Monday, December 27, 2021

Book Intros Year in Review: Nobody Works Harder Than a Passing Tramp!

good murders are never out of style

I thought, now that the year is ending, I would *finally* list all the intro work, etc., I have done this year.  It's actually been quite quite a lot and I have been remiss in nor discussing it sooner.  But better late than never!  Here we go:

For Dean Street Press things slowed down a bit this year for me, what with all that Flynntlesmania, but at the beginning of the year we had the Anne Morice reissues, which were a lot of fun, with all their Seventies/Eighties style and brittle repartee between murders.  Some people disliked the covers, evidently, but I think they capture that these books represent the Golden Age updated to another era, now itself long past.  Morice herself was a great Agatha Christie fan and relished murder performed in the grand manner, in grand manors.

At the end of the year there was the great Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning revival, as The Invisible Host entertained again.  Next year the other three Bristow Manning mysteries will be brought back into print, as well as the last batch by GA great Christopher Bush (I've already written the introductory piece for that one) and the second tranche of ten by Moray Dalton, which I've been eager to get back to doing, as Dalton is one of my favorite "forgotten" authors.

And yet another "new" vintage author will be reprinted as well, a member of the Detection Club who has been out-of-print for seven decades now.

Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and their Host
reissued by DSP with its original creepy art deco design

For Coachwhip there was a Sally Wood twofer, combining Death in Lord Byron's Room, a fun post-WW2 espionage story, with the author's prewar mystery, Murder of a Novelist.  

People had been asking for years now when these would be reprinted, but it took a bit of effort to track down the heir and secure the rights to Novelist.  These are most excellent stories with a really appealing pair of series characters in the amateur middle-aged "spinster" sleuth (who will change your notion of such characters in those days) and her niece.  If they ever leave off remaking Agatha Christies for the nth time, these two books would be very filmable.  Sally herself was a great Christie fan.

With Coachwhip early next year I'll be working another reissue of a vintage American woman mystery writer, one from my native state!

I also did an intro for Coachwhip to the two Baron von Kaz mystery twofers, containing The Ticking Terror Murders, The Feather Cloak Murders, The Crimson Hair Murders and The Broken Face Murders.  This quartet of mysteries, by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet, have enjoyed a following of connoisseurs ever since their publication back in the Thirties, Anthony Boucher, Bill Pronzini and Douglas Greene being among their prominent fans, but they have been oop for eight decades.  (IPL reprinted the non-series The Talking Sparrow Murders, with an introduction by Doug, in the Eighties.)

Then with Moonstone there were the reissues of D. Erskine Muir's three mysteries In Muffled Night, Five to Five and In Memory of Charles.  "D." aka Dorothy (the other Dorothy) was an an Oxford educated historian whose three detective novels all were based on true crimes, the first two of which are classics of Scottish murder, the Jesse McLachlan and Oscar Slater cases.  (I never discovered the third one.)  These were fun to do because, at least with the first two, I got to write about the true crimes as well.  I have a major project with Moonstone next year, where we are reprinting another long oop Detection Club member from the Golden Age.

Then there were the reprints with Stark House, who has very definitely branched out from American hard-boiled and noir into "domestic suspense" now.  I've been thrilled to be a part of this domestic suspense revival and recognition of mid-century American women mystery writers.  

For this series I did intros this year to twofers by Bernice Carey, Dolores Hichens, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Nielsen, Jean Potts and Ruth Sawtell Wallis.  

Several of these intros contain significant new biographical information.  These were a lot of fun and there will be more of them next year.

Also coming next year are two pieces I did for Otto Penzler's long-esteemed Mysterious Press

(1) an introduction, including lots of new biographical information, to Roger Scarlett's Catspaw, which has been included in paperback in Otto's superb American Mystery Classics series I'm thrilled to say (I was instrumental in reviving Roger Scarlett, actually two women, a few years back with Coachwhip)

(2) an introduction to, finally, a preliminary batch of John Rhode reissues

These all will be out early next year, the Rhodes imminently.  So there are many more vintage mysteries in your futures, I hope.

See the Stark House book covers below.  I'm posting separately on MP's coming John Rhode reissues in the next next year, which of course is in a few days now!

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Have Yourselves a Very Cornell Christmas! (or Maybe Not)

I thought this Sixties Christmas card from Cornell Woolrich to his friend Don Yates (pictured below) was very characteristic of the moody author in its calculated sense of ambiguity.  On the plus side, from most of the sad accounts of Woolrich's life, you'd be surprised to learn that he even owned Christmas cards and actually took the time to send them to people.

But let me assure all readers of The Passing Tramp that I always miss you when you're not here!  Unless you only ever comment about typos. ;)

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you all.  And may there be many mysteries in your futures.

Just a Gigolo: Blind Date with Death (1985 short story collection), Cornell Woolrich

"Buddy, you don't know it, but you've just sent out your last gigolo in this lousy racket!"

--"Blind Date with Death" (1937), Cornell Woolrich

A product of the "first wave" Cornell Woolrich revival (we're currently amidst the second, courtesy of Mysterious Press and Centipede Press and some others), Woolrich's Blind Date with Death is a 1985 Carroll & Graf paperback collection of eight Woolrich novelettes, these being, besides the 1937 title story

"The Living Lie down with the Dead" (1936)

Flowers from the Dead (1940)

The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips (1940)

The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist (1941)

Crazy House (1941)

If the Shoe Fits (1943) 

Leg Man (1943)

As usual with these Woolrich collections it's a somewhat mixed bag,   I'd recommend four or perhaps five of them, which means the glass is a bit more than half full.  One of these days maybe a publisher will ask me to choose my own selection!  

Of course since Woolrich wrote over 200 pieces of short fiction, almost entirely for publication in the pulps, you are going to find repetitions of devices, even plots themselves.  (Incredibly, Woolrich published about a-third of his short fiction output in 1936-37 alone.)  Here, for example, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" (catchy title, that) is a reworking of the title story.  I preferred Woolrich's original take, but make your own choice by all means.

In "Blind Date with Death" the protagonist is a young cop named Bill Armstrong, "six-one, weight one-eighty, chest forty-two, weight thirty-four, batting average, 100, I. Q., medium....with a corn-fed look that wouldn't come off."  When the story opens he strides "into the squad room with a noise like the heavy cavalry coming up at Balaklava.  His gondolas preceded him by a good twelve inches or so, after which their owner showed up."  (As an aside, this is one of the things I like about this sort of fiction, I learn new words, or usages for words.  I had no idea gondolas was slang for feet.)

Ingenuous Bill gets duped into volunteering for an undercover job concerning jewelry robberies committed against three wealthy women (the last of whom was murdered during the job).  Suspiciously, all of these ladies had recently been clients of the P. E. S.--aka, the Personal Escort Society.  As gruff Captain of Detectives Moran explains it to Bill, the P. E. S. "farm out guys that take these old, broken-down hens around town, at so much per hour.  Gigolos on a business basis."

Of course when he finally realizes what is going on, corn-fed Bill is aghast over the prospect of taking on a job as an undercover gigolo: "Those guys with vaseline hair who do tangoes all the time?  Aw, Cap!"  As any vintage mystery reader knows, gigolos had rather a bad reputation in the era of Golden Age detective fiction, when they were commonly portrayed as suspiciously smooth, objectionably handsome "oily dagos" of Mediterranean vintage, or occasionally as émigré White Russians, typically claiming ersatz aristocratic lineage.  (Dorothy L. Sayers has a great portrayal of the latter type in her 1932 detective novel Have His Carcase.)  

too pretty for words--
the Thirties notion of the "proper" gigolo

Of course the truth is gigolos could come in any male form, as long as that form was sufficiently charming and could trip the light fantastic.  Gigolos could even be--gasp!--All-American (and all-British) boys.  (See Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.)

All-American boys like Bill Armstrong, to get back to Woolrich.  You see, Bill wants to succeed as a cop, so, appalling as he deems the prospect, off he goes to the P. E. S. to start escorting and, hopefully, crack the case of those old hens' pilfered sparklers.  Of course in the P. E. S. Bill finds more than he bargained for, but then so do the crooks in Bill!  Soon, like many another Woolrich pulp hero and heroine, Bill is putting his very life in jeopardy to get the goods on the goons behind this gigolo racket.

This is a very enjoyable Woolrich novelette, which has also been praised by Mike Grost.  Though it relies on a Detection Club no-no--the organized criminal gang--nevertheless there is detection; and Woolrich, whose biographer says he had no sense of humor whatsoever, manages to inject considerable mirth into the story, of the fish-out-of-water type.  People expect a gigolo to be a sleek and sophisticated continental type, don't you know, not some hulking Midwest dude with size twelve gondolas (though you know what they say about shoe size).

Happily for Bill his first client desires the services of a "cave-man type" and Bill fits that, um, bill, to a "T"--or "C," as the case may be.  This good lady is named Miss Agatha Van Dine, by the way, and if you think her having the first name of the Queen of Crime and the surname of the Pasha of Pretentiousness (aka Agatha Christie and S. S. Van Dine), I would advise you to think again. 

"The Living Lie Down with the Dead" is, in my view, one of Woolrich's very best (it was adapted for the American anthology series Thriller in the Sixties), but I have already reviewed that one elsewhere.

"Flowers from the Dead" tells about a Hollywood actress who has is desperately reluctant to go on a tour back East to promote her new film.  Why is she so deathly afraid to go back, particularly to her home town?  This one is pretty good, though rather silly in its central premise (that she has nothing to fear in California). 

Most striking me about "Flowers," however, to was how it resembles the plot to Ngaio Marsh's Photo-Finish (1980) and P. D. James The Skull beneath the Skin (1982).  I always assumed James read Marsh's novel, but somehow I doubt Marsh read Woolrich--though ya never know!  Woolrich stories pop up in anthologies all the time.

As mentioned above, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" is a reworking of "Blind Date with Death" with a police woman instead of a policeman and kleptomaniacs rather than gigolos. ("Dips," you see is slang for pickpockets or thieves generally.)  But it lacks the humor of the original.

"The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist," now, is a lot of fun and a genuine detective story.  Sure, it could have been a little more fairly clued in places, but the murder method is cute indeed, just like our imperiled manicurist, Joan Blaine.  With that title, by the by, it sounds like a Perry Mason detective novel that Erle Stanley Gardner should have written!

in "The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist"
all of Joan Blaine's most loyal customers are men
for some reason--though she's not very good at the job

Of the last three, "Crazy House" and "If the Shoe Fits" have echoes of Woolrich's mystery novel The Black Curtain (the former takes place in San Francisco, where Woolrich's father once lived), but "Leg Man" to me seems more original, for the most part.  Here the protagonist, Clint Burgess, works for a newspaper as a lowly "leg man" (he gather information for stories but doesn't get his own byline), who dreams, like American icon Benjamin Franklin, of making his way to the top of the print racket--um business, I mean.  

When the owner of Mike's Tavern is shot to death soon after opening the bar, it's Clint, once on the scene, who spots a telltale piece of evidence and put his life in jeopardy to catch the correct culprit.  Does this lead to his career advancement?  You'll have to read it and see!

This story was included in the 1946 Woolrich collection The Dancing Detective and it didn't make an impression on me when I reviewed this collection here, but I found I quite liked it this go round.  It's very much a genuine detective story with some clever cluing.  Sure you could substitute policemen for the press witha little tinkering, but the press bits are nicely done.

Woolrich's biographer, Francis Nevins--who, in addition to his having heaped derision for decades on the author as a "self-hating homosexual," frequently has mocked his plotting capacity--calls "Leg Man" "one of Woolrich's silliest stories" with "a dumb plot unrelieved by noir overtones."   In doing so Nevins pits himself against no less an authority (and practitioner) than Fredric Dannay of Ellery Queen renown, who praised "Leg Man" as an adroit half-and-half mixture of "pure action and pure deduction" that would satisfy thrill-seekers as well as "those who insist on a pure deductive thread plus scrupulous fairness to the reader."  

But, hey, what would Dannay know, right?  I mean, didn't Nevins write some detective fiction or something at some point?  There you go!  Of course Nevins has also written the standard Ellery Queen reference book and obviously considers himself quite the expert on plotting.  In his Queen book he never hesitates to take Queen to task for "dumb plotting" as well, when he feels the occasion demands it.  (And it seems that Nevins feels the occasion often does.)  However, I though "Leg Man" had some cute clueing and I was pleased to find that Dannay thought so before me.  

Nevins scoffs at Dannay's declaration that Woolrich excelled at "point-counter-point ingenuity," dismissing what he terms the author's "often preposterous plot gimmicks"; yet Nevins reveals here his own preference (and bias) for a certain type of crime fiction, at least in Woolrich's case, which is noir.  When Woolrich doesn't write noir (which in his pulp fiction actually was quite frequently), Nevins tends not to like him.  

Again revealing his bias, Nevins takes issue with Dannay's praise of Woolrich's handling of what Dannay called the "straightforward police tale," sniffing disdainfully that straightforward is "not the proper adjective for his tales of warped psychotics with badges in their pockets.

Yet in truth Dannay had it right again: Woolrich did often write straightforward police tales where the police characters are not "warped psychotics" but recognizably normal people (to most of us anyway).  Like "Blind Date with Death," for example.  

If police run roughshod over rules in these tales, well, welcome to the world of vintage crime fiction.  Woolrich, "self-hating homosexual" that he may (or may not) have been, was hardly alone in such depictions. 

Nevins began writing about crime fiction in the late Sixties/early Seventies, a time when disdain for the police, contrary to what may be claimed about our present day, was at an all time high in the U. S.  The word "pigs," for example, came into parlance among leftist radicals when referring to police back then--and I think there is a carry-over of this attitude in Nevins' criticism of both Woolrich and Queen.  (Certainly there was plenty of criticism to go around.)

"Wouldn't it be useful if there were a word for the kind of fiction Woolrich almost singlehandedly created?" asks Woolrich rhetorically, before declaring: "In time such a word surfaced, and it is noir."  Well, sure, but Woolrich did other things too and his fiction wasn't always as dark as people seem to think.  

Following Nevins, people love to stress Woolrich's affinity with noir, justifiably, but the truth is his pulp tales (as opposed to his novels) often are more hard-boiled than noir and are even known to include detection and happy endings, with what one might called a restoration of order, as in classic British mystery--though the order being restored is American order, so let's put an bloody red asterisk by that!  

What did Nevins have to say about "Blind Date with Death" you might be wondering?  About the story itself, nothing at all (oddly enough, given its gigolo subject matter and Nevins' firm conviction that Woolrich was a closeted gay).  About the collection he states that it represents "Woolrich at his pulpiest if not always his best."  Yes, "Leg Man" gets kicked again!  But some of us like pulp--if not in orange juice (though I do), then in mystery fiction.

pulp does a body good

Friday, December 17, 2021

Noiry Not Noiry: Walls That Hear You (2021), by Cornell Woolrich

Centipede Press is still going full bore with its remarkably attractive, high-end reissues of Cornell Woolrich volumes.  They have reprinted the great American crime writer's six "Black" novels as well as his William Irish novels Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Waltz into Darkness and I Married a Dead Man and four volumes of short fiction: Dark Melody of Madness (a collection of supernatural tales), Speak to Me of Death (reviewed by me seven years ago here), Stories to be Whispered and, most recently from this year, Walls That Hear You.  (Woolrich's two George Hopley novels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Fright, and his last Irish novel, Strangler's Serenade, have not yet been reissued by CP.)

Cornell Woolrich has the reputation for being the bleakest of crime writers, both in terms of what he wrote and how he actually lived, and there's certainly a lot to that.  Certainly too that's the view stressed in the introduction to this new Centipede volume, where Francis Nevins hits all the usual black notes which he has stressed (and stressed) for decades now about how miserable Woolrich was, primarily because he was, Nevins believes, a "self-hating homosexual" filled with, yes, "homosexual self-contempt."  Or as he bluntly put it again, Sam, over at Mystery*File in 2010: "Woolrich was perhaps the most deeply closeted, self-hating homosexual male author that ever lived."

Indeed, it seems that Woolrich was so deeply closeted that he left no actual evidence that we know of that he was gay, self-hating or not!  (No one today can say whether the infamous purported Woolrich sex diary ever really existed.)  The truth is that it is Nevins who has interpreted Woolrich this way, the gay part coming from hearsay evidence from two elderly women he interviewed back in the 1970s and the self-hating part from his own inferences.  He also has written about Milton Propper and Patricia Highsmith as self-hating homosexuals, so it seems to be the theme with him when looking at queer crime writers.   

However, we don't actually know whether Woolrich really was gay and while he well may have had contempt for himself, we don't know whether or not this feeling was motivated by homosexuality (if he was really gay).  Woolrich, to be honest, had a lot of issues, as they say, stemming in my view both from inheritance and a dysfunctional childhood upbringing which produced in him extreme social anxiety.  He had trouble dealing with with people generally, putting aside the matter of his own sexuality.  

I've written an 11,000 word essay on the writer based on my own original research, which is shortly to be published elsewhere, and in it I take considerable issue with how the episode of Woolrich's short-lived, unhappy marriage has been portrayed in the vintage mystery media.  I hope the piece may prompt us to take a more nuanced and sympathetic look at the author than what has usually been the case, regrettably.  That Woolrich's story for decades has been held firmly in the hands of someone who so evidently holds him in contempt as a person (though he loves his writing) is an irony which the mordant author himself likely would have keenly felt.

But enough about that, how are the stories (really mostly pulp novelettes, a form of which Woolrich was a master) which have been collected in Walls That Hear You?  Well, there are seventeen of them here and I really liked about eight of them so I suppose you can say we are batting fifty-fifty.  It's not as good a collection as Speak to Me of Death in my view, but still pretty good.  

It opens up with Woolrich's first published piece of short crime fiction, "Death Sits in the Dentist's Chair," published when Woolrich was thirty years old, way back in 1934 in Detective Fiction Weekly.  It's been collected several times before, but it's a fun story, well worth reading again.

Fun I say?  Cornell Woolrich fun?  Well, in a grisly sort of way, yes.  It's about a devilish murder conducted by a diabolical dentist and there's genuine detection in it, of the Wills Crofts/Austin Freeman sort, and a good suspense passage at the end.  Yes, there is some Thirties social consciousness in it, an awareness of the problems of poor ethnic minorities (although it's also a necessary plot device).  But really it's a clever gadgety murder tale of the sort that John Rhode might have constructed.  It also uses the suspense devices of the wrong accused man and the friend trying to help him, which you often see in later Woolrich stories.

The title story, "Walls That Hear You," is another one, very pulpy and lurid, which I have to admit was a bit much for me.  (It involves a man who has his fingers and tongue removed but still lives--no thanks!)  Equally wild is "Kiss of the Cobra."  We are a long way off from noir here and more in purple pulps land, where the words may turn your stomach but they certainly won't break the heart.

"Hot Water," published in Argosy in 1935, is more in the hard-boiled vein, about the kidnapping of an actress at a gambling den in a Mexican town across the border from California.  Despite being about crime and violence there's a rather humorous edge to it and it's cleverly plotted and quite entertaining indeed.

nightmarish nights and daze

We're in more noirish territory with "Johnny on the Spot," about a girl who will do anything to rescue her man from gangsters.  It's both tender and tough, with true love and some really nasty scenes of violence, which I suppose Nevins would attribute to Woolrich's "homosexuals' self-contempt" even though it's the sort of thing you get in hard-boiled tales.

"Double Feature" is one of Woolrich's better-known tales, about what happens when a cop out on a date with his girl at the movie theater realizes they are sitting next to a "most wanted" criminal.  It's a great suspenser, crying out to be televised, but rather less noirish that "Johnny on the Spot."

"One and a Half Murders" is about a superannuated private detective who investigates on his own dime when his nephew is arrested for a murder he didn't commit.  The prevailing tone here is a bit humorous (the retired detective wanting to prove he's still got it), but when he finally resorts to terrorizing the guilty party to get his confession from the real murderer it's not very funny to me.  

Nevins thinks this reflects Woolrich's bleak world view, but again it's the sort of thing you see in a lot of crime fiction from that era, when crime writers tended to look sympathetically on private individuals taking the law into their own hands.  Many of us still feel this way today.  (Look at the reaction to "hero" Kyle Rittenhouse, for example.)

Woolrich's famous tale "Momentum" appears here as well and this is authentic bleak Woolrich, about how murder, Macbeth-like, dreadfully accumulates.  The protagonist has sympathetic qualities, but makes a series of disastrous choices, and it's all very dark, much more so that most of the stories in this collection.  The story was televised as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that somehow utterly failed to capture its power.

"Mind Over Murder," about a woman living in the tropics who comes up with a plot to frighten her hated husband to death, is really nasty and a corrosive portrait indeed of a marriage. Perhaps Woolrich was looking back on his own!  This feels more like a Roald Dahl or John Collier piece.

Then there are my favorites in this collection, "The Book That Squealed" and "The Penny-a-Worder."  

A librarian throws the book at criminals and finds love too
in one of Cornell Woolrich's most heartwarming tales,
"The Book That Squealed" (1939)
Yes, I said heartwarming.

I first read the former in the anthology Women Sleuths, which Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg co-edited.  "Squealed" features an intrepid librarian (naturally!) as amateur detective who ends up investigating crime by herself when the police don't take her concerns seriously.  How she cottons on to the crime is really ingenious.  It recalls Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate, oddly enough, except that it is much cleverer and, well, coherent.  Let's face it, Postern was not Agatha's greatest moment.

There are some very nasty criminals indeed in "Squealed," but really the whole thing is not far removed from the world of the British crime story from that era.  It makes one realize that Woolrich really could have written what we think of as British-style manners mysteries, and probably would have had he grown up in England.

There are a couple of stories here which are very similar indeed to "Squealed."  "Murder at Mother's Knee" features a schoolteacher as amateur detective and is an obvious reworking of "Squealed."  (The former was published two years after the latter.)  Authors often repeat devices in their work but here Woolrich essentially published the same story twice under different titles, though "Squealed" is the cleverer and more charming of the two.  "The Body in Grant's Tomb" features as narrator and detective a spinster aunt of the sort associated with Mary Roberts Rinehart's Had-I-But-Known school.  She's portrayed well but the plot itself kind of just peters out uninterestingly.  When you wrote as much as Woolrich did, you're going to have some comparative duds.

For me the best story in the collection, "The Penny-a-Worder," is not even a genuine crime story, but it is a brilliant little tale about a pulp crime writer.  Francis Nevins, who is convinced that Woolrich had no sense of humor, appreciates the fine quality of this story, but somehow himself apparently doesn't see the humor in it.  (You would have to have a sense of humor, I think, to see it.)  I've written about this story before here, but I think I will write about it again in a successor blog post.  It's such a brilliant little story that shows a lot of witty self-awareness on the part of an author whom a lot of people seem to think had capacity only for myopic misery.

Indeed the misery level in Woolrich's pulp fiction  generally has been somewhat overrated.  Many of the stories in this collection even have-gasp!--happy endings, if not without some considerable bruising for our protagonists along the way.  Perhaps this simply reflects the popular medium for which Woolrich was writing here (Thirties and Forties pulps, primarily)--or perhaps the author wasn't quite as relentlessly gloomy as people think.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Van Dine Declension Narrative--How Naysayers Got It Wrong about a Crime Writer and Phutzed up Philo Vance

Where have you gone, Philo Vance, the nation turns detecting eyes to you

Crime writer and critic Julian Symons, who despite his reputation as the High Apostle of the Crime Novel, actually enjoyed  as much as anyone a good baroque detective story from the Golden Age, especially if it was by John Dickson Carr or S. S. Van Dine, was, conversely, really hard on the later efforts of Van Dine, himself once considered the American Titan of Traditional 'teckery.  

"The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic [Randolph Bartlett] who called the ninth of them one more stitch in [Van Dine's] literary shroud was not overstating the case," Symons pronounced in his once extremely influential crime fiction survey, Bloody Murder, originally published in 1972 and reissued in updated editions in 1985 and 1992.  

Translated bluntly this means Symons thought the last six Van Dine Murder Cases--Dragon, Casino, Garden, Kidnap, Gracie Allen and Winter--went from crappy to crappier indeed.  Granting that Gracie Allen, recently reviewed here, is a misfire on all counts and that Winter is skeletal on account of the author's untimely death, I still have to disagree, however, with Symons' notion that the other four books are terrible failures.  I've read a lot of mystery fiction in my time, as had Symons, and to me this particular Van Dine quartet, while no masterpiece altogether, is better than a great deal of stuff I've read.

But forget me.  What did critics at the time have to say?  Looking at The Kidnap Murder Case, I have concluded that the reviews of this novel were by no means bad.  In England, crime writer and reviewer E. R. Punshon lamented what he deemed the softening of Philo's pleasingly pretentious and prickly character, but he concluded that in Kidnap Van Dine "shows that he still possesses a real power of narrative, that gift of storytelling which, one is sometimes tempted to think,  is the rarest of all gifts among the storytellers of today."  Sounds like pretty high praise to me!

There were favorable American notices as well.  Reviewers discerned that in Kidnap Murder Case Van Dine, perhaps influenced by Dashiell Hammett (of all things), had opted for a simpler, more direct style than he had previously, eschewing the esoteric and sometimes frankly tortuous footnotes with which he had adorned, if you will, his earlier efforts, like The Bishop Murder Case (which was deemed by Julian Symons the summit of Van Dine's detective achievement, though I think he's rather overrated it).  

"Save for a brief dissertation on semi-precious stones," observed Isaac Anderson in his notice of Kidnap Murder Case in the New York Times Book Review, "Philo Vance displays very little of his encyclopedic learning in this book," instead revealing himself "as a gun-fighter who can pump hot lead with the best of them."  Philo thusly had disproved those who had deemed him "too highbrow to be a real he-man."  However, for the most part the amateur sleuth was "still the same old Philo Vance, distinguished for his keen observation of details...and for his adroit questioning of witnesses and suspects."  All in all, Anderson concluded, "The Kidnap Murder Case is real, simon-pure Van Dine, and that should be good enough for anybody."

In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "H. R. H." postulated that Kidnap reflected a return in style to Van Dine's earliest detective murder cases, Benson and Canary, "when one murder was enough for both the reader and the detective, and when straight mystery unadorned by the supernatural or grotesque was sufficient puzzle for all of us."  

The reviewer allowed that Philo Vance was still "an insufferably superior person," but nevertheless it remained true as well that Vance's "processes of deduction are brilliant and his cases invariably unique."  H. R. H. proclaimed that "no other detective writer in America" evinced "such versatility and originality as Mr. Van Dine."  In contrast with some reviewers, H. R. H. dismissed Van Dine's footnotes in earlier books, about "scarabs, or mummies, or Chinese porcelains," as so much "foolishness"; and he praised the "straight deduction" which he discerned in Kidnap

How this judgment contrasted with that rendered by Symons in Bloody Murder, where Symons defended the footnotes of the early Van Dine novels, contrasting the author favorably with Dorothy L. Sayers!  (Sorry, all you Dorothy L'ers.)  "Van Dine's erudition...was real where Sayers' was defective," Symons insisted.  Be this as it may, reviewers like H. R. H contrastingly preferred the more stripped-down approach.  

At the hands of Symons and others, like Van Dine's own biographer, John Loughery, there has been fashioned what one might call the "Van Dine Declension Narrative," according to which the supposed cataclysmic decline in Van Dine's own detective fiction represents the broader steep decline in Golden Age detective fiction generally, as it was gradually replaced in popularity by tales of tough guys, espionage and psychological suspense.  But in my view this narrative exaggerates the extent of Van Dine's decline, not only in quality but in actual popularity.

On the eve of the publication of  The Kidnap Murder Case in October 1936, Van Dine's prestigious publisher, Scribner's, boasted that Van Dine had published nine bestselling detective novels in nine years, totaling more than a million copies sold over that time.  This is a tremendous amount of sales for a mystery writer in those penurious days (or today for that matter), when mysteries rarely made the bestseller lists, their sales being mostly confined to rental libraries, where they were checked out many times by penny-pinching readers at the cost of only a few cents a day.  If any given mystery sold 3000 copies in the U. S., it was doing better than average; if 10,000-20,000 copies it was doing really well.  

Let's say Van Dine's first six detective novels sold an average of 150,000 copies apiece (Canary, Greene and Bishop seem to have been the most successful), then the last three would still have sold at least 35,000 copies apiece, which would have left most other mystery writers of the day in the dust (even while reflecting a definite comedown for Van Dine).  Scribner's claimed at the time that the pre-publication sale of The Kidnap Murder Case had been "sufficiently large to place it among the best-sellers of the Fall season"; and, sure enough, I have been able to verify that several cities, including Atlanta and Kansas City, reported it to be one of their bestselling books.  

If this be failure, give me this failure!  Maybe it seemed like such to Van Dine, who was trying to maintain with his wife a very lavish lifestyle indeed, but it would have not have been so for most mystery writers, of whatever stripe.  Classic mystery remained quite popular throughout the Thirties, whatever people may try to tell you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Dashing up Van Dine: The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), by S. S. Van Dine

"I'm telling you, you outrageous fop, that this a dammed serious situation...."

--District Attorney John Markham to swanky man-about-town Philo Vance in S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case

"I'm frightfully sorry, Markham," he said, "but I fear I have made you a bit of trouble"..."The fact is," he added carelessly, "I killed three men."

--Philo Vance to DA Markham in S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case 

By 1936, the reputation of S. S. Van Dine, who for a brief time (about 1926-30) strode mightily over the American mystery fiction world like some Regie-smoking colossus, was on the wane.  Once bestsellers, the Philo Vance mysteries, while they still did well by mystery fiction standards, no longer sold like they once had, nor were the lucrative film adaptations of them quite what they had been, during the glory days of William Powell playing Philo.

Other American mystery writers, like Dashiell Hammett, Mignon Eberhart, Rex Stout and Erle Stanly Gardner were on the rise, with popular detectives with films of their own (Sam Spade, Nick Charles, Sarah Keate, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason).  Having grown used to an extremely lavish lifestyle, Van Dine desperately needed the cash which the mysteries, magazine serializations and film adaptations provided, so dutifully he reeled off yet another Philo Vance detective novel, his tenth, in 1936.  Originally intended to be titled The Purple Murder Case, the manuscript was published as Van Dine's tenth detective novel under the title The Kidnap Murder Case.

1948 Bantam pb edition, where
Philo Vance (right) notably
resembles author S. S. Van Dine;
also note the purple stripe on right,
surely an homage to the novel's
original intended title.

Like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Todd Downing's Vultures in the Sky, Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case drew on the shocking Lindbergh kidnapping affair of 1932, where the one-year-old son of renowned American aviator Charles Linbergh was abducted from his nursery for ransom, though at some point (probably the very night of the kidnapping) the child suffered  a fatal blow to the head.  

The Lindbergh kidnapping case transfixed the nation for over four years, right up through the trial and execution, on April 3, 1936, of German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann for the crime.  This last event took place about six months before the publication of The Kidnap Murder Case.  Unlike the Lindbergh case (and the Christie and Downing novels which it influenced), however, The Kidnap Murder Case concerns the abduction of a healthy adult male, not some helpless toddler.  

Van Dine's fictional affair commences at yet another one of those old brownstone mansions in New York City which Van Dine habitually used as settings for malfeasance and murder, except in this case time the mansion, oddly enough, has been painted purple.  

The Purple House, as its known, was constructed in 1880 by Karl K. Kenting, that eccentric businessman and avid Ku Kluxer.  (He originally hailed from Virginia, Philo Vance explains, and we know what Virginia was like back then.)  So committed, indeed, was Kenting to the Ku Klux Klan  that he had his original name "Carl" altered to "Karl" and added a fictitious K. as his middle initial, just to spell out "K. K. K."

Further yet, Kenting carried on the krazy "K" kick to his children, his sons Kenyon K. and Kaspar K. and his daughter (who has since died), Karen K.  This is all pretty colorful lore, granted, though ultimately it is utterly irrelevant to the story.  Had the author  meant it as an homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story "The Five Orange Pips"?  Reminiscent of Doyle, we learn that the Papa Kenting was an unscrupulous and ruthless individual ultimately done to death by his rivals, via the agency of two deadly sub-machine guns.

1994 Otto Penzler Books/
Macmillan reprint in Penzler's
Classic American Mystery Library

His younger son, ne'er-do-well man-about-town Kaspar Kenting, is an habitué of gambling casinos and racetracks (which figured sucessively in Van Dine's two previous novels, The Casino and Garden Murder Cases) who lives in the Purple House with his pale and anemic-looking blonde wife, Madeleine, and her mother and neurotic weakling brother, Fraim Falloway.  (Van Dine really has a thing for alliteration in this book.)  Service is provided by a shifty butler, Weem, and his cook-housekeeper wife, Gertrude.

Truth is, the Purple House has gone rather to seed, what with Kaspar being an utter no-good who is dependent on sums doled out to him by family lawyer, Eldridge Fleel, and his broker brother, Kenyon.  I'd say "Eldridge Fleel" is the wildest name in the book, except for the fact that Kaspar also has a gambling acquaintance named Porter Quaggy and you can't really top that one, can you?

At the opening of the novel Philo has returned to his own swanky New York brownstone (where he resides as ever with his dull attorney-companion-chronicler Van, aka Van Dine, and Currie, his stately English butler), after having spent several months abroad in Egypt, recovering from events in the previous year's Garden Murder Case, wherein he just happened to fall more than a smidgen in love--with a lady, of all things.  Go figure!

Well, in fact, the Thirties was a period when mystery readers increasingly wanted their detectives to be "real" and thus sexless (or lavenderish) super-genius sleuths were no longer quite the fashion which they had been.  Given that Philo Vance was the lord-god-king of sexless, super-genius sleuths, this was, one must allow, a bit of a problem for his creator.  

In The Kidnap Murder Case S. S. Van Dine attempted the impossible task of humanizing Vance and making him seem a more believable person, partly by making him compassionate to his fellow men and women.  This moved reviewer E. R. Punshon to complain, not unreasonably, that Vance had "gone all sloppy."  

Rest assured, however, that for the most part in The Kidnap Murder Case Philo remains the same supercilious, affected twit whom we all know and love (or love to hate as the case may be).  And he's a pretty good detective too, actually, although I must allow that the case he's involved in here may not strike you as overly tricky.  

1932 Lindbergh ransom note,
allegedly composed by Bruno Hauptmann;
note the use of interlocked circles as
a symbolic signature

When Kasper Keating is kidnapped from his bedroom in the Purple House, a ladder left propped up against the window and a symbolically signed ransom note tacked to the wall demanding 50,000 smackers (about a million dollars today) for his safe return, Vance is soon capably jumping the hurdles which the author has erected, leaving the dunderhead police and worshipful chronicler Van far behind him.  (By the by, these details recall the Lindbergh kidnapping; see pics.)

Preposterously, DA Markham lets Philo run the investigation, just as he did in the previous two Vance novels as I recollect.  He's just given up by this time, poor man, though a couple of times he rouses himself to call Philo an insulting name.

That loveable racist Sergeant Heath--who here contemptuously calls a black maid "Aunt Jemima" to her face, recalling his shameful performance the last time he met a black person in The Canary Murder Case nine years earlier--knows the the score and mostly follows Vance's orders without objections.  The gruff old cop is really just a softie where Vance is concerned, don't you know.

It seems clear enough that Vance was dream projection of the author, who probably felt that the world would be a much better place if only it were by literary critics and aesthetes like himself.  It's pretty to think so, at least!  Heck, they probably couldn't do any worse.

ransom note in S. S. Van Dine's
The Kidnap Murder Case (1936);
note use of interlocking squares
as signature, imitative of the circles
in the Lindbergh case

At about 75,000 words The Kidnap Murder Case is about half again as long and a vastly more capably constructed mystery than the next one in the series, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was reviewed by me earlier here.  

I read Kidnap with pleasure about two decades ago and enjoyed it on the second read, which is more than you can say about a lot of mysteries. Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel, however, is that it has a decidedly more hard-boiled tone to it, with gangsters and a machine gun shooting, no less, as well as gun play in a seedy section of the Big Apple, during which Philo Vance shoots no fewer than three criminal worms dead.  

Yes, it turns out Philo is a crack shot and was awarded the Croix de Guerre during the Great War.--no sissy he, that's for sure!  

I'd call Philo Vance a classic Mary Sue character, but really that's simply not a fancy enough cognomen for the fellah, eh, what?  Maybe a Marius Suestas?

Part of the novel Vance actually spends up a tree with a handgun in his pocket waiting for a ransom pickup--thus obeying, incidentally, the exasperated injunction of every Van Dine reader who ever urged the condescending aesthete to go climb a tree.  

Philo even has his poor Van accompany him up the tree so he can chronicle the whole thing later.  Van is ludicrously out of place with all this Continental Op stuff going on around him and in truth so is Philo, but, fear not, traditional mystery mavens, The Kidnap Murder Case is still a legitimate fair play detective novel, one that in terms of the scaffolding of its plot, could have been constructed by Dashiell Hammett himself.  The fact that no film was made from the novel (an unfortunate first for the author) may indicate how Van Dine had confounded expectations.  Maybe Philo had gotten too tough for his own good.  Hence, the entry of Gracie Allen in the next book.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Buffaloed: Banking on Death (1961), by Emma Lathen

a balmy day in Buffalo

Like Athena from Zeus' head, John Putnam Thatcher sprang forth fully formed when sixty years ago this December Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Matha Hennisart) published Banking on Death (1961), their first mystery novel about the canny senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust.  So too did spring forth the authors copious talents as mystery fiction writers.  

In this first one by them it's all there: the drily witty narration, the authority on business detail and the impeccable plotting.  It's probably as good as any other book in the series, although some may miss the higher satirical flights of, say, Death Shall Overcome (1966) and Murder against the Grain (1967),both of which S. S. Van Dine probably would have condemned for "literary dallying."  Even Van Dine couldn't have had a problem with Banking on Death, however; at about 70,000 words it's a lean and superb example of the classic detective novel.  I particularly liked how one clue was waved in front of my face and I still didn't see it.  Clever misdirection.

In 1994 Banking on Death was
another entry in Otto Penzler's
short-lived Classic American 
Mystery Library series, which 
also included S. S. Van Dine's
Gracie Allen Murder Case

Initially Banking on Death seems like it's going to be one of those "missing heir" cases, but things soon turn out differently when said heir turns up dead.  At the Sloan in New York City John Thatcher is cornered by Arthur Schneider, President of the Schneider Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts (makers of felts and industrial textiles), who wants to discuss the matter of his black sheep cousin, Robert, of whom the family lost slight of fifteen years ago, not long after the end of World War Two.  

With the imminent death of Arthur's Aunt Hilda, the trust will wind down, but the whereabouts and fate of Robert must be determined for the distribution to be made to the younger generation of surviving family members, which includes, besides Robert and Arthur, Arthur's sister, Grace, and Arthur's other cousin, Martin Henderson, who heads the firm's New York City sales branch.

Thatcher soon discovers Robert--he has been bludgeoned to death at his apartment in Buffalo, New York!

At his recent demise Robert was serving as vice president of the Buffalo Industrial Products Corporation.  Robert had made good, yet he was disliked by seemingly everyone, including other officers in the company and even his own estranged wife.  Even though the Schneider family trust is managed at the Sloan by young Kenneth Nicholls, the inquisitive Thatcher soon is actively involved trying to determine just who bumped off Robert and why.  (Nicholls becomes Thatcher's dogsbody.)  

It's a complicated question, to be sure, with a cast of suspects residing not only in Buffalo and Framingham but New York and Washington, D. C.  On the night Robert was murdered, Buffalo was being hit by a major snowstorm, so a most interesting question of alibis concerning planes and snow-tired automobiles is raised, one Freeman Wills Crofts surely would have adored.  

On its publication critical enthusiasm for the novel was pronounced.  In the New York Times Anthony Boucher praised the "interestingly unpleasant characters and agreeable love story [one-half of which is composed of Kenneth Nicholls"], as well as the "sound" and "well-clued" "murder puzzle," before concluding: "Miss Lathen is a find."  (I'm surprised that was never used on book blurbs.)

In the UK the frequently misogynistic Francis Iles lauded Banking on Death, though not without taking a broadside of critical obiter dicta at American women writers of what today is dubbed "domestic suspense":

[Emma Lathen's first novel] is head and shoulders above the usual rather dreary and deadly portentous American female crime-writers' syndicate. (There are some half a dozen of them but I say they must be a syndicate becaise any of their books might have been written by any one of them.)  this is a good story, well told, with a good background of banking and bug business, good characterisation, and even signs of humour.

Lathen would go on the write a total two dozen John Thatcher detective novels, finally shutting down with the untimely death of Mary Jane Latsis in 1997.  Nineteen of them appeared between 1961 and 1982, and another five, perhaps a bit antiquated by then, between 1988 and 1997.  The series never really changed to speak of (although at some point women became something other than wives, daughters and secretaries), providing readers with civilized and intelligent mystery entertainment for nearly four decades.  Certainly Emma Lathen was never drearily portentous and deadly dull.

PS: I had read this novel back in the 1990s, but I had forgotten that we learn here that John Thatcher was born in the villager of Sunapee, New Hampshire and served in the First World War.  He's widowed with a married daughter named Laura.  I don't believe we ever learn too much more about him.  Francis Iles probably approved of all this personal reticence.

See also my reviews of:

A Stitch in Time (1968)

By Hook or By Crook (1975)

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Say Good Night, Philo: The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), by S. S. Van Dine

One never rises so high as when one does not know where one is going.--Oliver Cromwell

--highfalutin' but entirely apt epigraph to S. S. Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)

On April 11, 1939 bestselling mystery author S. S. Van Dine suddenly collapsed and died at his swanky art deco apartment at 241 Central Park West, Manhattan  He was only fifty years old, but he had been suffering from heart disease (compounded by chronic drinking) and looked at least fifteen years older than his actual age.  

At his death the author left behind an early draft of a Philo Vance detective novel, The Winter Murder Case, which he had intended to serve as a film vehicle for Norwegian ice skating star Sonja Henie; and it was in this stripped form that the manuscript was published later that year in, appropriately, the winter.  Of actual novella length only, the book as published misses the usual affected Philoisms that people either love or hate and it is, all in all, a rather pallid work.  The Kansas City Star sadly deemed it a "sorry sort of farewell."

1931 art deco apartment building where 
S. S. Van Dine passed away in 1939

However as I recollect The Winter Murder Case, it's better altogether than Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case, the penultimate Philo Vance mystery, published a year before as a vehicle for the 1939 film of the same title which starred comedienne Gracie Allen, wife of her comedy partner George Burns.  It's a bizarre and not very successful novel, in my view, either as comedy or mystery, or comedy-mystery.  As a Philo completist I'm glad I finally read it, but I can't say I was impressed.

As a kid in the late 1970s I certainly knew about George Burns, whose career at nearly the age of eighty had been rejuvenated when he won an Oscar in 1976 for his charming role in the film The Sunshine Boys.  

Burns remained a familiar presence in American entertainment, finally expiring at the age of 100 in 1996. All I knew about Gracie Allen, his late wife, however, was that she was, well, his late wife.  Allen died back in 1964, before I was born, but Burns actually had played straight man to her in their comedy pieces on radio/television in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.  

In fact Gracie Allen was a very big star, though not so much on film.  Straight man Burns was then best known for imploring Allen, after listening lengthily to her daffy rambles, to "Say good night," which has generally been popularly remembered as "Say good night, Gracie."

entrance to 241 Central Park West, where S. S. Van Dine died

S. S. Van Dine, on the other hand, had made a big thing out of film with his mysteries.  Philo Vance was a famous film detective, particularly in the incarnation essayed by actor William Powell in The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Greene Murder Case (1929), The Benson Murder Case (1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933).  The latter film is considered the peak Philo Vance flick and the 1933 book of the same title upon which it is based is well-regarded as well--in fact it's often seen as the last hurrah of the Philo Vance detective novel series.

Van Dine published four more Philo Vance novels between 1933 and 1936--The Dragon Murder Case (1933), The Casino Murder Case (1934), The Garden Murder Case (1935) and The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), but these are generally seen as inferior to their predecessors, as are the films which were adapted from three of the books.  After losing William Powell as Vance--symbolically Powell eschewed Philo to become Nick Charles, the detective in Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man series of films--the remaining pictures went through a succession of Vances (Warren William in Dragon, Paul Lukas in Casino and Edmund Lowe in Garden) who never really caught on with the public.  A film was not even made of The Kidnap Murder Case, even though it should have been readily filmable.  

determinedly art deco lobby at 241 Central Park West

This was a problem for Van Dine because he and his second wife--he had rather callously discarded his first spouse--were high livers and needed the revenue from the Vance films to maintain their accustomed lifestyles.  This is how the strange mashup between Philo Vance--a stuffed shirt if ever there were one, even if the shirt was lavender with a green carnation--and zany stage "nitwit" Gracie Allen came about.  "Screwball" comedy was popular in the Thirties and humorous bits often were often incorporated into mystery films, albeit with wildly varying success.  If Van Dine--and Philo Vance--had to suffer the Gracie Allen stage persona in order to get back in film, so be it.

Gracie Allen "takes a back seat" to no one--certainly not Philo Vance-in the film version of
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Hence The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which appeared in print in November 1938 and on film the following the year, a few months after Van Dine's untimely death.  As I understand it, the film version differs significantly from the book; and I can't say that surprises me, because in the book ditzy Gracie very much plays second fiddle to Philo, which is not how the filmmakers wanted it.  Van Dine is often condemned for prostituting his creation for film, but in the book he evidently tried to some extent to preserve Vance's integrity (and his).  The problem is, you just can't do this with Gracie Allen hanging around.

Never before in his books having evinced any real sense of humor (to the contrary, the books are, whatever you think of them, rather on the pompous and portentous side), suddenly Van Dine is doing these comic bits for Gracie Allen and trying to get us to believe that Philo Vance finds this "girl"--who in real life was 42 years of age and admitted to 36--to be this simply delightful and enchantin' wood nymph and dryad and elf and suchlike, don't you know.  Not buying it, SSVD!

Heck, I'm much more tolerant than Philo Vance ever was and even I find Gracie Allen intensely irritating, at least on paper.  You really need Gracie Allen in person, I think, to make the Gracie Allen persona bearable.  On paper it's just dire.  (George Burns appears in the book too, by the by, and is so straight a straight man you can barely see him; he's almost as invisible as Van Dine's ghostly narrator Van.)  

certainly the author died but he wasn't laughing
Gracie Allen with Philo (Warren William)

You can tell that S. S. Van Dine was not really comfortable with the Gracie Allen material.  He's more at home in the Gracie-less portions of the book, which read like a typical Van Dine detective novel, just not a good one, unfortunately.  Weirdly Van Dine has grafted Gracie and George and this perfume company they work for (the In-O-Scent Corporation) onto this rather darkish plot about gangsters and assorted fiends who habituate at the symbolically named Domdaniel nightclub in New York.  

There were gangsters in The Kidnap Murder Case as well and it's clear that Van Dine had been trying to toughen up the Philo Vance series, which had been eclipsed by Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled boys.  

So why drag Gracie in to tag along on Philo's cases now?  The answer obviously is the author saw a chance for some desperately needed $$$$!

Unfortunately the actual mystery doesn't work well either.  There's really not time to develop much of a puzzle plot in a novel of only around 50,000 words by my count, with much of the wordage given over to alleged Gracie Allen humor.  But here goes....

Milton Bradley even introduced a
Gracie Allen Murder Case board game to cash in on the film
even though Gracie had no "Clue" as it were

It seems that an escaped gangster, Benny the Buzzard (aka Beniamino Pellinzi) may be on his way to New York to revenge himself on Vance's pal (and longtime stooge) District Attorney Markham.  Benny is connected to the criminal coterie at Domdaniel, which is led by nightclub owner Daniel Mirche, chanteuse Dixie Del Mar and fatalistic philosophizin' crime kingpin "Owl" Owen.  

A dead body is discovered at Domdaniel, in Mirche's office no less, on the night when not only Philo and Van were there but, coincidentally, Gracie Allen, boyfriend George Burns and another swain of Gracie's, Jimmy Puttle, who is even more thinly characterized that Burns.  Earlier Vance had met Allen, apparently entirely coincidentally, out strolling along Palisades Avenue in Riverdale in the Bronx.  In fact there a lot of coincidences in this book, which would be intolerable in a straight mystery, but this thing is anything but.

these guys became important players in
Van Dine's last fully completed mysteries,  
The Kidnap Murder Case and
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Vance solves the case only through Gracie's discoveries, all of them made accidentally, Gracie basically being what at this time they euphemistically called a "natural" in English village mysteries.  (There was another name too, much less polite.)

The murder is a sort of locked room problem, except that Van Dine resolves this puzzle through a feckless mechanism much favored by loopy American mystery writer Carolyn Wells; and there's an additional twist which, while clued, seems absurd.  

Basically the mystery is very simple, with some hot air--or overheated red herring--thrown up to obscure things.  

The laziness of it all is evident in the fact that Rosa Tofana (aka fortuneteller "Delpha") and criminal hubby Tony Tofana, two of the characters in the book--they're listed in the cast of characters at the beginning--do not actually ever appear, although they are frequently referred to by others and play an important role in the plot.  I guess that beat actually attempting to characterize them!

A contemporary reviewer of the novel in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, publihsed under the heading "New Philo Vance Yarn Gives Critic Pain in the Neck," roasted Philo and Gracie alike, asserting that the book fell flat between two stools, being neither "goofy enough for Gracie nor good enough for Vance," and resultantly "neither entertaining as nonsense nor interesting as a mystery."  The only actual mystery in the bemused reviewer's eyes was "why the Scribners published it."

Otto Penzler's 1994 edition
of The Gracie Allen Murder Case
generously included in his
Classic American Mystery Library

Nevertheless, the book provides some vintage Philo moments for fans, like when the amateur sleuth again expresses his ardent support for vigilantism, a topical subject right now.  About the escaped convict Benny the Buzzard, Vance scoffs to proper lawman Markham:

Ah, your precious law and its prissy procedure!  How you Solons complicate the simple things of life!  Even if this red-tailed hawk with the operatic name should appear among his olden haunts and be snared in Sergeant's seine, you would still treat him kindly and caressingly under the euphemistic phrase "due process of the law."  You'd coddle him no end....

And this was uttered in 1938, before the massive criminal procedural reforms imposed by the Warren Court!  What would Vance say today?  I'm guessing his Twitter feed would really have been something, assuming he wasn't kicked off Twitter entirely.*

*(Of course with all those five dollar words--fifty dollars with inflation--Philo likes to use, he would have had a hard time limiting himself to 280 characters.)

There's one rather odd, essentially extraneous chapter, highlighted by Van Dine's biographer as I recall, where Vance philosophizes about death and the utter ennui of life with the doomed crime kingpin Owl Owen, who only has a short time left to live, afflicted as he is (like the author) with terminal heart disease.  

Although Van Dine later condemns Owen as a "diseased maniac" and a "mental, moral and spiritual leper," the high-toned crook sounds a lot like the author, who in his former, financially unsuccessful life as Willard Huntington Wright (before he reinvented himself as a detective novelist) was a prominent aesthete, critic and intellectual.  

Gracie Allen investigates! (perhaps how co-star
Kent Taylor--playing "Bill Brown," a character
not in the book-- got his mustache so thin)

"Owen began speaking now of old books, of his cultural ambitions as a youth, of his early study of music," the narrator, Van, tells us.  How are we not to connect this with the author himself, substituting painting for music?  

When Owen speaks of "the cosmic urge to play a game with life, in order to escape from the stresses and pressures of the finite," is he expressing the author's rationale for having abandoned intellectual criticism for detective fiction?  

And when he laments that "Nothing has the slightest importance--not even life itself," is he expressing the author's own despair with living and his knowledge that he too soon will be gone, mere dust in the wind, as the song says?  

In any event, what in the world is this downer of a chapter doing in the same book with kooky Gracie Allen?  It's discordant in the extreme.  Van Dine knows it, because he has "Van" self-consciously introduce Owen by saying "That night...I could not, by the most fantastic flight of my imagination, associate him in any way with the almost incredible and carefree Gracie Allen."  Indeed!  Nor could I, even when the book was over.

Despite the author's attempts at inducing chuckles--and knowing what I do of the prospect of impending death which he faced--I find The Gracie Allen Murder Case rather a sad book. 

That's why I was happy to see Van, Philo's pal and loyal chronicler (and longtime companion), on page one stating that he and the perspicacious and pretentious amateur sleuth had recalled this case together, "as we sat before the grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events."  I like to think that these two most confirmed of bachelors enjoyed a happier life together than Van Dine evidently ever did with anyone in his own restless and unsatisfied earthly existence.