Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse.

Cleverness is our national curse. ~ Philo Vance, The Kennel Murder Case

One of the most dismissed forms of the twentieth century detective stories is the esthete or dandy. Starting in 1926, Willard Huntington Wright, writing as SS Van Dine, introduced Philo Vance. The character, who seemed to be an encyclopedia of art, culture and crime, appeared in 1926 in The Benson Murder Case. Vance was called “a man of unusual culture and brilliance.”

He was accompanied by SS Van Dine, the character, who also served as biographer to Vance. Much has been made of the relationship between Van Dine and Vance, with some suggesting that Vance actually wrote as Van Dine,  while others have suggested a more intimate relationship.[1]

Vance was a youngish man, who wore a monocle, and had a habit of dropping the ending g’s on words, and peppering his speech with “don’t y’ know”. Over the course of his appearances, Vance showed a predilection for horse racing, dog breeding, Egyptology, ancient Chinese ceramics, chess, Renaissance art, fencing, golf, poker, archery to name a few. This was Nietzsche’s superman come to solve the mystery.

In The Bishop Murder Case, Van Dine, the author, develops a framework of the puzzle mystery. Cock Robin, better known as Joseph Cochrane Robin, was found shot through the heart with an arrow at the home of a famous professor of Vance’s acquaintance. Vance is immediately concerned, feeling that this pattern is the work of an above-average, albeit off-kilter, mind. As two other crimes are committed using nursery rhymes, the body count stacks up and Vance must solve a rather heinous series of crimes.

While the puzzle itself was extremely well done, many critics and readers objected to the ending of the book, where Vance plays God by offing the murderer in a rather cold-blooded fashion. For someone who knows everything, should not the fate of a particular man be up to him as well? While Vance does not set the stage for the final crime, his discourse on another subject certainly helps put the events into motion.

The Kennel Murder Case, the fifth book in the series, proved more pedantic and yet better plotted. When the body of an art collector is found dead and locked in a room, Vance is called into the case. Vance quickly decides that the crime was murder and not suicide, and an examination of the body shows that the corpse was coshed, stabbed and shot.

The discovery of an injured Scottie downstairs provides Vance with the only clue to determining who had killed the collector. Vance, who breeds Scotties of course, includes a section where he tracks down the pedigree of the Scottie, including his own real-life breeding friends as characters. It is with the knowledge of the dog that Vance is able to solve the case.

Julian Symons and Barzun and Taylor were not kind to Van Dine or Vance. Symons felt that the later books in the series were sub-par to the first six novels. Of course, his assessment of The Gracie Allen Murder Case is correct, in that the book felt pandering to the masses for a boost in sales. However, one could not include a Vaudevillian couple into the rarified world of Vance and expect the results to be pleasant. Barzun and Taylor were less kind, only liking the first and last books in the series.

Despite the snobbery of Wright as Van Dine, Van Dine did offer literary criticism to the genre. He wrote a rather involved introduction to The World’s Great Detective Stories, and later offered 20 rules for writing a detective story for American Magazine. Of course, being Van Dine, he would feel no qualms about breaking those rules when it suited him.

[1] Since a piece on Vance wouldn’t be complete without footnotes, the first case has Markham ask Vance if he is wearing a green carnation, which was a pre-Stonewall signal of solidarity between gay men.


  1. The Bishop Murder Case extremely well plotted? I remember it as stacking one unlikely set of circumstances on another to fit the nursery rhyme theme (a man with the surname Robin, who's also happens to be an archer, was shot in the chest with an arrow and one of the suspects has a last name that means sparrow... cuckoo!), but then again, I made the mistake to read a very outdated translation that kept referring to the murder as a treurspel - which was cute, for a while, but halfway through I wanted to chuck the book across the room.

    It's kind of tragic that Wright was never really known for the one really good idea (the nursery rhyme motif) he had to offer (like Chesterton and his Invisible Man gambit) because others outdid him with it. *cough* Christie *cough*

    The Kennel Murder Case was the only Van Dine I really liked. As you said, it has a good plot and Vance was tolerable. You might be interested in an old one-man book-club threads that we used to do on the Carr forum. In one of them, I made a botched attempt at reading The Dragon Murder Case. Commentary by Patrick O. ;)

  2. Perhaps I have a higher tolerance for literary license to set up a scenario! Granted that Christie did it better, but I could say that about most everything she attempted.

    With the series on dilettantes, I'm trying to show how Wright should be more known for helping to create a rather neglected, but enjoyable subgenre.

  3. Well, I think if Van Dine should get credit for anything, it should be for founding the Van Dine School and paving the way for writers like Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Anthony Abbot – not for creating Vance!

  4. Do you really think that Stuart Palmer falls in the Van Dine school? I would add Boucher in with the group. Fergus is definitely an heir to Queen and Van Dine.

    (and guilty pleasure -- I do enjoy Vance!)

  5. Hildegarde Withers a female Philo Vance? NOT! I agree with you about Boucher, Jeff. Even if he had only written THE CASE OF THE SEVEN OF CALVARY which is the most Van Dine-like of his books. I recently discovered another Van Dine School acolyte - Hariette Ashbrook. Her novels with Spike Tracy seem very much modeled after Wright's detective novels. And there's more than a smidgen of Vance in Tracy's ne'er-do-well personality. One of these days my article on her detective novels will show up over at my blog.

  6. John, I've not heard of Hariette Ashbrook, but I'll be looking her up. Very interesting. Thanks

  7. I have never been able to get myself to like The Bishop Murder Case, though I have this weird affection for The Greene Murder Case, despite the fact I'm always criticizing it. I do like Kennel as well, despite Van Dine's having to name drop all the high society kennel club people he knew, and I will insist to the end that The Casino Murder Case is quite underrated.

  8. I know Stuart Palmer, stylistically, does not seem to fit-in with the rest (a working class spinster as detective and all), but I have always seen him as one of those American mystery writers who followed Van Dine and Queen into the Golden Age and you can find traces of the Van Dine-Queen School in Palmer. Some of the stories have specialized backgrounds (dog breeders, museums, etc) and a lot of the crimes (especially in his short stories) are (border-line) impossible ones/howdunits.

  9. The name dropping is a bit difficult in The Kennel Murder Case, but for me, it's one of those authors showing off their research bits, and I've seen many authors do this. I've not read Casino, but I think I will, don't you know? :)

  10. I think Vance wanted them to buy the book! Tropical fish are so expensive, eh, what?

  11. Or Van Dine, I mean--but then, lol, they were basically the same person, weren't they?