roald Dahl or John Collier piece.

Then there are my favorites in this collection, "The Book That Squealed" and "The Penny-a-Worder."  

A librarian throws the book at criminals and finds love too
in one of Cornell Woolrich's most heartwarming tales,
"The Book That Squealed" (1939)
Yes, I said heartwarming.

I first read the former in the anthology Women Sleuths, which Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg co-edited.  "Squealed" features an intrepid librarian (naturally!) as amateur detective who ends up investigating crime by herself when the police don't take her concerns seriously.  How she cottons on to the crime is really ingenious.  It recalls Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate, oddly enough, except that it is much cleverer and, well, coherent.  Let's face it, Postern was not Agatha's greatest moment.

There are some very nasty criminals indeed in "Squealed," but really the whole thing is not far removed from the world of the British crime story from that era.  It makes one realize that Woolrich really could have written what we think of as British-style manners mysteries, and probably would have had he grown up in England.

There are a couple of stories here which are very similar indeed to "Squealed."  "Murder at Mother's Knee" features a schoolteacher as amateur detective and is an obvious reworking of "Squealed."  (The former was published two years after the latter.)  Authors often repeat devices in their work but here Woolrich essentially published the same story twice under different titles, though "Squealed" is the cleverer and more charming of the two.  "The Body in Grant's Tomb" features as narrator and detective a spinster aunt of the sort associated with Mary Roberts Rinehart's Had-I-But-Known school.  She's portrayed well but the plot itself kind of just peters out uninterestingly.  When you wrote as much as Woolrich did, you're going to have some comparative duds.

For me the best story in the collection, "The Penny-a-Worder," is not even a genuine crime story, but it is a brilliant little tale about a pulp crime writer.  Francis Nevins, who is convinced that Woolrich had no sense of humor, appreciates the fine quality of this story, but somehow himself apparently doesn't see the humor in it.  (You would have to have a sense of humor, I think, to see it.)  I've written about this story before here, but I think I will write about it again in a successor blog post.  It's such a brilliant little story that shows a lot of witty self-awareness on the part of an author whom a lot of people seem to think had capacity only for myopic misery.

Indeed the misery level in Woolrich's pulp fiction  generally has been somewhat overrated.  Many of the stories in this collection even have-gasp!--happy endings, if not without some considerable bruising for our protagonists along the way.  Perhaps this simply reflects the popular medium for which Woolrich was writing here (Thirties and Forties pulps, primarily)--or perhaps the author wasn't quite as relentlessly gloomy as people think.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Van Dine Declension Narrative--How Naysayers Got It Wrong about a Crime Writer and Phutzed up Philo Vance

Where have you gone, Philo Vance, the nation turns detecting eyes to you

Crime writer and critic Julian Symons, who despite his reputation as the High Apostle of the Crime Novel, actually enjoyed  as much as anyone a good baroque detective story from the Golden Age, especially if it was by John Dickson Carr or S. S. Van Dine, was, conversely, really hard on the later efforts of Van Dine, himself once considered the American Titan of Traditional 'teckery.  

"The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic [Randolph Bartlett] who called the ninth of them one more stitch in [Van Dine's] literary shroud was not overstating the case," Symons pronounced in his once extremely influential crime fiction survey, Bloody Murder, originally published in 1972 and reissued in updated editions in 1985 and 1992.  

Translated bluntly this means Symons thought the last six Van Dine Murder Cases--Dragon, Casino, Garden, Kidnap, Gracie Allen and Winter--went from crappy to crappier indeed.  Granting that Gracie Allen, recently reviewed here, is a misfire on all counts and that Winter is skeletal on account of the author's untimely death, I still have to disagree, however, with Symons' notion that the other four books are terrible failures.  I've read a lot of mystery fiction in my time, as had Symons, and to me this particular Van Dine quartet, while no masterpiece altogether, is better than a great deal of stuff I've read.

But forget me.  What did critics at the time have to say?  Looking at The Kidnap Murder Case, I have concluded that the reviews of this novel were by no means bad.  In England, crime writer and reviewer E. R. Punshon lamented what he deemed the softening of Philo's pleasingly pretentious and prickly character, but he concluded that in Kidnap Van Dine "shows that he still possesses a real power of narrative, that gift of storytelling which, one is sometimes tempted to think,  is the rarest of all gifts among the storytellers of today."  Sounds like pretty high praise to me!

There were favorable American notices as well.  Reviewers discerned that in Kidnap Murder Case Van Dine, perhaps influenced by Dashiell Hammett (of all things), had opted for a simpler, more direct style than he had previously, eschewing the esoteric and sometimes frankly tortuous footnotes with which he had adorned, if you will, his earlier efforts, like The Bishop Murder Case (which was deemed by Julian Symons the summit of Van Dine's detective achievement, though I think he's rather overrated it).  

"Save for a brief dissertation on semi-precious stones," observed Isaac Anderson in his notice of Kidnap Murder Case in the New York Times Book Review, "Philo Vance displays very little of his encyclopedic learning in this book," instead revealing himself "as a gun-fighter who can pump hot lead with the best of them."  Philo thusly had disproved those who had deemed him "too highbrow to be a real he-man."  However, for the most part the amateur sleuth was "still the same old Philo Vance, distinguished for his keen observation of details...and for his adroit questioning of witnesses and suspects."  All in all, Anderson concluded, "The Kidnap Murder Case is real, simon-pure Van Dine, and that should be good enough for anybody."

In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "H. R. H." postulated that Kidnap reflected a return in style to Van Dine's earliest detective murder cases, Benson and Canary, "when one murder was enough for both the reader and the detective, and when straight mystery unadorned by the supernatural or grotesque was sufficient puzzle for all of us."  

The reviewer allowed that Philo Vance was still "an insufferably superior person," but nevertheless it remained true as well that Vance's "processes of deduction are brilliant and his cases invariably unique."  H. R. H. proclaimed that "no other detective writer in America" evinced "such versatility and originality as Mr. Van Dine."  In contrast with some reviewers, H. R. H. dismissed Van Dine's footnotes in earlier books, about "scarabs, or mummies, or Chinese porcelains," as so much "foolishness"; and he praised the "straight deduction" which he discerned in Kidnap

How this judgment contrasted with that rendered by Symons in Bloody Murder, where Symons defended the footnotes of the early Van Dine novels, contrasting the author favorably with Dorothy L. Sayers!  (Sorry, all you Dorothy L'ers.)  "Van Dine's erudition...was real where Sayers' was defective," Symons insisted.  Be this as it may, reviewers like H. R. H contrastingly preferred the more stripped-down approach.  

At the hands of Symons and others, like Van Dine's own biographer, John Loughery, there has been fashioned what one might call the "Van Dine Declension Narrative," according to which the supposed cataclysmic decline in Van Dine's own detective fiction represents the broader steep decline in Golden Age detective fiction generally, as it was gradually replaced in popularity by tales of tough guys, espionage and psychological suspense.  But in my view this narrative exaggerates the extent of Van Dine's decline, not only in quality but in actual popularity.

On the eve of the publication of  The Kidnap Murder Case in October 1936, Van Dine's prestigious publisher, Scribner's, boasted that Van Dine had published nine bestselling detective novels in nine years, totaling more than a million copies sold over that time.  This is a tremendous amount of sales for a mystery writer in those penurious days (or today for that matter), when mysteries rarely made the bestseller lists, their sales being mostly confined to rental libraries, where they were checked out many times by penny-pinching readers at the cost of only a few cents a day.  If any given mystery sold 3000 copies in the U. S., it was doing better than average; if 10,000-20,000 copies it was doing really well.  

Let's say Van Dine's first six detective novels sold an average of 150,000 copies apiece (Canary, Greene and Bishop seem to have been the most successful), then the last three would still have sold at least 35,000 copies apiece, which would have left most other mystery writers of the day in the dust (even while reflecting a definite comedown for Van Dine).  Scribner's claimed at the time that the pre-publication sale of The Kidnap Murder Case had been "sufficiently large to place it among the best-sellers of the Fall season"; and, sure enough, I have been able to verify that several cities, including Atlanta and Kansas City, reported it to be one of their bestselling books.  

If this be failure, give me this failure!  Maybe it seemed like such to Van Dine, who was trying to maintain with his wife a very lavish lifestyle indeed, but it would have not have been so for most mystery writers, of whatever stripe.  Classic mystery remained quite popular throughout the Thirties, whatever people may try to tell you.