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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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The Christmas Spirit, A Holiday Tale

15 Dec

December 15, 2018

I’ve been featuring other people’s writing lately and focusing a little more on books and stories, so I decided to shine a little light on myself and bring back one of my own tales from recent years. This is my first Christmas story featuring my own PI, Hollywood Russell. He’s a pulp fiction style of detective, with his adventures taking place in the noir-centric post WWII era, more or less. He’s also a really good guy to know. I’ve written two other Christmas tales with Russell, one of which you can find under the Hollywood Russell tab atop this page along with some other of his cases.

She never wore shoes at home.

Neither did her three children or their father, who only showed up every few days when he needed money. He may have left her with a broken heart, three mouths to feed and a stack of bills, but even he left his shoes outside the door.

It wasn’t that she loved being barefoot. Oh no, during this time of year she wore all four of her pairs of socks and even her not-so-good pair of stockings (the pair with the holes in the heels) to keep out the cold.

The problem was that shoes brought in dirt. Mud. Gum. Cigarette butts stuck to the bottom. They scuffed floors and sullied carpets.

She spent all day cleaning floors at work and sure as the sun shone in the sky, she wasn’t going to spend her time at home doing the same.

She worked nights. During the day she stayed home taking care of her family and at night when the little ones were in bed she trusted the older one (who was not long past being a little one herself) to watch them so she could earn some money so breakfast could be waiting when they woke up.

Winter was her good time of year. The work was harder, the floors were always wet from melting snow tracked in by, yes, shoes, and no, it usually wasn’t clean. This was not the best part of the city, after all.  But what made it good was yet to come. Christmas. And that meant tips from the people who rented the offices she cleaned every night.

Most of those people she saw only in passing. They were usually going out as she was coming in. Locking their doors as she was unpacking her box of cleaning rags and sprays.

“Hello, um, Miss! Sorry about the coffee stain near the desk!”
“That’s ok, I’ll get it out.”
“Merry Christmas, um…”
“Merry Christmas to you too, sir.”

Some people she never saw. The offices of Tick + Hansom (she wasn’t sure what they did) closed at 4:00, long before she got to work. There were a pair of adjoining offices on the fifth floor that she didn’t have a master key for. There was no name on either  door and she wasn’t completely sure they were occupied, but once in a while the shades would be pulled on the frosted glass door windows so something was going on in there.

She also never saw the man who rented the small two-room office on the fourth floor, and though he always kept the light in the office burning, it was empty when she went in. It was also usually clean, so either he or his secretary kept it neat. At least she assumed he had a secretary. The small desk that she guessed the secretary would sit at never had more than a magazine on it.

She cleaned their floors, emptied their trash cans, mopped their hallways and wiped their windows. She didn’t peek in their drawers or go through their papers. If there was an open file cabinet she left it open and untouched. If the jeweler on three had left a bauble on his desk it would still be there in the morning, shining away in the morning light.

She cleaned up spilled liquor and spilled blood. She turned a blind eye to the lawyer who was “deposing” a pretty young client late one night.

She didn’t even eat her dinner at an empty desk, instead spreading her thin meal out on a clean box she kept in “her office,” the janitor’s closet.

Tonight was an easy night. It was only a few days before Christmas and most of the offices had closed early or hadn’t opened at all. The trash cans were empty, the windows unsmudged, the floors more or less free of heel scuffs. Overall, she was going to have a good sleep when she got home, a rare one where her back wouldn’t ache.

By the time she got to the office with the perpetually burning light, she was a good way ahead of schedule and was feeling hopeful that she could be home early enough to get an almost decently long sleep.

She took out her master key, put it in the lock, but the door swung open before she could turn it. Curious, she stepped inside and saw nothing unusual but noticed that the door to the inner office was ajar. Leaving her cleaning cart in the hallway, she went inside.

On a shabby couch, looking like he’d fallen off his sled, was Santa Claus.

She stood there for a moment. Santa’s suit was torn at the collar, his white wig had twigs sticking out at odd angles, his Santa hat was missing, and his beard was over his nose and completely covering his left eye. (The right eye appeared to be black and blue but that was none of her business.)

She wanted to ask if he was OK, she was about to, when Santa groaned and sat up, not much, but a little straighter. He looked at his watch, saw it wasn’t there, then squinted at the clock through his bruised and starting to swell eye. “What time is it?”

She gave a little, startled jump, then looked at the clock and answered “almost 1 in the morning.”

Santa squinted at her, then straightened his beard and looked at her through his now-uncovered left eye. “That’s it? Usually the parties in my head don’t start thumping like that until 3. They better watch out or they’re going to get raided.” He gingerly took off his wig and even more gingerly started to rub the back of his head. “Do me a favor, sweetheart. Take a look back there. Tell me if it’s as bad as it feels.”

Slowly, she moved just close enough to him to see and leaned over. “Well, not too bad…” She leaned back, but the look on her face didn’t reassure him.

He looked at her. She looked at him. He was an odd sight. Short dark hair and a thick white Santa beard. “That bump feels about the size of Patton’s ego.”

She shuffled a little. “Maybe you should call a doctor?”

He took a deep breath. “I’ve had worse.” He shifted a bit on the couch, then an odd look crossed his face. He patted his red jacket and reached into a pocket. His voice changed, a cross between surprise and anger. “They don’t really think…” He trailed off as he pulled out a very thick wad of bills.

She looked away. This did not interest her. She did not want it to interest her.

The man in the Santa suit jumped up. He swayed a little, but his face (what could be seen behind the beard) was set. “He really thinks this will work.”

She looked around the office. It was old. It needed paint. There were two chairs against the wall and one of them looked ready to fall apart. She was sure this man could use the money, just like she could.

He turned to her. “It was nice meeting you, but I have an appointment to return a favor.” Grabbing his Santa hat off the couch (he was sitting on it the whole time) he took a couple of more-or-less steady steps over to the desk, where he took something small and black out of a drawer and slipped it somewhere inside his voluminously overstuffed Santa jacket. She looked away and brushed some of the lint off of her recently mended apron.

Santa stood for a second and looked at her, taking in the full picture, and, she thought she could feel, his keen eyes taking in even more.

“Thank you,” he said. She thought that the way he said it, he meant for more than just looking at his head.

Then he rushed out of the room, but stopped at the office door. He turned back, let out a deep baritone “Merry Christmas!” and a softer “ho ho ho” and left.

She fluffed the near-threadbare couch as best she could, closed the inner door, and wondered what kind of man would get so angry to find so much money.

She closed and locked the outer door and, running her fingers over the painted letters on the frosted glass spelling out DETECTIVE AGENCY, realized that this was the first time she had met Hollywood Russell.

She turned to her cleaning cart and was about to move on to the next office when she noticed that Santa’s beard was lying on top. Maybe it had fallen off?

Probably not. The thick wad of cash was beneath it.

She heard a soft “ho ho ho,” looked to her right, and saw a flash of red disappear down the hall and around the corner.

 The End

 

 

 

 

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