V is for deja VU (Van Dine)

What I read: The Scarab Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

I honestly considered Vonnegut for "V," but it was grading time, and I couldn't bring myself to choose something so depressing (on the one hand) or thought-provoking (on the other).

Reading Van Dine proved rather interesting, mostly because Van Dine's hero, Vance, is remarkably--and I mean, remarkably--like Peter Wimsey (in the early Wimsey novels). Both are of the upper class (Peter Wimsey is of the British aristocracy; Vance is a New York socialite). Both have a deliberately nonchalant way of speaking and say things like, "We're dealing' with a most unusual situation. And somebody translated [the victim] from this world in to the hereafter in a very distressin' fashion." Both have the ability to become serious, when necessary. Both have a friend who plays "straight man" to their overblown personalities (Charles Parker, a police inspector, and Markham, a D.A.). Both have "deceptive upper body strength" (as Colby says to Charlie in Numbers). Both wear a monocle!

In fact, the similarities are so striking that I compared dates. Sayer's first Wimsey novel appeared in 1923; Van Dine's first Vance novel in 1926.

If one were to argue origins, I would have to come down on the side of Sayers. Wimsey is not only more authentic to the Wodehouse/Hugh Laurie/Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny) tradition of over-educated, amusing fops, Wimsey himself is both funnier and more complex than Vance. (Vance, however, made Van Dine a lot more money during his lifetime than Wimsey made Sayers. On the other hand, the Wimsey novels have lasted in a way that the Vance novels haven't. Which is the preferable career?)

I actually think it is possible that both Sayers and Van Dine brought their characters to life at the same time without ever reading each other's works. It is even likely that they were both inspired by a third source. It's kind of like when every movie studio in Hollywood suddenly decides to do a movie about bugs. Or aliens. It's in the air!

Why amusing fops who investigate crimes would be in the air in the 1920s is something I can't explain off hand. It was the season of the flapper: a sort of jump-start era to the later rock-n-roll era of Elvis and the Beatles. Both horror and murder mysteries were big news. Hitchcock was on his way to making a killing (ha ha ha) as the premier mystery/suspense director in Hollywood.

But Hitchcock relied on Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant for his heroes: the all-American boy and the all-sexy Britisher. Grant may have been conflicted sexually, but he certainly didn't come off that way.

The only other explanation is that the amusing, witty, aristocratic detective was an attempt to meld Holmes (wholly cerebral) with Bertie Wooster (wholly extroverted and quirky). Still, the character type does have a sui generis vibe about it. Now you see him. Here he is.

To return to The Scarab Murder Case, it is a bit slow, being more focused on "railway tables" (so to speak) than on human motives: that is, the mystery is all about whowentwherewhen than relationships. The subject matter is interesting: ancient Egyptian history. The solution is fairly unimpressive. (Agatha Christie did this particular mystery problem better.)

On to "W"!

1 comment:

mike said...

You know, the astonishing x-men run by whedon is pretty cool.