Does anyone read the rarefied intellectual puzzles investigated by Philo Vance anymore? I have been looking again at this series written and narrated by ‘SS Van Dine’ mainly with great pleasure (and will provide a couple of reviews here at Fedora very shortly). I suspect though that in my generally positive view of these books I may be in a minority as they are not held in great esteem anymore.
In trying to consider my own enjoyment and their once great popularity, what follows is a general rundown of all twelve of the novels with associated musings, with an emphasis on some of the movie adaptations now that most of them are available on DVD.
“By an analytical and interpretative process which, as far as I know, has never before been applied to criminal activities, he succeeded in solving many of the important crimes on which both the police and the district attorney’s office had hopelessly fallen down.” - from The Benson Murder Case (1926)
‘S.S. Van Dine’ was the pseudonym used in the 1920s and 30s by the art critic Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), who in my copy of Beyond Good and Evil (which has an introduction by Wright) is referred to, “… one of the foremost students and interpreters of Nietzsche in America.” According to the publicity of the time, Wright created his sleuth Philo Vance after a long illness (now alleged to be due to a drug habit) during which he had been banned from reading anything more stimulating than detective stories (!!). The character is similar to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, also being a rich aristocrat who likes to solve crimes and is prone to dropping quotes and citations as he goes. In the case of Wright the erudition was pretty impressive and usually linked to the cases fairly convincingly – well, at least to begin with …
“After inspecting the art works of the pre-Hyksos and the post-Hyksos eras, Vance was inclined to postulate an interval of not more than 300 years between the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties” - from The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
As ‘Van Dine’ he explored many of the aesthetic and moral ideas of his serious but largely un read earlier books such as “The Creative Will” in a series of novels beginning with The Benson Murder Case in 1926, a new novel appearing roughly every year up ti his early death in 1939; his last novel, his twelfth, which had only reached its second draft, was published posthumously. His novels seem particularly dated today, and indeed Philo Vance does seem to embody the kind of upper-class affectations which today seem so much a cliché of “classic” detective fiction.
The difficulty would seem to be,” he returned, with an indolent drawl, “that the police, being unversed in the exquisite abracadabra of legal procedure, labor under the notion that evidence which would convince a man of ordin’ry intelligence, would also convince a court of law. A silly notion, don’t y’ know. Lawyers don’t really want evidence; they want erudite technicalities. And the average policeman’s brain is too forthright to cope with the pedantic demands of jurisprudence.” - from The Canary Murder Case (1927)
But Van Dine’s novels, at least until the mid 1930s were supremely popular among both critics and the public; they were a publishing sensation, more or less keeping his publisher, Scribner’s, solvent during the Depression.
Wright eventually outed himself as Van Dine and accepted that his fame would be ensured by a series of mystery books and not his more scholarly works. Despite his relative obscurity today, the debt owed to Sayers, he was probably at the time the most popular and influential mystery writer since Doyle, a position he was to more or less hold until the coming of World War II when he was probably superseded by the not dissimilar Ellery Queen. His historical importance shouldn’t be under estimated, especially in view of his symbiotic relation ship with the cinema.
“Vance at that time was thirty-four years old. He was just under six feet, slender, sinewy, and graceful. His chiselled regular features gave his face the attraction of strength and uniform modelling, but a sardonic coldness of expression precluded the designation of handsome. He had aloof grey eyes, a straight, slender nose, and a mouth suggesting both cruelty and asceticism. But, despite the severity of his lineaments– which acted like an impenetrable glass wall between him and his fellows– he was highly sensitive and mobile; and, though his manner was somewhat detached and supercilious, he exerted an undeniable fascination over those who knew him at all well.” - from The Greene Murder Case (1928)
He introduced a number of interesting gimmicks to the form, such as the use of footnotes to give the books a patina of refinement and culture to appeal to the higher middle classes and help rescue the genre from the depths of the penny dreadful (which is where Chandler, more or less, said he had every intention of taking it back, though he didn’t really mean it in terms of readership). Another innovation was that ‘S.S. Van Dine’ was also the name of the narrator, who acted as Watson to Vance’s Holmes, a gimmick to be taken to one brilliant step forward by Ellery Queen (though it had been done before by Nick Carter [sic]). Queen also used a variation of the Van Dine title strategy, which always followed the same formula: ‘The [six letter word] Murder Case’, the one exception being The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was really a novelised movie story. Queen’s books were also introduced by one ‘J.J. McCue’, clearly a ‘Van Dine’ clone, as was the initial info that the name of the detective, now residing in Italy, was a pseudonym to protect his identity, which is pretty much the identical information given out by Van Dine in the first Vance book – and it is worth stressing here that at that point Vance had only appeared in three books to give some idea of just how gigantic success the character was in popular fiction.
“A murder, I presume,” Vance complained through a yawn. “Nothing less than gore would have led your footsteps to my boudoir at this ungodly hour.”
“Not a murder–” Markham began.
“Oh, I say! What time might it be, then?”
- from The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
In 1928 Van Dine published his 20 rules for writing detective stories, a kid of addenda to Monsignor Knox’s more celebrated list of dos and dont’s in fair play construction. Van Dine’s list can be read online here. It make for highly amusing reading today and helps to explain perhaps why his books are not read much today – rule 3 for instance stipulates that there can be no love interest!
In all there were twelve novels, the initial five novels being of a very high-caliber in terms of complex id admittedly highly unlikely plotting. My personal favourite probably remains The Bishop Murder Case (which I reviewed here) though the first half-dozen are wonderfully entertaining in their own specialised way, with Kennel Murder Case offering a particularly complex locked room mystery. As Van Dine’s popularity began to wane the novels went into a decline, which became very steep in his last three novels. With the exception of perhaps the poorest of the series, Kidnap, all were filmed, though only The Kennel Murder Case, starring William Powell and stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz, is well-remembered today; though The Canary Murder Case, which also starred William Powell (he played the role 4 times in all) is at least remembered today for co-starring that sultry icon of silent cinema, Louise Brooks. Winter was to have been adapted as an Sonja Henie vehicle, but what emerged in 1941, Sun Valley Serenade, bore no resemblance to his work at all (review coming to Fedora very shortly). There was also a series of 12 shorts made by Warner Bros. as the “SS Van Dine Mystery Series” and a radio series, much of which can be heard online at the Internet Archive.
DVD Availability: Many of the Philo Vance films are now available as part of the Warner Archive on-demand DVD box set, The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. It brings together The Bishop Murder Case (1930), starring Basil Rathbone as Vance; The Kennel Murder Case (1933), easily the best of the bunch, staring William Powell; The Dragon Murder Case with Warren William, from 1934; The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas; The Garden Murder Case (1936) with Edmund Lowe and Calling Philo Vance (1940), a wartime remake of Kennel starring the excellent but sadly forgotten James Stephenson. The transfers vary from great (Bishop) to average (Dragon) but all are perfectly serviceable.
The full list of novels is as follows (and all can be downloaded for free at the project Gutenberg site here):
The Benson Murder Case (1926) ***** (4 fedora tips out of five)
The Canary Murder Case (1927) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Greene Murder Case (1928) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Bishop Murder Case (1929) ***** (5 fedora tips out of five)
The Scarab Murder Case (1930) ***** (4 fedora tips out of five)
The Kennel Murder Case (1933) ***** (4 fedora tips out of five)
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) ***** (3 fedora tips out of five)
The Casino Murder Case (1934) ***** (2.5 fedora tips out of five)
The Garden Murder Case (1935) ***** (2.5 fedora tips out of five)
The Kidnap Murder Case (1937) ***** (1 fedora tip out of five)
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) ***** (1 fedora tip out of five)
The Winter Murder Case (1939) ***** (2 fedora tips out of five)
The complete set is available on Kindle at an exceptionally reasonable price on Amazon. Otherwise The Benson Murder Case is probably the easiest of the novels to get hold of in paperback while Greene and Bishop are probably the best in terms of ingenuity if not exactly plausibility or characterisation - so if you can get your hands on them you can try to figure out what all the fuss was about back in the 1920s and 30s.