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My Philo Vance Mystery Review, Part 1

24 Feb

February 24, 2019

I’ve been reading mystery novels from the 1930’s and 40’s lately, Most of them were popular in their day, written by best-selling authors, but time has passed most of them by. However, that does not demean the quality of the books at all.

Philo Vance, created by S.S. Van Dine, appeared in 12 novels between 1926 and 1939, and 15 films between 1929 and 1947. In between there was a radio show and, in Italy, a television miniseries in 1974.

I decided to start with one that piqued my interest, The Gracie Allen Murder Case. Normally, I’d start with the first book of a series, but these are not in a serial order so it’s OK to jump in anywhere. This book is at an intersection of two of my interests, old murder mysteries and old time radio, which Gracie Allen was a star of with her husband, George Burns.

This review will focus on only that book, with the second part looking at the series as a whole and my reactions overall.

Many reviews say that Vance is “annoying.” He certainly is. He is exactly the kind of too educated, too wealthy, too witty dilettante detective that is better off in the literary dust heap. It’s no wonder that Raymond Chandler took a cheap shot or two at the character. (He called Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”) Vance appears bored at most aspects of life, only seeming to enjoy poking at the police. He’s the epitome of the bored idle rich. Yet, from a reader’s point of view, his biggest flaw is that he is unlikable. He’s boring. There is nothing to hold on to, no interesting part of his personality to make you want to follow him on the page.

Even worse are the one-note supporting characters, especially District Attorney Markham. He is too close-minded to be believable. He’s not a typical literary crusty policeman, not a dullard like Inspectors Lestrad or Cramer are typically portrayed. His flaw is only that he is unimaginative. Vance will often pick up a small point, one obvious to the reader, yet Markham will still not understand what Vance is going for. That’s part of the secret of Vance’s success. He isn’t particularity brilliant, he’s just smarter than the unimaginative people he surrounds himself with. 

However, I do need to compliment the author. Van Dine has pulled off the difficult task of getting Gracie Allen just right. I hear her voice as I read her lines and she is spot on. But she’s also a major problem in this book. When performing on the radio as half of Burns and Allen, her odd ramblings and strange connections either poke a hole in Burn’s stuffy facade, or act as goofy punchlines. She’s funny. She’s illogical. She has a skewed view of the world that works in it’s own, odd way. Her stories are met by others with some confusion. Either her stories are funny or the reaction they create in others is funny. She was a great comedienne and even George Burns called her the star of the duo. He was just her straight man.

 

But here every character finds her bizarre logic charming and endearing. Everything she says is met with a sort of envious geniality. No matter how ridiculous she is, no one calls her on it. In effect, there is no straight man. She’s only giving half of the joke and no one is completing it. So instead of coming off as funny, like she would in her radio show, she’s both unfunny and unwelcome in her parts. She’s just another annoying character in a book full of them. 

What makes this book even odder is the fact that Gracie (and George, in a small supporting role), is not playing herself. This novel was written with an eye to being adapted to a movie, so the Gracie Allen character works in a perfume factory. This is the part Gracie would play in the proposed film, rather than being written for the real Gracie. 

I’d comment on the plot but it never really gets going. It involves an implausible cigarette tossed from a moving car, over a wall, in a field. 

I understand that this is not considered a shining star in the Philo Vance series. I read it simply for Gracie Allen. It turns out that this is considered one of the worst Philo Vance novels. In general, the consensus is that the first half dozen novels are the best, with the quality generally falling as they go along. 

When I originally finished this book, I vowed to never read another Philo Vance novel again. However, I soon realized that I wasn’t giving the series a fair shot by judging it on the worst book in the canon. My next review, The Canary Murder Case, will look at the second book in the series, considered one of the best. I’ll also delve more generally into the Philo Vance character and series as a whole.

 

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Sneak Peek! Philo Vance Double Feature!

18 Feb

February 18, 2019

Coming soon, my reviews of a pair of mystery novels featuring S.S. Van Dine’s master detective, Philo Vance!

 

Philo Vance gets mixed up in murder with the zany radio star, Gracie Allen. Along for the ride is her husband, superstar George Burns. But all is not what it seems, not by a long shot.

 

 

The police are baffled, the District Attorney is stumped, and the press is calling for answers. Who killed famed singer “The Canary”? Philo Vance will get to the bottom of this classic locked room mystery.

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Philo Vance is a fictional character featured in 12 crime novels written by S. S. Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright), published in the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, Vance was immensely popular in books, movies, and on the radio. He was portrayed as a stylish, even foppish dandy; a New York bon vivant possessing a highly intellectual bent. The novels were chronicled by his friend Van Dine (who appears as a kind of Dr. Watson figure in the books as well as being the author).

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