S.S. Van Dine | The Benson Murder Case | The "Canary" Murder Case | The Greene Murder Case | The Bishop Murder Case | The Scarab Murder Case | The Kennel Murder Case | The Dragon Murder Case | The Casino Murder Case | The Kidnap Murder Case | The Gracie Allen Murder Case | The Winter Murder Case | Plot Construction | Characterization | History of Detective Fiction | Van Dine's Biography | Van Dine and the Future | Literary Style
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page | Download a free E-book of my mystery stories in EPUB or Kindle format.
History of Art Home Page
The Benson Murder Case (1926)
The "Canary" Murder Case (1927)
The Greene Murder Case (1928) (Chapters 1-6, 13, 18, 23, 26)
The Bishop Murder Case (1928) (Chapters 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, middle of 18, last third of 19, start of 20, first half of 21)
The Scarab Murder Case (1929)
The Kennel Murder Case (1932) (Chapters 1-10, 19, 20)
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) (Chapters 1-10, 21)
The Casino Murder Case (1934) (Chapters: last part of 1, 2, last third of 10, 13, first half of 14)
The Kidnap Murder Case (1936) (Chapters 1-4, 10, 13-16)
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
People who live in Canada can download free ebook versions of most Philo Vance books at Faded Page.
Van Dine on Detective Fiction:
Please see my article on Minorities and Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction for a discussion of the positive, non-stereotyped portraits of minorities in Van Dine and his followers.
A list of links to my articles on Mystery Writers Influenced by Van Dine.
Death of the Reader is an Australian talk radio show about classic mystery fiction. I took part in the episode about The Kennel Murder Case. You can hear the archived podcast, plus an extended version of my comments.
Commentary on S.S. Van Dine:
The Benson Murder Case (1926) introduces Van Dine's sleuth, Philo Vance. Vance is a wealthy connoisseur of the arts, and amateur detective who assists the district attorney with his investigations. Van Dine's whole first chapter is devoted not the mystery, but a description of Vance's art collection. Van Dine was an art critic by profession, and Vance comes across as a genuine intellectual with a deep knowledge of the world of art.
Van Dine's detective Philo Vance is mainly an art connoisseur and collector, when not in his role as amateur detective and criminal nemesis. What Vance is collecting, and the opinions he expresses on art, are still interesting today. In a triumph of style, the first Vance book, The Benson Murder Case, begins with a chapter not on crime, but on Vance's collection. Vance's tastes, like those of his creator, embrace the whole range of world art, and are admirably multi-racial, decades before this became at all fashionable.
The Benson Murder Case is somewhat dry and austere as a plot. It is a straightforward murder and its solution is without the symbolic resonances of the next two books. Instead its focus is on the mind and personality of Philo Vance. Van Dine's portrait of a reasoning mind in his depiction of Philo Vance's solving the mystery is genuinely impressive, and combined with Vance's rich verbal fluency forms a believable portrait of human Intellect at work.
The Benson Murder Case is written in Van Dine's magnificent English prose style, a style out of sync with the plain vernacular popularized in the 1920's by Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and others. Instead Van Dine's style suggests the ornate prose masterpieces of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas Browne and Charlotte Brontë.
The Amateur and the Police. One of the best sections in the book shows Vance's first involvement with the police, as they investigate the murder (Chapters 2-4).
This is a pioneering instance of a key contribution of Van Dine to detective fiction: the mystery solved by an amateur genius and a team of professional police, working in collaboration.
The Benson Murder Case is what comic books call an "origin story": it shows how Philo Vance first became a detective. His first collaboration with the police (Chapters 2-4) evokes a wide range of emotions: curiosity, awkwardness, revelation and joy.
Gender: Vance as Gay. Without actually saying so explicitly, the portrait of Philo Vance keeps teasing us with intimations of queerness:
Philo Vance is also an outsider, in being an intellectual. The Benson Murder Case is similarly a story of an intellectual integrating himself into society. It is a book that has tremendous relevance for outsiders of all kinds.
Gender: Alvin Benson. Alvin Benson's home is stereotypically masculine in its furnishings, especially the living room (Chapter 2). Its description starts with his pictures of race horses and hunting trophies.
We eventually learn that Benson sexually harassed a woman, Muriel St. Clair.
Gender: The Police. The police are at their most conventional, as they first investigate the murder (Chapters 2-4). The police represent a group thought of as archetypally male, especially in that era. They represent a direct expression of ideals of male behavior and social organization. They make a vivid contrast to Philo Vance.
However, one should NOT assume the police are straight. No actual sexual orientation is assigned to most of the cops in this book. And later novels in the series sometimes suggest hidden sides or even gay orientations for some of the cops.
Government: The Police. The police and District Attorney also represent the city government of New York. We learn much about their political interaction (Chapter 2).
The victim is shown reading a famous short story by O. Henry, "A Municipal Report" (1909). This continues the city government theme (Chapter 2).
So does the interesting Alderman character we eventually meet, William H. Moriarty (last third of Chapter 22). As the narrator says, he bears no resemblance to the conventional idea of an Alderman. Although the Alderman seems honest, he has the same last name as the arch-criminal in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Professor James Moriarty. This is a witty touch.
The conflicts between the police and the District Attorney over who is in charge of the case (Chapter 2), recall the conflicts between local police and Scotland Yard in the British novels of Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers.
Mathematics. Philo Vance does a fine piece of detective work, reconstructing the shooting (Chapter 9). He makes a good deduction. Vance's reasoning involves mathematics. Mathematics returns in later novels, especially in the mathematician characters in The Bishop Murder Case and The Casino Murder Case.
The article on Ellery Queen looks at how The Benson Murder Case might have served as a model for the mathematics in Queen's mysteries.
Clues to the Killer. The Benson Murder Case sets forth Philo Vance's psychological ideas of crime detection. His explanation of these ideas makes good reading (Chapters 6, 8). These explanations deal with his ideas in general, rather than applying them to the book's specific murder case.
However, his use of these ideas to analyze the various suspects, and pick out which one is guilty, is not convincing in my judgment (Chapter 25). I'm not convinced by his psychological profile of the criminal. Nor by his psychological portraits of the various suspects.
Much better is the more conventional set of clues to the killer's identity. He highlights them (second half of Chapter 5). Then does an in-depth analysis (Chapter 21). These clues to the killer's identity are good. And help preserve the status of The Benson Murder Case as a "fair play" novel with clues to the killer's identity.
Architecture. Architecture in The Benson Murder Case anticipates later Philo Vance books:
The Alibis: Architecture. Towards the book's end, Philo Vance investigates the alibis of two suspects. These are excellent passages.
The first alibi (second half of Chapter 22) is simpler. It serves as an overture to the more elaborate second alibi (Chapter 23). The first alibi lays out the sort of mystery puzzle that will be investigated in the second alibi.
Both alibis, especially the second one, involve the buildings where the suspects were at at the time of the murder. The architecture of the building plays a key role in the plot of the second alibi. Such mysteries reflect the interest in architecture in Golden Age mystery fiction.
The second alibi is clever. It is one of the best mystery plots in The Benson Murder Case.
The Alibis: Witnesses. Both alibis are of older man suspects. Both alibis depend on the testimony of young man witnesses. The witnesses in both alibis are obviously truthful in their statements. But - have they somehow been deceived by the suspects?
Both young man witnesses are sharply dressed.
The witness in the second alibi is one of two uniformed attendants in the apartment building. These young men anticipate the uniformed attendants at the Casino in The Casino Murder Case (Chapter 2). However, there is no sign the young men are as well-built as the Casino workers.
The second young man witness in The Benson Murder Case gets well-done dialogue that suggests he is a "typical young man" in his speech patterns. This is consistent with the investigation of masculinity and maleness throughout The Benson Murder Case.
Dramatic Dialogue: Play-like Sections in Fiction. Philo Vance's questioning of the young man witness (Chapter 23) is in the form of what The Benson Murder Case calls "dramatic-dialogue". It is like the script of a stage play, with the names of the speakers and their dialogue.
Such passages sometimes appear in Van Dine School authors:
Snitkin. The Benson Murder Case is the debut of many Van Dine series characters. Policeman Snitkin is one of several cops who work for Sgt. Heath.
Snitkin's first appearance is a police stereotype, emphasizing he is big and strong (Chapter 2). This includes one of the few physical descriptions of Snitkin in Van Dine: he's one of "two burly fellows with big hands and feet". This first look is unprepossessing: he is de-individualized, being one of two cops shaking the window bars; nameless; and dehumanized: the cops are compared to apes in the way they shake the bars. When he does speak in the next chapter he uses bad grammar: a double negative.
However, both the rest of The Benson Murder Case and later books undercut this view of Snitkin. He gradually develops into the most interesting of the cops working for Heath.
He appears twice more in The Benson Murder Case, the first time getting a name and giving his report on the grillwork (Chapter 3).
He appears more extensively during Phil Vance's famous demonstration on ballistics (Chapter 9). Snitkin is cheerful, good-natured, respectful of other people but not overawed. He makes an intelligent suggestion about gun safety. There is sometimes a bit of comic tone to his remarks, but he is also articulate. Here and in later books Snitkin evolves into a working class ideal: smart, good at his job, friendly, good at talking, and not awed by authority. Later in The Kidnap Murder Case (Chapter 10) we learn that Snitkin was a taxi driver before joining the police: another working class job requiring skill, brains, independence and verbal fluency. Snitkin is assigned to pose as a taxi driver during a stakeout.
In The "Canary" Murder Case Snitkin gets another stakeout assignment with an undercover-as-a-skilled-working-man touch: he's assigned to run an elevator (Chapter 23). Snitkin also articulately sums up a break in the case (Chapter 22). And shows his strength when he and Sgt. Heath break down a door (end of Chapter 23).
Snitkin is linked to other working class people: the housekeeper in The Benson Murder Case (start of Chapter 9), the street-cleaner in The "Canary" Murder Case (Chapter 22).
Snitkin does detective work on footprints in The Greene Murder Case (end of Chapter 8). Later in The Dragon Murder Case (Chapter 9) he is ordered to study the strange prints. The novel talks about Snitkin's expertise in this area, and explicitly mentions his activities in The Greene Murder Case. Philo Vance praises Snitkin's drawings of the prints, and calls Snitkin "a natural draughtsman" (end of Chapter 9). Snitkin is involved with the prints later (second half of Chapter 19).
Snitkin is elevated into that special category in Van Dine, The Artist. Similarly Sgt. Heath's stakeout technology in The Kidnap Murder Case (Chapter 10) brings him into artist territory: the light and color show. Heath too becomes one of Van Dine's artists.
Snitkin is an example of a fairly widespread phenomenon in mystery fiction. A mystery novel will seem to focus on upper class suspects and victims. But without much fanfare, the focus will shift to exploring interesting members of the working class or lower middle class.
Other Writers' Police. Snitkin anticipates another interesting "series sleuth who's a supporting member of the police team": Todunter in the novels of Helen Reilly.
Frederick Irving Anderson also had interesting "supporting police characters": Morel and Pelts. They appeared earlier than the main detective stories of Van Dine and Reilly: Morel and Pelts are both in "The Footstep" (1925), for example.
Public Service. Philo Vance shares his talents for free, to serve the public. This was an ideal shared by many people, and today still is a driver of the huge volunteer and public service sector of the economy.
Many critics today just don't like Philo Vance as a person. Fair enough, one supposes - although I personally like Philo Vance enormously. But I wish they would give Vance credit for what he does. He works hard to help other people and society, and does all this for free.
Vance is also practical. His ideas and efforts actually work. The ability to get practical results is also a big test of a person's approach.
The "Canary" Murder Case contains beautiful descriptions of the Canary's luxurious surroundings; it also emphasizes the romantic physical appeal of both the Canary and her boyfriend. It is the most sensual novel ever to appear as a Golden Age mystery story, in the full meaning of that term. The novel is a powerful, romantic portrait of both the beauty of physical love, and its snuffing out in the icy American climate of romantic repression. This is the book that made Van Dine famous, becoming an immense best seller; it also started a popular series of films, with William Powell as Vance.
Swacker. The "Canary" Murder Case has the best portrait of series character Francis Swacker, the young man who works as District Attorney Markham's secretary (first half of Chapter 9). Swacker's energy is consistent with the life force of the Canary and her boyfriend. The same passage also praises Markham's "vitality", and that of his staff. Swacker (Chapter 23) carries a "stenographic note-book", likely used to write in Shorthand, a skill that runs through mystery fiction of the era. Swacker is shown as good at getting information, in The Casino Murder Case (Chapter 13). Swacker debuted in The Benson Murder Case, which is one of the rare books that mention his first name Francis.
Color. Some passages use brilliant color:
Unfortunately, The Greene Murder Case is not that interesting as a story, during much of its length. The murders seem routine, and the setting is bland.
Mystery Plot. But the mystery plot eventually develops some good features, especially in its solution. MILD SPOILERS in this section.
Philo Vance makes some good observations right away, debunking the theory that the crime was committed by a burglar (Chapter 2). There are several examples in the Vance books of him immediately throwing skepticism on early ideas about the crime: The Kennel Murder Case, The Kidnap Murder Case (Chapter 4). These are usually skillfully done.
The core mystery plot of the novel as a whole, can be followed most clearly in Chapters 1-6, and 13.
Philo Vance starts to solve the mystery in Chapter 16, explaining his ideas about the footprints. This is an example of inductive reasoning in detective fiction: Vance starts to notice common features in various sets of footprints, and draws conclusions from them.
The solution of the mystery is in Chapter 26. This too contains some off-trail approaches. This contains an original plot idea, that offers a variation on standard plot concepts in mystery fiction. This is the most significant part of the novel.
The unusual plot ideas in The Greene Murder Case likely influenced Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Y (1932), and from thence, some later Queen novels. The Tragedy of Y is also an experimentally-plotted variation on Golden Age mystery fiction.
Parts of the solution of The Greene Murder Case use techniques and approaches, that in other books could be used to create impossible crimes. While The Greene Murder Case is not an impossible crime story, it has links to that tradition.
The revelation of the killer's identity in the solution has some unusual aspects. There do not seem to be any actual clues, that directly identify or point to the murderer. In the previous Chapter 25, the killer is revealed at the end of a suspense passage. And Vance simply takes it for granted from this moment on, that the killer is now revealed. But: if there are no clues, there are lots of ingenious ideas about how this particular killer could have done the crimes. The book is a real puzzle plot mystery: how this killer pulled of the murders involves some ingenious, clever surprises, all of which are logically and fairly developed from evidence in the story. This situation: "a puzzle plot about a killer, without actual clues to the killer's identity", gives the book an unusual logical structure. One suspects that it is hardly unique in mystery literature in this regard, though.
The Library. The visit in Chapter 18, is poetic and atmospheric. It seems to correspond with things we see in our dreams. Vance explicitly says it is something he is dreaming about. The locked library anticipates the locked crypt in The Dragon Murder Case. It also anticipates the locked library room in Ursula K. Le Guin's fantasy novel Voices (2004).
Outline. The book contains Vance's unusual summary of the crimes in Chapter 23. Many mysteries contain what Carolyn Wells calls a tabulation: a list of unsolved questions about the crime. But the list in The Greene Murder Case goes far beyond this. It is essentially a summary of the whole novel in outline form. It is an unfolding of the inner structure of the novel in explicit, concrete form. It makes The Greene Murder Case something of an experimental novel: a book that innovates in the form of fiction. Please see my list of Outlines Within Mystery Novels for related examples.
Trees. A paragraph (start of Chapter 3) offers a vivid survey of trees and shrubs on the Green estate. These plants are often aligned with borders in the landscape: the river, walkways, the drive, the wall.
A tree plays a key role in the stakeout in The Kidnap Murder Case (Chapter 10). In The "Canary" Murder Case (start of Chapter 16) Vance breakfasts in his "little roof-garden".
The Locale. The Greene mansion is the ultimate in old-fashioned relics of a bygone era (start of Chapter 3). Its architecture suggests "feudal traditionalism". A happy epilogue describes the mansion as being torn down, and the land sold to developers.
The mansion is at the far East end of 53rd Street. Somewhat amazingly, this locale will soon become famous in popular culture. Part of Sutton Place, it will symbolize the archetypal contrast between the big rich and the extreme poor in the film Dead End (1937). The name Sutton Place still evokes Inequality, and the indifference of the 1% to the poor. Even before Dead End, the mystery novel About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) noted the contrast between the rich and poor in the Sutton Place area. About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress is by Van Dine's follower Anthony Abbott.
Democratic Policing. Markham's lying about warrants is a major felony (Chapter 18). It is not something a real life District Attorney would do, one hopes. In any case, it seems like a deplorable attack on the rule of law: something that will also be a problem with the finale of The Bishop Murder Case.
Bigotry. Some Van Dine books are admirably progressive on Civil Rights, with positive portraits of minorities: The Benson Murder Case, The "Canary" Murder Case, The Kennel Murder Case.
But are there Van Dine books which contain bigotry? Unfortunately, the answer is "Yes."
The Bishop Murder Case contains not one but two characters with disabilities: Bertrand Dillard, Adolph Drucker. These characters are seen negatively (Chapters 6, 26). Drucker's disability is explicitly seen as psychologically harmful (Chapter 6).
In addition there is a racial slur against people of Mediterranean descent (Chapter 1).
The Bishop Murder Case is the moral low point of Van Dine's detective fiction.
The Execution. Also on the negative side, Vance playing the role of judge, jury and executioner at the end is wrong - an attack on democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Horror. The Bishop Murder Case is more of a "horror" novel than are most of the Vance books. It is not scary. But it does try to include creepy atmosphere and events. This is made explicit in the opening (Chapter 1) which uses words like ghoulish, fiendish, wicked and abnormal to describe the crime. Later (opening of Chapter 7) the book uses the word "horror" and likens the story to a "grotesque nightmare whose atmosphere could not be shaken off."
Serial Killer. The serial killer aspects of The Bishop Murder Case also contribute to its categorization as a horror novel.
I'm going to speculate that the popularity of both horror and serial killer fiction, is a factor in the way quite a few people like The Bishop Murder Case as the best of Van Dine's books.
By contrast, I have a large scale aversion to both horror stories and serial killer tales. This might make The Bishop Murder Case less interesting to me.
The Bishop Murder Case is one of the earliest serial killer novels, aside from stories based on Jack the Ripper. It began magazine serialization in The American Magazine issue marked October 1928, which might have appeared on newsstands in August. The earlier The Murders in Praed Street by John Rhode was reviewed in February 1928.
The Good Parts. The Bishop Murder Case has some decent sections. The rest of this article will concentrate on these. These sections do NOT contain bigotry. MILD SPOILERS ahead.
Nursery Rhyme. The Bishop Murder Case does seem to be the first mystery book built around a nursery rhyme. Many Golden Age novels are constructed around some formal scheme: Ellery Queen and Ngaio Marsh come to mind. Marsh's chapter headings especially convey a fascinating sense of pure geometry. Even Agatha Christie used this approach in Ten Little Indians. Bishop seems to be not only the first nursery-rhyme mystery book, but the first of any sort of mystery novel constructed around a formal scheme.
Unlike some critics, I am unperturbed about the coincidences embodied in the nursery rhymes. They are presented by Van Dine as exactly that: coincidences. Various characters in the book point them out, then the mad killer takes advantage of them. Van Dine does not use them to cheat on his mystery puzzle. They make for some vivid storytelling.
Architecture. Also well-done in Chapter 2: the architecture of the crime scene. This is a full three-dimensional cityscape, filled with interesting detail. A mathematician character calls this a "three-dimensional house". It certainly is. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Album (1933), we can follow the architecture up and down, as well as horizontally both North-South and East-West.
The next chapters trace the movements of the characters around the crime scene. The results are summarized (Chapters: 7, first half of 8). These summaries use some of the multi-media approaches popular in classic detective fiction: a timetable (Chapter 7), lists (Chapters 7, 8).
A later section (middle of Chapter 18) contains street maps of the crime scene. These are two-dimensional variants of the three-dimensional diagram seen earlier (Chapter 2). These maps too are pleasant. I like the way a map shows the position of police observers (middle of Chapter 18).
The archery-room (Chapter 2) anticipates the laboratory in The Casino Murder Case (Chapters 13, first half of 14). Both:
At the novel's end, we see that Van Dine has also embedded a couple of fair play clues pointing to the killer. They are hardly logically conclusive. But they are there: and contrary to the claims of some critics, The Bishop Murder Case is a fair play detective novel.
The second murder is a surrealistic echo of the first (Chapters: last third of 8, 9). This is an important artistic strategy that will later run through Ellery Queen and Craig Rice.
Backgrounds. The Bishop Murder Case has two backgrounds: archery and mathematical physics. There is what amounts to a mini-museum of archery in the mansion, the "archery-room" (Chapter 2). Such private museums will play a role in later Van Dine and Van Dine school authors.
The references to mathematics and physics throughout are well informed, and show Van Dine's flair with intellectual subjects (Chapters: last third of 8, 9, last third of 19). He gets some fine prose style, out of evoking the names of books and authors. The information on mathematical physics is remarkably modern. One character is working on an attempt to develop a statistical version of quantum mechanics (last third of Chapter 19). As Van Dine points out in a footnote (love those footnotes!), this was later done in real life by Broglie and Schrödinger. This was red hot material from just a few years earlier when Van Dine wrote his book in 1928. (If he'd included Schrödinger's Cat, he could have made this a cozy :) How many contemporary mystery writers could publish an accurate, detailed mystery set among physicists, complete with up-to-the-minute discussions of cosmology, string theory, hadrons? It would be a formidable challenge. And who would publish it?
But Van Dine's comments linking science to mental derangement (Chapter 21) are not as informed or as original as his comments elsewhere on art. The first half of this section is a pretty good runthrough of the paradoxes of modern physics, astronomy and mathematics. The purely mathematical paradoxes especially rely on non-Euclidean geometry. Modern theories of infinity are also touched on. But the second half of this chapter, suggesting that too much mathematics will lead to madness, are balderdash.
Mathematics and Crime Detection. Mathematical physicist Arnesson outlines his hopes that mathematics can be used to solve crimes (Chapter 4). Arnesson is NOT talking about the concrete use of mathematics to solve technological riddles. Rather, he hopes that a thinker can solve a mystery, in ways similar to a mathematician solving an equation or mathematical problem.
Unfortunately Arnesson never sets forth this approach in depth. And Vance himself later declares it "rubbish" (later part of Chapter 8). Still, it's an interesting idea, and makes absorbing reading.
This proposal to use mathematics to solve crimes, parallels the more elaborate proposal to use psychology to solve crimes, in The Benson Murder Case (Chapters 6, 8, 25).
Van Dine shows a certain practical shrewdness in both methods. He cites real-life success stories. The psychology chapters talk about the real-life ability of art experts to identify painters by analyzing canvases. The math chapters talks about the real-life discovery of the planet Neptune through mathematical means. Both of these successes suggest that the methods might have real world possibilities.
Color. There is bright multi-color imagery associated with key objects: the arrow (last part of Chapter 2), the notebook (last third of Chapter 19).
Mystery Plot. The solution is both a bit obvious, and very implausible. Even here, however, Van Dine pleases with his numerous, carefully thought through details. So while not a classic of the puzzle plot, it is an atmospheric and fun to read book.
Parts of the solution remind one of Ellery Queen's The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931), and it stands as part of the cultural background of that book. It also reminds one somewhat of Queen's later successor to Dutch Shoe, The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). The in-depth murder investigation is also directly ancestral to the even more complex sleuthing at the crime scene in Queen's books.
The brownstone in The Kennel Murder Case is near an apartment building, with a vacant lot in between. This recalls the cityscape in The Bishop Murder Case, which has a house next to an apartment, with a courtyard in between used for archery.
Influence on Stout. The Kennel Murder Case takes place in a brownstone on West 71st Street in New York City. The next year, Rex Stout's sleuth Nero Wolfe will make his debut in Fer-de-Lance (1934). Wolfe will also live in a brownstone building, on West 35th Street. The floor plans of Wolfe's brownstone, and the one in The Kennel Murder Case are similar - but this might just reflect a common architectural plan in New York's brownstones.
Stout was very much an admirer of Van Dine, and probably influenced by him in numerous ways. The 1960's paperbacks of Van Dine carry a blurb from Stout: "So Philo Vance will be darting around again. Good!"
Mystery Plot. The Dragon Murder Case has a memorable impossible crime in its opening half, one that is completely original in its puzzle.
The solution is not as clever as the problem itself. But it is workable, and has the merit of extending the detailed, weirdly atmospheric storytelling of the impossible crime problem. When I first read the book, I found the solution terribly disappointing - and so do other readers, to judge by their comments on the discussion group GAdetection. The solution is brief, simple, and brute force in coming up with a way to commit the crimes. But re-readings remind one that the solution is fair, and also in keeping with the surrealistic tone of the book.
Landscape. The story takes place in an imaginative setting, the Dragon Pool. This narrow pool channel recalls the narrow gap between buildings where The Bishop Murder Case is set. Both locales are fully three-dimensional, with height and depth playing a role, along with East-West and North-South coordinates. Both include balconies, from which people can look down over the locale. While The Bishop Murder Case takes place in a pure cityscape, the Dragon Pool combines natural features such as a cliff and stream, with man-made landscape architecture modifications.
Van Dine slowly builds up more and more detail about the Pool region. He is still going strong adding information in Chapter 10, half-way through the book. This gives the whole locale an impressively complex imaginative existence. The impossible crime mystery puzzle also keeps getting meaningful detail added.
It is important to read The Dragon Murder Case along with the landscape map that accompanied the original hardback - which is also present in the Internet version. The paperback version I originally read years ago lacked the map, and the tale was much impoverished and confused.
Real Life History. It might also help to search out information on the real life Inwood Hill region of Manhattan in which the tale takes place. Both maps and articles are available on the Internet. The wild forest area where the novel transpires is now Inwood Hill Park, run by New York City.
The current real-life Park still contains the foundation of the now torn down Straus mansion, the 19th Century country home of a millionaire family that went down on the Titanic in 1912. Similarly, The Dragon Murder Case is set at the fictitious Stamm mansion - and we learn in an epilog at the end of the novel, that the mansion has been torn down, and that only its foundation now remains. I don't know if the Dragon Pool also has some real-life antecedent.
Another Deserted Area. Van Dine would later set a climactic episode of The Kidnap Murder Case in a far north district of New York City. This area is near "Givans Basin" in the Bronx, which seems to be a real-life feature of the era. It is set specifically on "Lord Street", which seems to be a fictional road made up for the novel. Philo Vance calls it "a section of open spaces and undeveloped highways" (Chapter 16).
Beware of Spoilers. Reviews of The Dragon Murder Case are frequently filled with spoilers. Readers are advised to read the novel, before reading too many reviews of it. The "problem" here is that the most imaginative parts of The Dragon Murder Case occur in the novel's first half, where Van Dine is setting up the basic impossible crime mystery puzzle. Reviewers seem to feel little compunction about summarizing this first half - after all, they are not giving away the solution at the end! (The same spoiler problem occurs in reviews of another mystery, Ellery Queen's Halfway House. It too is most creative in its first half, which sets forth the book's mysterious situation.)
Mystery Plot. The story is imitative of The Greene Murder Case: all of the suspects are members of one upper crust family, with the addition of the family doctor. And the least creative gimmick of The Greene Murder Case is repeated here as well.
There is some good evidence about the typewriter, in the scene at the DA's office (last third of Chapter 10). The analysis of the timing of the documents is unusual.
The Casino. The casino of the title actually plays little role in the plot. Van Dine keeps this establishment modest and low key. This probably adds to the realism of the story, but it fails to add a colorful locale to this bland novel. Still, the section that describes the casino and its staff is one of the best in the novel (last part of Chapter 1, Chapter 2).
In many mysteries set in casinos or nightclubs, the office of the owner or manager is a key locale. The Casino Murder Case is no exception. The narration tells us right away that the climax of the tale will be set there. And as in many mystery tales, the office is a glamorous setting that conveys the owner's power.
Although it is not emphasized, the office is laid out in ways that reflect power design. The owner has a swivel chair behind a spectacular, expensive looking desk; visitors sit in low leather chairs (Chapter 2). See my discussion of chairs in mystery fiction and elsewhere.
SPOILERS. A hidden door into the office is much more unusual (Chapter 16).
Men at the Casino. Casino owner Richard Kincaid is given an interesting biography (Chapter 2). A dynamic figure with many attainments, he is in some ways a psychological "double" for Philo Vance himself.
The same episode that describes Kincaid's spectacular desk, also mentions Kincaid's tuxedo (Chapter 2). Many casino and night club owners in crime fiction swagger around in fancy clothes. It aids in their mystique.
The men employed at the casino are elaborately styled, presumably at the orders of either the casino's owner or chief croupier (Chapter 2):
The two groups recall a bit Van Dine's detective heroes. Uniformed tough guys recall the police; refined upper crust men recall Philo Vance himself.
Morgan Bloodgood: a Scientist. Chief croupier Morgan Bloodgood is a young Princeton-trained mathematician. This recalls the mathematical physicists in The Bishop Murder Case. Vance's discussion of Bloodgood's career includes a joke about quantum theory (last part of Chapter 1). Bloodgood too has features that recall Philo Vance: he's educated, "cultured", and once was expert consultant to the DA's office on a case (Chapter 2).
Bloodgood is one of the idealized young scientists who sometimes appear in Golden Age mystery fiction.
Bloodgood gets scientific information from Princeton (Chapters 13). And he is a member of a social-and-business network of young scientists he met there (first part of Chapter 14). Van Dine's enthusiasm for prestige universities is showing here. In The Benson Murder Case (Chapter 1) we learn Philo Vance graduated from Harvard, and did post-graduate work at Oxford in England.
Markham's Office. The office of District Attorney Markham is briefly described (last third of Chapter 10). It has a swinging leather door. Markham's office echoes Kincaid's, in containing leather furnishings and an unusual door.
The Lab. The laboratory (Chapters 13, first half of 14) resembles the Casino, in that both are:
Capitalism and Business. The Casino Murder Case paints a mixed account of 1930's capitalism and business. The Casino and the lab are based on the scientific labors of a talented young man, Morgan Bloodgood. This is an "inspiring" account of talent "making it" in the business world, and in the depths of the Depression, yet. But the book also shows these businesses, especially the Casino, enabled by rich guy Richard Kincaid's connections with government elites (first part of Chapter 2), and financed by Kincaid's inherited money. This is more like what is now disparagingly called "crony capitalism".
Puttees. Puttees show up in a number of works of the era:
Setting. Aspects of The Kidnap Murder Case recall The Kennel Murder Case:
Clothes. The missing man's clothes in The Kidnap Murder Case (middle of Chapter 3) recall The Casino Murder Case:
Network. In The Kidnap Murder Case New York City taxi drivers are referred to as "chauffeurs", and wear duster coats and special caps. The cab drivers network together, being friends of each other (last part of Chapter 13). This recalls a bit the young scientists and their social network in The Casino Murder Case (Chapters 13, 14). The cabbies are working class and the scientists are graduates of Princeton, but both are part of a modern technological world. Both represent Modernity. Both also sometimes wear special clothes on the job.
During the stakeout some police are undercover, posing as taxi drivers. We see longtime series character policeman Snitkin dressed as a driver and driving a cab (Chapter 10). We learn that Snitkin used to be a "chauffeur" for years, before he joined the police (end of Chapter 10). This links together two groups of men: the taxi drivers and the police. The police too use technology (Chapter 10) and are examples of Modernity.
McLaughlin. Officer William McLaughlin is a beat cop on duty outside the brownstone at the time of the crime (Chapter 4). As the tale points out, he previously appeared in The Benson Murder Case (Chapter 3). He has a similar role in both books: a beat cop who witnesses a mysterious car outside the crime building. And there are other parallels, including a subtle comic look at his feelings towards Markham and Heath. His appearance in The Kidnap Murder Case is clearly written as a variant on his original turn in The Benson Murder Case. It is a fun episode, and made even more enjoyable by reading both books together.
McLaughlin is in civilian clothes in both books, having finished his beat duty. In The Kidnap Murder Case we get a specific look at what these clothes are: a blue serge suit. This is the sort of clothes a tough working man would wear. The suit is tight - probably too tight. It emphasizes how big and how muscular McLaughlin is. This recalls the huge, muscular Casino attendants in The Casino Murder Case. McLaughlin's outfit has a comic side, like the rest of his appearance in The Kidnap Murder Case.
McLaughlin makes a second appearance (Chapter 13). For the first time, he is shown on duty and in uniform. This recalls the uniformed Casino attendants in The Casino Murder Case.
McLaughlin is regularly shown saluting some superior. His varied approaches to saluting express a wide range of attitudes.
Gender Ambiguity. The suspect in Central Park (Chapter 10) has their appearance hidden by a cloak and big hat. One can tell nothing about the suspect. This includes gender: the novel refers to the suspect as "it".
Earlier, in The Casino Murder Case (end of Chaper 1), an anonymous phone caller talks so faintly that the listener cannot tell if they are male or female. Philo Vance declares the caller is "ambiguously sexed".
This plays a role in the mystery plot of both books: the sleuths and reader can't tell if the person is a man or a woman.
But it also is an example of gender ambiguity, an interesting subject in its own right.
Confirmed Bachelor. We learn that major series character Sgt. Heath is a "confirmed bachelor", a man who never marries (Chapter 16). The term "confirmed bachelor" today is a bit dated. It often used to be used as a polite euphemism for "gay man", one who has no interest in heterosexual marriage. The term's opposite was "eligible bachelor", an unnmarried straight man who might still marry a woman.
The Tree: The Stakeout. A well-done suspense sequence focuses on the ransom money being delivered to a tree in Central Park, along with a police stakeout (Chapter 10). This shows the sort of elaborate police stratagem found in the works of Frederick Irving Anderson.
During the stakeout the police are linked to technology: lights, cabs, electrical switches. By contrast Philo Vance and the narrator are linked to a tree, part of Nature. In other sections Vance knows about gemstones, also part of Nature.
The tree climbing scenes anticipate Ellery Queen's The Origin of Evil (1951).
The Tree: The Light and Color Show. The tree scene combines the stakeout with a light show, recalling William Hope Hodgson. Van Dine was interested in the use of light in art. He could easily have hit on this approach, without any influence from Hodgson or other writers. Part of the light show involves bright color, also a Van Dine interest.
Later we learn about alexandrite, a gemstone that also involves light and color in unusual ways (second half of Chapter 15).
According to John Loughery's biography Alias S.S. Van Dine, the working title of The Kidnap Murder Case was The Purple Murder Case. This refers to the crime mansion in the book, known as the Purple House, due to its bright purple paint. The "purple" title also makes color be central to the novel.
Surrealism. As in The Bishop Murder Case the second crime is a surrealistic echo of the first.
The stakeout at the tree (Chapter 10) is also full of surrealism.
The stakeout refers to a particularly odd character as recalling the melodramatic fiction of Eugène Sue. Sue was similarly referenced in The "Canary" Murder Case (last part of Chapter 2).
Police Procedural. An episode summarizes a great deal of investigative work by the police (first half of Chapter 15). The investigations have not produced many results, and they are mocked by Philo Vance as useless. Despite this, I enjoyed them anyway. The investigations are all sound following-up of loose ends and possible clues. They form a good set of police procedural investigative work. They must have taken a fair amount of thinking on Van Dine's part to create.
Similarly, the previous chapter looks at an identification by the police (Chapter 14). It is overkill: the police identify someone over and over again, using different clues. Still, it took imagination to come up with all these different clues.
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) is in many ways an experimental novel. It includes not just Hollywood stars in its plot, George Burns and Gracie Allen, but also such characters as Gracie's mother and brother. This gives the book an unusual feel. So does the comic tone of much of Gracie's dialogue. This tone suddenly shifts in a later chapter to one character's philosophically anguished speculations, and then back again to Gracie. The whole thing works oddly wonderfully, and shows Van Dine's skill at combining his traditional approach with some unusual forms.
The Winter Murder Case is terrible. It bears little resemblance to Van Dine's other books, either in plot or prose style. It is far from clear that Van Dine actually wrote it. After all, it is posthumously published: Van Dine was not around when it saw print, to certify its authenticity. It reads as if some anonymous Hollywood hack put together a plot for a movie scenario, using Philo Vance as the lead character.
The Winter Murder Case was intended as a vehicle for actress Sonja Henie, and while reading the story it is easy to "see" her in that role. In this it resembles The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was also written with star Gracie Allen in mind. However, there are differences. In The Gracie Allen Murder Case, Gracie Allen appears as herself. By contrast, there is no character named "Sonja Henie" in The Winter Murder Case. This is just as well. While Gracie Allen is still a beloved, admired comedienne today, Sonja Henie's reputation has been badly tarnished by her activities as a Nazi sympathizer and career as Hitler's pal. There is no evidence that Van Dine knew anything about Henie's Nazi activities. He probably just thought of Henie the same way as everyone else did in the United States in this period: as the sweet-as-sugar actress and champion ice skater who appeared in popular skating motion pictures.
The Winter Murder Case includes a brief mention of G. K. Chesterton (Chapter 3), perhaps as a homage.
Most of the Van Dineans followed their leader in the sense that the whole of the plot is more interesting than the sum of the parts. There is a "Gestalt" effect in their books. This reaches its peak, of course with Ellery Queen, and his complex chains of reasonings. But it can also be seen in works as different as Abbott's Geraldine Foster, and Marsh's False Scent. The Van Dineans tended to lean toward novels and novellas, not short stories: only Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer wrote any quantity of short fiction, among the first generation of Van Dine writers. This is a logical consequence of needing a large canvas on which all the details of plot can be painted.
The Locked Room problems in The "Canary" Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case are less central to their puzzle plots than we are used to in John Dickson Carr. In Carr's novels, the impossible crime is very complex, and the major riddle of the mystery. The same is true in Chesterton, Carr's beloved master. Van Dine's locked rooms are simpler, and more mechanical in their solution, than Carr's or Chesterton's. Van Dine usually treats them as just one more ingredient he has thrown into the stew of his plots; he solves the one in Kennel two thirds of the way through the book, treating it as just another plot twist (Chapter 24). Kennel cites as its ancestor, not Chesterton, but the locked room novels of Edgar Wallace, such as The Clue of the New Pin (1923), and The Clue of the Twisted Candle (1918).
The best part of the film version of The Kennel Murder Case is the final 15 minutes, during which Philo Vance reconstructs the murders. He uses a scale model of the house, and this is intercut with shots flashing back on the commission of the crime. Many of these contain camera movements, and are filmed from the point of view of participants in the action.
The Benson Murder Case shows Van Dine's ability to involve a series of suspects in the mystery, and make them look guilty or suspicious in turn. Van Dine school member Stuart Palmer would later make a specialty of creating suspects who were Mysteriously Involved in the case.
Some commentators has claimed that Van Dine's books are not "fair play": that is, that they do not contain clues that would allow the reader to figure out the solution. Van Dine sometimes has problems with fair play, but such criticisms are exaggerated. The ballistics scene early on (Chapter 9) in The Benson Murder Case is not fair play. The reader can only watch, while Philo Vance makes deductions from evidence the reader has not seen before. But the solution to the novel is indeed fair play: there is a strong clue, indicating the guilty party.
The "Canary" Murder Case extends this technique. We get vivid, richly detailed portraits of the "Canary" (a night club singer), her boyfriend, her maid, and the killer.
Van Dine's characters are also character types. Markham is the archetypal honest, implacable District Attorney. The Canary and her boyfriend are the archetypes of young lovers. The various police investigators form a series of pocket portraits of the sorts of men found on the police squads of the day.
The Skull Murder Mystery (1932) shows Van Dine's vigorous plot construction. It is also notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day. Van Dine was one of the first mystery writers to include non-stereotyped portraits of racial minorities in his work. Please see my article on Minorities and Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction for a discussion.
As far as I know, none of Van Dine's screen treatments have been published in book form. I do not even know if the manuscripts survive today. Short films used to be extremely popular. Hollywood made hundreds of them during the studio era. Except for a handful of comedy silents, most of these films are forgotten today, and not even listed in film reference books.
Secondly, Van Dine's brother, painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright, was a founder of the Synchromism movement in painting. Van Dine wrote three books promoting Synchromist ideas. He also had ties to the American abstract artists of the Stieglitz circle. So Van Dine was at the center of the entire American modernist movement in art, with a special knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, abstract art. Loughery is an art historian, and his background here is most sophisticated.
In 1920 Van Dine largely gave up cultural journalism, perhaps regarding it as a lost cause, and permanently turned to popular culture, instead. During 1920-1923, he tried and failed to make it in the movie business, but he could never really get his foot in the door. (Later both Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher would make similar failed attempts). He was interested in projects that could combine abstract art with set design for films. He did produce a book, The Future of Painting (1923), which predicted an art of pure color delivered through technical means. One thinks of the light organs of his era, the 1920's German experiments in abstract color film (Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttmann) which began in 1921, the light films of Jim Davis, the Vortex light shows of Jordan Belson, and the 1950's and beyond abstract films of Belson and the Whitney Brothers, the hand-painted films of Stan Brakhage, all of which I love. Increasingly, such films are available on DVD. (Please see my list of Favorite Abstract Films.)
In 1924 Loughery records Van Dine's first plans to produce a "popular novel". Throughout 1925 he outlined his detective trilogy. Van Dine was basically a writer. Although he was an important critic of abstract art, Van Dine was a novelist, not a painter. Van Dine eventually "found himself" as an author of detective fiction, and was far more prolific in that role than any other, publishing twelve books.
Van Dine had some blind spots. Loughery documents Van Dine's sexist disdain for women artists and writers, whether literary or detectival. Christie is slammed in Van Dine's history of detective fiction, and many other female writers are ignored.
Loughery has some blind spots of his own. He seems unaware of just how important Van Dine is in the history of detective fiction, being the founder of a new school, which includes Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbott, Rufus King, Stuart Palmer, C. Daly King and Rex Stout. Most of these writers are not even mentioned in Loughery's book!
Loughery is also needlessly condemnatory of Van Dine's including roles for specific actresses in his last two novels. This has always been a common practice in theater and film. For example, Shakespeare and Marlowe created roles in their plays that were suited to the talents of their actors. Mozart composed his operas with the strengths and limitations of his singers in mind.
All in all, however, this is a fascinating and well done book. Loughery's detailed comments on Van Dine's novels are insightful, and the mountain of information Loughery has unearthed on Van Dine's life and career make it an important reference on his life and times.
Van Dine would be thrilled with today's computer workstations, and their ability to model both form and color. In many ways, Van Dine seems to be one of the keenest prophets of the future that has now come to pass. He predicted that technology would lead to a revolution in our ability to manipulate color and light, and it has. He tried his overwhelming best to awake Americans to both modern art, and the art of the world, and now there are a flood of art books available on every subject for everyone to read. Van Dine's dream of a society where there was a mass knowledge of art is now a reality. It has replaced the mass ignorance of his day. Mass education and mass literacy in great writing has also become much more of reality than in Van Dine's time, when higher education was painfully restricted to a tiny handful of Americans. The struggle Van Dine undertook to inform Americans about the best in literature has now been won. Van Dine was one of the first American popular authors to challenge racism; we now have a society vastly more equal than in Van Dine's, although much more work needs to be done to fight against racism. Van Dine genuinely believed in civilization, and he tried to extend it to everybody.
The mystery field does not honor Van Dine enough. He tried to synthesize the best elements of mystery fiction in his work. In doing so he founded a new school, one that opened the door for some of the best detective writing in American history, by Ellery Queen and others. Nor do people appreciate Van Dine as a role model for life. Some mystery fans today are obsessed with "hard-boiledness". They seem over impressed with these stories about men running around with guns. These stories are nothing but cheap macho fantasies. Instead, it is the people like Van Dine who make a difference, people who try to build and make things. Van Dine's endless work for science and the arts is what creates everything of value in life. It is at the core of civilization. If we want to pass down a better life for our children, we have to adopt Van Dine's approach as our model for living. We must be as intellectual, creative and constructive as he was.
Here is Sir Thomas Browne, from Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658):
What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism.
Here is S.S. Van Dine, from The World's Great Detective Stories (1927):
Poe's four analytic tales are a treasure-trove for the student rather than a source of diversion for the general reader. The romantic and adventurous atmosphere we find in The Gold-Bug has now been eliminated from the detective tale; and the long introduction to The Murders in the Rue Morgue (really an apologia), and the unnecessary documentation in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, act only as irritating encumbrances to the modern reader of detective fiction. Even in The Purloined Letter — the shortest of the four stories — there is a sesquipedalian and somewhat ponderous analysis of philosophy and mathematics, which is much too ritenendo and grandioso for the devotees of this type of fiction to-day.
The similar rhythm! The clauses unrolling in their metrical grandeur!
Van Dine is very much a modern day advocate of 17th Century English prose styles: Raleigh, Browne, the King James Bible.
There are some hidden things going on in these Browne and Van Dine quotes. The most relevant is "parallelism". This is when two phrases match each other, saying related (but different) things. You see it in Browne:
"entered the famous Nations of the dead"
"slept with Princes and Counsellours".
Both start out with verbs - and the Nations parallel with the Princes and Counsellours who govern them.
Parallelism is the most important literary device in the Bible. There are thousands of examples:
"The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the firmament showeth his handiwork."
Two matching statements that run in parallel. From the King James Bible it entered other prose writers of the 1600's, such as Browne and Raleigh.
The Van Dine quote is soaked in parallels:
"a treasure-trove for the student"
"a source of diversion for the general reader".
Intellectuals in the 1920's were deeply aware of such things. For one thing, most literate persons knew the King James Bible by heart. For another, writers like Browne were "standard authors", read by every educated person as part of their training in literary skill. Browne was considered one of the greatest masters of English prose style. If you read the Wikipedia article on Browne, you see he was read by everyone from Virginia Woolf to Borges. People understood this style of literature. Intellectuals valued it highly - and they valued Van Dine as a person who could write in it. It was considered an amazing phenomenon.
"Ritenendo" and "grandioso" are Italian words. They are used in classical music as instructions to musicians, on how to play the music. So are many other Italian words: it's the language of classical music. By contrast, "sesquipedalian" and "ponderous" are terms from literary analysis. Van Dine has constructed a parallelism:
"a sesquipedalian and somewhat ponderous analysis"
"much too ritenendo and grandioso".
Within each phrase, the terms are carefully matched. "sesquipedalian" means long words; "Ritenendo" means "hold back", and instructs musicians to delay pace and beats. Both refer to a slowing of pace. "ponderous" and its heaviness parallels with the large scale of "grandioso" and its grandiosity.
Van Dine has not picked four Big Words at random from the dictionary to impress people. He has carefully constructed a parallelism between terms of literature and music.
Parallelism is not as constant a feature of Van Dine's prose style, as is the careful sense of rhythm. Rhythm and a musical use of sound tends to run through all of Van Dine's writing.
Van Dine knew what he was doing. His style has been stomped out of modern commercial writing in English - stylistically rich writers like Van Dine or H. C. Bailey would be considered unpublishable by today's editors. But both men's styles reflect long cultural traditions that were considered infinitely valuable by readers of their day.