Philo Vance is a noted detective in mystery fiction. However, modern readers might find his affected speech irritating. His tendency to use complex words, references to classical mythology, and dropping the ‘g’ off of words ending in ‘ing’ are a tad annoying, perhaps.
As I mentioned previously, having a dictionary handy is a good idea. I had to look up matutinal, hoyendish, punctilio, anent, ukase, and mephitic before finishing the story. See some of the other words I encountered here.
The choice of a well-to-do man-about-town as amateur detective must certainly have appealed to readers, especially in the 1920s. Vance is wealthy, handsome, intelligent, and stylish. Yet these are merely inferences I’ve made from the story, for the narrator never describes Vance at length. I suppose this is because the character was more fully described in early novels and was well-established by the time this 11th title in the series was released. I find this a flaw though; readers, like me, who pick up this novel as their first experience will lack a full sense of who the character is.
Perhaps the novel cut corners? Other characters are briefly described, but much of the text is dialogue. As I stated before, it reads like a radio drama. Of course, it features the very real and popular radio star from that era, Gracie Allen.
Gracie Allen and George Burns appear as characters mimicking their radio personas. Though in real-life they married in 1926, their radio act characters merely flirted with one another as they encountered various comedic situations. Here, in the novel, they are employees at the perfume-making In-O-Scent Corporation, involved in a love triangle—Gracie flirts with a Mr. Puttle to make George jealous.
In her featured role, it’s Gracie who provides Vance with vital clues that lead to the solution of the murder. Though it’s interesting to note, that in the filmed version of the novel, Gracie Allen becomes the main character, relegating Philo Vance to supporting player.
What did the real Gracie Allen think of the novel? I’m not entirely sure, but she’s quoted as having said: “S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety-eight cents.”
Of more interest might be what Allen’s brother thought of his being ‘killed off’ in the novel. In 1933, as a publicity stunt, Allen and Burns used the idea of her brother ‘being missing’ as a running gag. According to Burns in Gracie: A Love Story: “Their plan was that Gracie would show up unannounced on other network programs, supposedly in search of her missing brother, and mention the time change.” Their radio show was planning a change of time slot. Apparently, Gracie’s brother, George Allen, a San Francisco accountant, went into hiding to avoid reporters during the height of the stunt and evenutally asked them to stop.
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), by most accounts, was not considered successful. Philo Vance was instantly popular with his first appearance in The Benson Murder Case (1926) and the success of the series continued for the first half of its run. The latter six books, however, were a different story.
In his book, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, mystery author Julian Symons stated, “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.”
Still, the initial popularity of Philo Vance led to adaptations of the stories for radio and film. In fact regardless of success, all 12 Philo Vance cases were filmed. William Powell was one of many actors to portray the character. An interesting fact, considering the character is like an unmarried version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, also portrayed by Powell in film.
Overall, this is a light-hearted story with a rather facile murder mystery. One chapter, “A Dying Man,”does seem out of sync with the tone of the rest of the novel. Still I would be interested in reading others in the series, particularly the first novel. I understand The Benson Murder Case is based on the real-life—and apparently unsolved—murder of an expert bridge player found dead in a locked room. I also plan on seeing the movie adaptation of this story.