Having become interested in American writers during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (primarily because of research into the phrase The Butler Did It), I came across S. S. Van Dine and his detective Philo Vance. Since Philo Vance had been described as one of the most popular American detectives of the 1920s and 1930s, I bought a copy of The Benson Murder Case. Though I thought that it was merely OK as a story, it was certainly historically interesting.
The first thing which struck me about Philo Vance was how very reminiscent of Lord Peter Wimsey he is (Whose Body was published three years before The Benson Murder Case). Vance was educated at Oxford, at around the same time as Lord Peter, and has many of the same mannerisms, such as ending a declarative sentence with the question, “what?” Vance also uses a monocle, though he doesn’t wear it constantly as Lord Peter does. He is fashionable, wealthy, travels in high society, and dresses extremely well, just like Lord Peter. Whereas Lord Peter is knowledgeable about art and his real passion is music, Vance is knowledgeable about music and his real passion is art. Both like to quote classic literature while investigating cases. If so far the main difference between them seems to be their name, that is misleading. There is a significant, though subtle, difference, and I think that it traces back to their authors.
Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine was a pen name) was a Nietzsche scholar. Dorothy L. Sayers was a devout Anglican, and even published some theology. Both detectives seem to lack any belief in God, and Sayers even went so far as to say, in private correspondence, that she thought Lord Peter would think it an impertinence to believe that he had a soul. Yet there is something religious in the character of Lord Peter. He did not believe in God, but he did believe in beauty. He might have been a worldling, but he knew somewhere in the back of his mind that it wasn’t true that the world is enough, and it saddened him because the better thing which beauty hinted at seemed unattainable. By contrast, Philo Vance might have been a celebrated art critic and collector, but he gave no indication that he actually saw any beauty in the world. The proof of it was that there was no sadness in his character. Lord Peter had suffered; Lord Peter’s heart had been broken, not just serving in World War I, but in other parts of life, as well. Philo Vance, by contrast, seemed to have an intact but very small heart. He does not seem to have suffered anything besides boredom, and as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?” Joy is a greater wisdom than sadness, but there is no wisdom at all in being bored. As Chesterton put it:
There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.
There is also the curious element in the story of how Philo Vance lectures his friend, the district attorney, on the nature of investigation. This was a common feature of early detective fiction, especially contrasting proper investigation with how the police went about investigating. It started with Poe’s explantion of C. Auguste Dupin’s ratiocination in Murders in the Rue Morgue, was a common feature of Sherlock Holmes stories, and featured in a great many others of the time, too. So much so that Chesterton wrote a very interesting conversation about the very phenomenon in The Mirror of the Magistrate, published in The Secret of Father Brown:
“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw, “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving. For all that, I’d never deny that we often tend to get into a rut: or, in other words, have the disadvantages of going by a rule. Where the romancers are wrong is, that they don’t allow us even the advantages of going by a rule.”
“Surely,” said Underhill, “Sherlock Holmes would say that he went by a logical rule.”
“He may be right,” answered the other; “but I mean a collective rule. It’s like the staff work of an army. We pool our information.”
“And you don’t think detective stories allow for that?” asked his friend.
“Well, let’s take any imaginary case of Sherlock Holmes, and Lestrade, the official detective. Sherlock Holmes, let us say, can guess that a total stranger crossing the street is a foreigner, merely because he seems to look for the traffic to go to the right instead of the left. I’m quite ready to admit Holmes might guess that. I’m quite sure Lestrade wouldn’t guess anything of the kind. But what they leave out is the fact that the policeman, who couldn’t guess, might very probably know. Lestrade might know the man was a foreigner merely because his department has to keep an eye on all foreigners…”
Philo Vance takes it one step further than this, claiming that the police methods are not just ineffective, but counter-productive. It’s a theme which Vance hits upon so often as to come across as supercilious. Typical murders are not fiendishly cunning, and forensic evidence, though circumstantial, is actually useful. (I’m going to get into spoilers at this point, so if you want to read the novel for yourself without knowing who did it, I suggest you go read it now.)
Much of Vance’s point is made by the police being rather unbelievably thick-headed. Their first suspect is a woman whose handbag and gloves were found at the scene of the crime, and who chucked two cigarette buts into the fireplace. The victim, Benson, was known to have gone out with some woman the night he was killed (he was killed shortly past midnight), and that’s the sum total of evidence which the police have upon which they conclude she must have murdered him. That plus she got home at around 1am, might possibly have gotten the murder weapon from her fiancé, who presumably owned a military colt automatic pistol because he had been in the Great War. Oh, and Benson was known to make inappropriate advances to women. Somehow this added up to her cold-bloodedly shooting him in the forehead from six feet away while he was seated. Had he been killed defensively, this might have been plausible, but why a woman who went to dinner with him would execute him in this fashion is never so much as broached.
There is also the evidence of who the real killer is, which is rather conclusive. Benson normally wore a toupee and was never seen without it; ditto his false front teeth. Both were on his nightstand, and he was wearing his comfortable slippers and an old smoking jacket on top of his evening clothes without a collar. (In clothing of the time, collars were separate items from the shirts, and would attach by a button. It was therefore possible to take the collar off, and in fact when someone was at leisure and didn’t need to be presentable, they would often do that very thing for comfort’s sake.) The housekeeper is positive that the door was locked, for it automatically locked, and moreover that the doorbell was never rung. The windows were barred against break-in. Despite all of this evidence that the victim was on intimate terms with his murderer—he let the murderer in himself while in a state of comparative undress, without bothering to put his toupee and false teeth back on and was sitting down and even reading a book when he was shot—the police never ask what any of this evidence means, even when Vance more-or-less points it out to them. No explanation for this incredible thickness on the part of the police is given, except when Vance mentions that there are height and weight requirements to joint the police force, but no intelligence requirement.
This also basically gives away who the murderer is. This goes doubly so because of the form of the fiction. Vance is a genius who is always right, and Vance declares he knows who the murderer is five minutes after looking at the crime scene. Granted, it is revealed later on that Vance knew the murderer for many years, and thus knew his personality—which I would normally call cheating—but the evidence which points to the murderer is so clear apart from odd psychological theories that this foreknowledge on the part of Vance is fairly irrelevant. As of chapter 2 or 3, I forget which, there is only one suspect, and all that remains for the rest of the book is to watch Vance disprove the red herrings for the district attorney. In general it would be possible for some other character to be introduced who also knew the victim on such intimate terms, but since Vance was always right, and Vance knew who the murderer was, that possibility was foreclosed.
It is especially interesting to consider this in light of Van Dine’s Twenty Rule for Writing Detective Stories, published in 1928 (two years after The Benson Murder Case). You can argue that he violated #3 (no love interest) because there was an affianced couple who would have not been able to marry had either of them been executed for the murder. He borders on violating #4 (none of the official investigators should be the culprit), since the old friend who asked the district attorney to personally investigate turned out to be the murderer. He violates #16 (no literary dallying with side-issues) a few times blathering on about his theories on art at such a length I skimmed the section. Also curious is that his adherence to rule #15 (the clever reader should be able to finger the culprit as soon as the detective does) made the book rather anti-climactic. In essence he took a short-story murder mystery and then inserted an entire book’s worth of padding in between the investigation and the revelation of the murderer.
As an addendum, as I was googling around to see whether anyone else talked about the similarity between Vance and Lord Peter, I found this blog post about S.S. Van Dine and his sleuth Philo Vance, which is a different take than mine, to be sure, and has some interesting historical information in it.