philo vance

Philo Vance is another of my non-guilty pleasures.

Philo Vance was a detective. He starred in a series of twelve mystery novels written by S. S. Van Dyne (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright). The books were very popular, and Van Dyne was the top-selling writer in the 1920s in the United States. (In fact, I’ve read that it was the profits from the Vance novels that helped the publishing house Scribner’s take a chance on some unknown young writers named Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe.)

Vance is mostly forgotten these days. Scribners made an attempt to republish the books in paperback in the 1960s or 1970s, but they only made it through the first half dozen books or so (which was probably just as well – see below). But the books were influential as well as popular at the time.

In Ellery Queen’s earliest books he was a pretty obvious Vance imitation. The Tragedy of Y (a Queen book written under the name Barnaby Ross) was heavily influenced by The Greene Murder Case. The Three Coffins (AKA The Hollow Man) by John Dickson Carr, often cited as one of Carr’s best and one of the best locked-room mysteries ever, took its central gimmick from The Kennel Murder Case (it’s a great gimmick, and I’ve used it myself). The Bishop Murder Case is often cited as the first mystery where a serial killer murders according to a pattern (in this case nursery rhymes). This idea appeared in several Queen books (Ten Days Wonder uses The Ten Commandments, for example), in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, and in other places as well (the movie Seven comes to mind).

So, with all this popularity and influence, why has Vance been so forgotten? Probably the style of the books. Vance was an upper class dilettante and a fop, usually wearing a monocle, always willing to halt an investigation for a few pages to lecture on Chinese porcelains, dog breeding, Egyptian archeology, horse racing, or whatever else struck his fancy (sometimes relevant to the case, sometimes not, but always heavily footnoted). There never seemed to be a language that Vance didn’t know or a topic on which he wasn’t an expert.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote a two line poem:

Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.

This was a fairly common sentiment at the time (the poem is even mentioned in one of the books).

The other thing that probably operated against the books’ longevity is that there is a steep drop-off in quality halfway through the series. The first three are all strong, and were written at the same time, as Wright was recovering in a hospital (I’ve read various reasons for his hospitalization). They form a series-within-a-series, with the first (The Benson Murder Case) being about a man, the second (The “Canary” Murder Case) about a couple, and the third (The Greene Murder Case) about a family. The next one, The Bishop Murder Case, is the seminal serial-killer mystery I mentioned above, and the great locked-room mystery The Kennel Murder Case was #6. The next, The Dragon Murder Case, is somewhat ridiculous, and the rest are uneven at best. In the early books, Vance usually tries to apply psychological and aesthetic theories to the solutions of the mysteries. In the later ones, he looks for physical clues like anybody else.

But the best books are very good indeed (if you can stomach Vance himself, of course). Many of the books were made into movies, including several where Vance was played by Basil Rathbone, but the only one I’ve found was The Kennel Murder Case, with William Powell, Mary Astor, and Eugene Pallette. It was directed by Michael Curtiz (who later directed Casablanca), and it’s very good.

One thing that’s very noticeable to more modern eyes is the very unusual treatment of race in the books. Most of the detective fiction from that period (and later) has rather cringe-worthy treatment of Black and Asians (and others), but Vance always annoys (and even sometimes shocks) the official police with whom he is working by the way he treats people of other races. He treats them as he treats everybody else.

The other interesting thing, to more modern eyes, is the fairly obvious hints that Vance is gay. He certainly has nothing to do with women (in fact, the regular cast are all male, and none of them ever mentions a wife or a girlfriend or anything like that). Van Dyne (the narrator, Vance’s Watson) is his live-in lawyer – something which is probably fairly unusual even among the upper classes. Vances’ friend Markham, the District Attorney, even has a male secretary.

There is only one case where there is any indication of an attraction between Vance and a woman (and she is always described in very masculine terms, including her body language and clothes), and at the end Vance tells her that it can never be, because of his other interests and commitments (including his “intimate masculine friendships”).

I think Vance was an influence on Jan Sleet (Van Dyne was definitely an influence on me, but I’m talking about the influences she drew on to create her persona). Her reliance on tobacco can be traced to several fictional detectives (Holmes, Vance, and Queen come to mind), but her extravagant way of dressing is probably traceable to Vance and to Nero Wolfe. Thank goodness she dresses a lot like like Wolfe and not so much like Vance.

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