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 | Van Dine's Biography | Van Dine and the Future | Literary Style
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection 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 1-4, 6-9, 26)
The Scarab Murder Case (1929)
The Dragon Murder Case (1933) (Chapters 1-10, 21)
The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
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. 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. The book 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. 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 "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.
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. But the mystery plot eventually develops some good features, especially in its solution. MILD SPOILERS:
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
Van Dine's special skill was the construction of interesting, complex, book length plots. He was not anywhere as good at ingenious puzzle ideas of the sort Chesterton, Christie, and Carr excelled at. But his books and their solid construction fascinate. Detail after detail gets piled up into an interesting pattern. This can be better described as "Good storytelling" or "Good construction" than as "clever mystery ideas", perhaps. Van Dine's are novels in which the unfolding plot in all its details is more interesting than the solution. This is not to say the plot is necessarily ultra-complicated. Van Dine's plots are more well-proportioned than huge; some of his followers expanded their range, especially Queen and Abbott. Reading Van Dine's books is an experience in beauty. The well designed stories meet the beautiful literary style.
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. 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. 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.
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 Benson Murder Case is full of characterization, right at the start of Van Dine's career. Over a dozen policemen, and all the suspects, are given detailed character portraits. The characterizations can be said to be external rather than internal. Van Dine never lets us see any of the characters' thoughts directly. Instead, the book concentrates on what the characters seem like from the outside, and how they impress other people. We learn about their attitudes, the emotions they express, how they carry themselves, what sort of things they say. There are detailed descriptions of how they dress and groom themselves. Many of the portraits involve Van Dine's gift for poetic description. Both these descriptions, and the ornately phrased dialogue that also builds characterization, depend on Van Dine's skills as a prose stylist.
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.
Van Dine's lengthy introduction and notes to his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) constitute the pioneering history of detective fiction. Written in Van Dine's most magnificent prose, this history is still the core around which all others have been constructed (including the present writer's). My copy has been a treasured possession since I bought it at a used book sale as a child.
Van Dine wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930's. These stories were used as the basis for a series of 12 short films, each around 20 minutes long, that were released in 1930 - 1931. The Skull Murder Mystery (1931) 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 the 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.
John Loughery's biography, Alias S.S. Van Dine (1992), is full of fascinating detail about the author. Loughery shows how Van Dine's early career as a cultural figure (1910-1919) was taken up by two causes. One was literary Naturalism. Van Dine wrote a novel and some short stories in this mode, as well as publishing such fiction by others as editor of the magazine "The Smart Set".
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.
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 (1928):
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.