'The Florentine Dagger' (1923)
- THE FLORENTINE DAGGER. By Ben Hecht.
Boni and Liveright. $2.00
'The Forum,' January 1924, "Freudian Detective
Fiction," by Laird Shields Goldsborough:
"The really absorbing mystery to be
found in Mr. Ben Hecht's latest book is
not nearly so much, 'who murdered Victor
Ballau?' as 'Why did Ben Hecht care who
murdered him?' Ben Hecht, arch foe of the
Bourgeoisie; arch high priest of 'L'art pour
l'art, and damn the censors'; Ben Hecht has
apparently consented to keep his literary pot
boiling by the addition of ingredients designed
especially to tempt the palate of his especial
bete noire, the tired business man. For hors
d'oeuvre he has served up the sudden and
inexplicable death of Victor Ballau; for entree
he has concocted the elaborate suspicions
which soon threaten to envelop the beautiful
daughter of the murdered man; and for piece
de resistance he has wisely relied upon the
laudable efforts of her lover. Prince Julian de
Medici, to clear her name. Surely a menu for
the masses, -- their accustomed food, but
with exotic trimmings!
"One sees it all, the whole meteoric
descent into the realm of 'mere mystery
fiction,' in the stylistic difficulties which
the author experiences while trying to
speak with his tongue in his cheek. From
what the scholarly would call internal
evidence, I venture to do a little literary
sleuthing on my own account; I venture
to reconstruct for the benefit of the
curious the circumstances of that Hechtic
night during which 'The Florentine Dagger'
was committed -- to paper.
"It is a dark and stormy night. The wind,
and possibly the wolf, howls at the door
behind which is ensconced Mr. Hecht,
amid whatever exoticisms serve him for
household gods. A copy of that charming
mixture of lurid fact and fiction, The
Hearst Newspapers' Sunday magazine,
has just fallen from the Hechtic hand.
The Hechtic eye has just been revolted
by a feature story concerning Mile.
Lucrezia Bori, hailed recently by the
Hearst papers as, 'Innocent as a lamb,
yet with the dark secrets of the Borgia in
her blood,' -- or words to that effect.
The face of Ben Hecht becomes contorted
with a consuming passion. The howling
at the door! The terrific hysteria excited
in a man like Hecht by the Hearst-
Lucrezia Bori incident! All these things
unseat his high insistence upon L'art pour
l'art. Dual personality, -- the Freudian
splitting of the mind into compartments,
-- is induced by the strain; and Mr. Ben
Hecht's alter ego seizes his pen and writes
a would-be 'best seller.'
"Naturally the hero is Prince Julian de Medici
of Broadway, -- what other mediaeval family,
the Borgia excepted, is so well known to the
readers of Mr. Hearst's admirable Sunday
magazine? Naturally exoticism is laid on with
a trowel, -- Ben Hecht, even as an alter ego,
can never quite escape from that. And naturally
too, the whole story is about to degenerate into
a solemn farce, until it plunges into the realm
of abnormal psychology. There Ben Hecht is
in his element, at last. Whatever may be said
about the irreverence of the 'Chicago Moderns'
for the Christian Deity, they worship at the
shrines of Freud and Jung assiduously enough.
And curiously, -- or rather very naturally, --
when Ben Hecht ceases to pander directly to
the crowd, when he flies home to his native
complexes and obsessions, the whole tone of
'The Florentine Dagger' is heightened and
improved a thousandfold.
"Indeed it is to this late flowering of sincerity
that I believe the book will owe most of its
success. Once in his belated stride, Mr. Hecht
is not only sincere but in a sense original.
Original, that is, because no careful student of
abnormal psychology has as yet diluted the
more ghastly pages of Messrs. Freud and
Jung with just the right dash of hokum to
satisfy the public. For example, the man in
the street would be revolted if Dr. Freud
should present to him the case of X --, an
inmate of an insane asylum, whose mind is
in such a state that he does not know whether
he attempted to kill himself one night, or
whether someone attempted to murder him.
Horrible! Yes. But rename the unfortunate
X --. Call him Prince Julian de Medici;
cause his madness to arise out of 'the dark
secrets . . . in his blood'; envelope the whole
mystery in an air of bogus mediaeval-modernism,
-- and presto! you have found a new way to
tickle the palates of those who love detective
"That, by the way, is about all Mr. Hecht has
done. You will probably be diverted by his
baffling mystery, -- and a very fair specimen
it is. But you will be far more diverted by Ben
Hecht, -- that is if you are either a student or a
lover of that evanescent thing called style."
1935 movie version: