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Tag Archives: novel

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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My Review of Wayne of Gotham, by Tracy Hickman

27 Dec

December 27, 2018

I guess there is only one Batman story possible, because in Wayne of Gotham we’ve seen it all before. Batman reopens the Wayne murder case. Again. Thomas Wayne may have been mixed up with criminals, or been one himself. Again. A rift between Bruce and Alfred. Again. The writing was good enough to keep me reading but the plot? Nah. And the characterization? Since when does millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne disguise himself as an invalid and have Alfred push him around in a wheelchair, in the privacy of his own estate, in the hopes that a paparazzi will jump a fence and snap his picture a ‘la Howard Hughes? When was Alfred promoted from butler to Bruce Wayne’s public relations flack and a high level Waynecorp officer? To be fair, this book suffers from coming out within just a few short years of Grant Morrison’s amazing Batman run, which dealt with the Wayne murder and Bruce’s backstory in a much more interesting way. (DC is once again dealing with this in their current comics.) It is just a shame that Hickman felt that the same ground had to be covered yet again. Where is the originality?

Now that I have finished the book, I have a few questions. When did this take place? It claims to be Batman’s final case but there is no sense of where this occurs in his career. Where were Dick Grayson or any of the regular supporting Bat-cast? And worse- did Tracy Hickman know anything at all about Batman before starting the book? Batman has always been about the man inside the suit, not about the Batsuit, yet Hickman seemed enamored of the technology. Tons of words were wasted on the gyros in the Batsuit, the power cells in the utility belt, the way the Batmobile connects to the power grid. Is this Iron Man or Batman? In Iron Man the technology is a vital part, in Batman it is merely there. The Joker’s quote from the 1989 movie had it right- “where does he get those wonderful toys?” They are just toys, tools, nothing more; yet to read this book, you’d think it was Tony Stark in the Batman outfit.

This Batman was full of doubts and paranoia. He had none of the confidence of the Batman we have known for years. I found myself not caring about him.

The Joker had a tiny, bit part, probably because Hickman assumed the Joker turns up in every single Bat story. He was used to zero effect here. And again, does Hickman know anything about the Batman universe? The Joker was described as wearing old, cracked white greasepaint. No, the Joker’s face is white already, no paint needed. How did an editor let that slip by?

By the end, the plot had grown confusing and uninteresting, the characters were either unlikable or poorly characterized, and the writing average. I give the book one star because aside from all my criticism, the real problem with the book is that the plot was horrible and not only did not hold my interest, it seemed designed to confuse and annoy the reader.

 

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