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.
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.
 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.