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 habituĂ© 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, according to my recollection, 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.

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