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.


  1. I certainly thought the DRAGON MURDER CASE was top-notch Van Dine. There's a definite subtle change evident in THE CASINO MURDER CASE but I thought it was excellent. I haven't read THE KIDNAP MURDER CASE but it's on my To Read list.

    Symons was taken way too seriously. He was treated as an oracle there for a while. He was opinionated, which is fine. I like opinionated people. The opinions he expressed in BLOODY MURDER were worth at least listening to. But he should never have been regarded as an oracle.

  2. Yeah, I don't sense this steep drop-off in Van Dine's work that Symons does, but then I don't value Bishop as highly as he does, for sure. For example, is Scarab really so much better than Dragon, or better at all? I don't think so.

    Nowadays, when Symons has lost the huge influence that he had, taking issue with him may seem to be passe, but he was hugely influential for at least a quarter of a century, maybe even for four decades. (We are coming up on the 50th anniversary.) Not many books exert such long-lived influence. So it's still necessary to take him into account historically.

  3. I have a major love/hate relationship with Van Dine. To me he’s the Harold Hill of the genre— his promises are more fascinating than nearly anyone else’s, but he doesn’t deliver on them. The problem presented in BISHOP truly IS fascinating, but the solution is a major disappointment to anyone who really values the genre. I mean, what does the solution to THE BISHOP MURDER CASE have to do with Mother Goose, Chess, the Church, or Ibsen? The answer is nothing, it’s all misdirection. Well, misdirection is fine, but the appeal of the puzzle plot is the dynamic between puzzle and solution— surprising, yes, but also integrally related, in ways that are manifested as clues. What truly interesting clues can you remember from Van Dine’s entire output? I can’t think of a one.

  4. Yes, I feel like all the early books were overrated (in that they were very highly regarded indeed). I think Kennel is his best one, there is some very nice complication there, and Casino and Garden arguably are underrated. But for a guy who always lectured everyone about mystery writing, I know what you mean. He's workmanlike but not really ingenious. Still, I enjoy some of his books.