Both Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case and The Canary Murder Case astonishingly reached #4 on the American bestsellers lists, in 1928 and 1929 respectively, and many of his books were made into films, one of which, The Kennel Murder Case (1933), is considered something of a classic of its kind. It doesn't hurt, to be sure, that William Powell of "Thin Man" fame played Philo Vance in four films, making the character vastly more appealing than the author ever did.
However the popularity of Van Dine's baroque puzzle novels declined in the Thirties, beset as they were by both the visceral hard-boiled tales of Dashiell Hammett and his tough guy compatriots and the rather cleverer puzzles of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. The once highly lucrative film deals worsened and book sales dropped, meaning that Van Dine, who wrote only one mystery annually, could not keep up the lavish lifestyle to which he'd grown accustomed.
Afflicted with the twin devils of writer's block and excessive alcohol consumption, Van Dine died prematurely at the age of 50 in 1939, the year 50-year-old Raymond Chandler published his first detective novel, the landmark hard-boiled PI tale The Big Sleep. Van Dine's last detective novel, The Winter Murder Case, meant to have been a film vehicle for Norwegian skating and Hollywood film star Sonja Henie, was published posthumously in skeletal form and quickly forgotten.
|Maybe she thought it was a whodunit?|
We know all the really smart people
love detective fiction.
We know Van Dine's mystery titles followed a formula, i.e., The "X" Murder Case, "X" being a word of six letters: Benson, Canary, Greene, Bishop, Scarab, Kennel, Dragon, Casino, Garden, Kidnap, Winter, though he broke this pattern once with The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was a tie-in with a screwy mystery film starring George Burns' wife, dizzy comedienne Gracie Allen, as Philo's "helper."
So let's just ignore the aberration of The Gracie Allen Murder Case, hey?
Here are my proposals for S. S. Van Dine's marvelous mid-century mysteries. What are yours? Remember, a six-letter word, otherwise you're cheating, Van Dine's was a rigorous art, like the haiku or iambic pentameter.
The Atomic Murder Case
--Murder in a desperately swanky locked fallout shelter (Oh boy, a locked room problem!)
|mystery goes underground|
This could have been a keen foldout floor plan from a Fifties Van Dine mystery.
The Rothko Murder Case
--Murder of a mad multiforms painter at the Museum of Modern Art. These artists!
|Where's the body? A colorful case for Philo Vance!|
The Monroe Murder Case
--Recalling The Gracie Allen Murder Case (and improving on it one hopes), a beauteous, buxom and breathy--if not overly bright--blonde helps Philo Vance solve a murder in Hollywood. (Disclaimer: Marilyn, like Gracie, just played "dumb.")
The Hefner Murder Case
|A three-pipe problem? Hef reads it for the mystery stories!|
The Slinky Murder Case
--A serial murderer fells his victims with fad toys, including a slinky, hula hoop and, for the ladies, an easy-bake oven.
The Surfer Murder Case
--Out in California again, Philo Vance solves the murder of a beach boy who got wiped out, daddy-o!
The Beaver Murder Case
--Sure, wise and fatherly Ward, his house-proud, pearl-chokered wife June and their two jolly boys, Wally and the "Beaver," seemed liked the perfect family--but then that's what they said about the Greenes back in '28, before the Crash don't you know, and before you knew it practically the whole family had been wickedly extinguished!
|Goodness gracious, what a cesspool!|
Who killed cocky Eddie Haskell?
I, said the Beaver,
with my meat cleaver,
I killed cocky Eddie Haskell.
But Philo Vance has other ideas about whodunit, my dear Markham!
The Peyton Murder Case
Peyton Place, the New England town that Philo Vance visits for a relaxing country holiday, at first seems placid and neighborly, but soon Philo discovers copious closeted skeletons.
There's lust, adultery, incest, abortion and more! Why, it's a wonder the whole town wasn't massacred before Philo ever got there. The film adaptation was awesome!
|What fiend destroyed Johnny |
and his swell sweater?
--Murder in Moscow! Okay, Andrew Garve did it too, but this is the gold star deluxe Van Dine treatment. The field of suspects in this audacious Kremlin poisoning is nearly unlimited. An all-star international investigation for Philo Vance.
The Argyle Murder Case
--What dastard put the deadly moths in Johnny's nifty new sweater? Another case for Philo Vance, exotic moth fancier and amateur sleuth extraordinaire. (Those tropical fish from The Dragon Murder Case and Scotties from The Kennel Murder Case are so Thirties, don't you know.)
|interrogating the chief suspect in The Beaver Murder Case|
|the deadly slinky|
You just know John Rhode could have figured out how to kill someone with one of these.
|Watching the waves for the killer?|
Surely this is one mystery you wouldn't get board with!
|A shifty bunch of suspects for sure!|