This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at academic mysteries or those based around schools, schooling, university, etc., and – for the first few weeks, at least – I want to use this as a chance to put my longstanding love of Edmund Crispin’s Oxford don Gervase Fen to one side and try to, y’know, diversify a bit. See, I’ve been thinking a bit on the topic of transition in the genre as part of my rumination on the eternal Character v Plot debate (see part 1 and part 2), and it raised its head again when I read this university-set tale of your typical – albeit baby-faced – pulp P.I. hired to ensure the safety of a millionaire’s daughter following the murder of a female student on campus.
There is, of course, the potential for culture-clash shenanigans, as our world-weary investigator has to deal with all these kids who still have so much to learn that can’t be found in books…except it doesn’t quite work out that way. If anything, it is Phil Keene who has his eyes opened by much of what is going on around him. He learns a great deal about art, about the need for a musical soul in order to be a great musician, and, particularly, about a sexual voracity which seems to hold a majority of the students and staff in its thrall:
“According to you…half the boys are sleeping with two-thirds of the girls. How does anybody at Royce find time for academic activity?”
“It sounds bad, doesn’t it?” A smile half-played at the corners of her mouth. “Maybe it is bad. I wouldn’t know.”
“You’ve been doing quite a bit of it yourself, I suppose.”
“I suppose.” Her shoulders twitched. “I never thought about it particularly, but, now that you point it out, I can see how an outsider would get the impression that debauchery and free love are rampant.”
To a certain extent in this regard, Saber – a pen name of Milton Ozaki, who also published works under his own name – is playing to type: our hero is rugged, tough, cynical around the edges (we first meet him getting drunk on bourbon in his office before his partner palms off this case onto him) and completely removed from the world he is about to enter. And yet as the book progresses, and I’m probably going to do a poor job of exploring this in context, he is increasingly the one who is learning things and picking up aspects of a life unknown from the students and professors he encounters.
I choose to see this as evidence of yet another period of transition in the genre: the plotting and action of the book is shot through with that same urgency and creativity one would expect from the classic-era pulp writers trying to hammer out their two thousand words a day to make ends meet, but in a post-WW2 society the need for adaptability has become all too obvious. How much classic pulp writing was done in the 1950s? Most of the examples you can cite are novels, not magazine stories, merging closer to the puzzle plots of GAD in an accommodation of their longevity and versatility in order to preserve the form in some way – it’s not like these writers are just going to stop writing overnight, after all, and wake up the next day and get jobs in banks.
And so here we have the slightly uncomfortable blending of the genres that is fascinating for how suddenly one or other will lurch to the fore. Feminism is clearly some way off, with remarks like “If I weren’t a girl, I’d try to be a detective” and “Most women look like hell in the morning, and it takes them an hour or two to get dressed” underlining the somewhat simplistic origins of the pulps that saw them fade away. Then, suddenly, you find university professors discussing the nature of sanity:
“Insanity is a term applied by society to those people who simply cannot see things our way,” Charles Seymour murmured.
“Scientifically, then, the difference between sanity and insanity is merely one of degree. Is there such a thing as a fluctuation of sanity?” I asked.
“Certainly!” Tilton was emphatic. “We are human, we are subject to fluctuation of intelligence, of sensibility, of ability to rationalize, of everything, just as we are subject day-by-day to fluctuation of physical vitality.”
In particular, the solution of how the killer could work out where their victims were in order to be able to kill them in pitch darkness blends some very nice clew-ing with the frank fantasy and nonsense innovation that marks out much of the genius of the pulps, yes, but also the reason they were on borrowed time. It’s a brilliant writhing, wrestling mess of a solution that will take some swallowing for both camps…but works because of the way both are accommodated for both in plotting and the central character of Keene himself.
Indeed, the more we progress with Phil Keene the more details emerge about him that make him seem an unlikely grizzled P.I. (I prefer to see it that way round, rather than them being unlikely traits for a grizzled P.I. to possess): he speaks Latin, is able to refer to the teachings of Freud in reference to the fundamental emotions of mankind, and, most dissonantly, is able to join in with the light mockery of your typical blunt-instrument policeman on campus who fails to follow the fundamentals of a ballet performance.
In short, what Phil Keene represents is the pulp genre re-evaluated, not changing its spots entirely but working towards something like enlightenment, adopting the principles of something it has coexisted with and now wishes to emulate. The same has also been true in the other direction – witness how puzzle plots have increasingly adopted the verisimilitude of the pulps and become Julian Symons’ crime novels: less lurid, less urgent, less vital, but without a doubt but without a doubt entangling itself with a form previously thought un-symbitoic. It’s only the use of your Stage Three P.I. that behoves the interpretation of this as the pulps’ attempt at reconciliation.
Whoever made the first steps isn’t important, however. They’ve spied each other across the dancefloor, and change is on the way…
For more on Ozaki – including, be warned, a spoiler for the method of killing in this book – see Bill Crider’s superb homage over at the always-reliable Mystery*File.
I submit this book for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Knife.