Thursday, December 6, 2018

Philo in the Fifties: What Would Detection Have Been Like in the Mid-Century for America's Most Fancy-Pants Detective, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance?

Many vintage mystery fans know the story of crime writer S. S. Van Dine, who for a brief time in the late Twenties to the early Thirties was the biggest thing going in American detective fiction with his mysteries about the brilliant sleuthing exploits of the ultimate fancy pants detective and g-droppin' swell, Philo Vance. 

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.
Detection's future doubtlessly lay in the hard hands Chandler and his followers, yet the classic detective story that Van Dine had come to symbolize hardly died with him.  Has anyone wondered what Van Dine might have written had he lived, like Chandler, into the next two decades?

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!
--Philo Vance solves yet another murder, this one committed by someone who was deviously disguised as a bunny, at the pad of one swinging hepcat!

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!
Okay, actually they didn't say that about the Greenes, but humor me here.  Also, please indulge this rhyme, inspired by The Bishop Murder Case, which was all the rage among American mystery fans nearly nine decades ago:

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?
The Stalin Murder Case
--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!


  1. The Elvis Murder Case. Introduces a novel murder weapon: the pelvis.

    The Edsel Murder Case. Murder at The Ford mansion.

    The Gidget Murder Case. I have no hook for this, I just like to picture Sandra Dee in my mind.

    1. Gidget could easily be incorporated into the Surfer Murder Case. Bye-bye Moondoggie ... but that brings to mind

      The Island Murder Case. A trip on a yacht gets Philo stranded on an island, where he encounters seven other castaways who have been stuck there for a while. Soon after, only six of them are left alive. The victim is an affable and well-meaning but bumbling fool who repeatedly ruined their chances to get off the island, so no-one openly disliked him - but everyone has a motive. With the aid of the Professor (forensic knowledge), Philo starts to investigate. But then the second body is found! Did the Millionaire want to get rid of his wife - and the only potential young male rival on the island - , for a younger woman to take her place? Did "Lovey" leave a secret testament hidden somewhere on the island, revealing that the Howell´s fortune was hers alone and leaving it to - whom? How does Gilligan´s death tie into it? Was one of the murders only a foil for a more sinister plan? Or is someone picking off the castaways one by one? And if so - who´s next? (In the end, a search party for the missing Philo discovers the island and rescues all the survivors.)

    2. That needs to be Philo in the 60s!
      But now that you mention it, I like picturing Tina Louise even more than Sandra Dee ...

    3. After she gets back Hollywood, Tina Louise could be in The Ginger Murder Case.

  2. Damn, The Pelvis Murder Case would be great. And, gosh, Gidget!

    1. Ah, I see I broke the 6 letter rule. Careless. Yes, Pelvis Murder Case.

      Dibs on The Beatle Murder Case for the 60s. A sequel to the Scarab Murder Case obviously.

      Under the Gracie Allen exception, The Gracie Kelly Murder Case.

    2. I would love to see Vance discoursing on music in The Beatle Murder Case, with footnotes of course!

  3. The McCarthy Murder Case, though I think Senator McCarthy might have been more likely to have the effete Vance wriggling in front of him at the HUAC - or perhaps that was why he was murdered.
    As Willard Huntington Wright had begun as a writer of naturalistic fiction, if he'd recovered from his addictions mightn't he have gone in for hard-boiled/noir writing himself under another pseudonym? Alternatively, as a Germanophile and contrarian he might have become an embittered isolationist. Dying might have been a good career move.

    1. Kidnap Murder Case gets a little hard-boiled at times.

  4. Nice!

    Continuing from The Stalin Murder Case, what about
    The Hitler Murder Case: Face-off between two Teutonomanic Nietzschean Supermen (in their dreams).
    The Castro Murder Case

    Then there'd have been a whole range of highbrow ones, such as The Sartre Murder Case and The Auteur Murder Case (a critical success)

    1. In The Castro Murder Case the murder was done with an exploding cigar.

  5. Barthes beat van Dine to The Auteur Murder Case with La mort de l'auteur.
    Joe Orton's Inspector Truscott solved the Limbless Girl Murder Mystery; the mystery was: how did a limbless girl commit a murder.

    1. You know you are in a weird place when you are getting Joe Orton jokes. But again, 60s!

    2. I've seen Entertaining Mr. Sloane! And of course Prick Up Your Ears. 80s!