This is a most unusual mystery novel.
In reading about the mystery genre and the craft of writing detective stories, I’ve come across mentions of S. S. Van Dine and his detective Philo Vance. Van Dine, the pseudonym of critic and journalist Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939), was an acquaintance of Burns and Allen, and in his 1938 detective story, fact and fiction cross with the very real Gracie Allen making an appearance along with her “husband-to-be” George Burns.
Gracie Allen died in August 1964, long before I was born. I was much more familiar with her husband, George Burns, who starred in the Oh, God movies I watched—and loved—as a kid. I’ve since seen old episodes on PBS of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and heard, in passing, bits from their radio show, which preceded their appearance on TV.
Set in Manhattan, The Gracie Allen Murder Case begins with our narrator—Van Dine himself—relating Vance’s fondness for this particular case of his. The case itself opens with a scene at a country club overlooking the Hudson. Vance is dining with his friend and district attorney—and series regular—John F. X. Markham. Sergeant Heath, another series regular, arrives with news that a gangster, Benny the Buzzard, who vowed revenge against the district attorney, has escaped from prison.
Vance begins nosing around and encounters Gracie Allen in “A Rustic Interlude” before ending up at the Domdaniel café where the murder of the story is to occur.
Oddly, except for Vance, no one ever refers to, speaks to, or acknowledges the narrator’s presence. Even when Gracie Allen first meets Vance, her characters doesn’t—as you would suspect a person would—ask, “Who’s your friend here?”
The story—inspired by its namesake—reads a lot like a radio drama. Much of the story is dialogue. The pace—so far—is breezy and light-hearted. Allen’s comedic persona as a ditzy dame—known for her “illogical logic”—is well captured here. See sample page at right.
But be prepared. Having a dictionary at hand might prove useful. Machicolation, tessellated, exiguous, toxiphorous, haruspex, and oleaginous are just a few of the—head-scratching—words I’ve encountered so far, making me feel like I’m prepping for an SAT test!
Stay tuned for my thoughts after finishing this curious novel.