Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Benson Murder Case

Of all the books that have some claim to being considered classics of the crime genre none have divided readers quite so dramatically as S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. The features that exasperate and enrage critics of these books are the very things that delight their admirers. I’m very much in the camp of the admirers.

The Benson Murder Case kicked off the series in 1926. Philo Vance has often confided to his friend Markham, New York’s District Attorney, that he would love to have the chance to try his hand at crime-solving. He has developed some interesting theories on the subject and it would amuse him greatly to put them to the test. When wealthy broker and somewhat notorious playboy Alvin Benson is found shot to death in puzzling circumstances Markham is finally persuaded to give Vance his opportunity.

Vance wastes no time in making obvious his considerable disdain for the professional crime-solvers of the police and the DA’s office. To Vance they seem to be hopelessly addicted to the pernicious practice of looking for physical clues and circumstantial evidence. All of which is complete nonsense, as he informs them with more candour than tact. His own theory is that psychology is the key. Some people are psychologically capable of murder; some are not. And some crimes could only be committed by people with a very particular personality profile. If you have the instinct and the intelligence to analyse the personalities of the various suspects then finding the guilty party becomes child’s play.

All of which is of course complete moonshine, but that just adds to the fun of the Philo Vance mysteries (or if you are not a fan it just makes them all the more annoying). If you like plots that make sense and if you like your fictional detectives to employ realistic and plausible methods of criminal investigation then these books are not for you. It’s not that Van Dine’s plots aren’t clever and intricate - it’s just that their connection with reality is more than a little tenuous.

And then there’s Philo Vance himself. His aristocratic arrogance, his very affected English accent (acquired during a prolonged stay in England), his contempt for modern life, his political views (circumstantial evidence is, he explains, almost as great a folly as democracy), the fact that no matter what subject comes up during an investigation Vance will prove to an expert in that field - all these things will either delight or incense the reader.

While Van Dine is very much of the Golden Age school of crime writing with the emphasis on puzzle-solving at the same time Vance’s belief in the psychological approach to murder is an interesting anticipation of more modern trends in crime fiction.

Personally I just can’t get enough of Philo Vance.


  1. Dear "dfordoom",

    How delightful seeing somebody with good things to say re: S.S. Van Dine and "Philo Vance", being as it's been the fashion for ever to knock them! It's as if readers want to "belong" to the naysayers, their negative comments being so prolific! S.S. Van Dine is my very favorite writer. I discovered him in my youth, circa 1958, when obtaining "The Bishop Murder Case" from a local library; the dust-jacket, with its skeletal arm holding a chess piece over various of the Bishop's "nursery rhyme" notes on this Grosset & Dunlap reprint really attracted me, well before I was even old enough to take out the book from the library's adult section! The said dust-jacket was cropped and glued to the volume, the first of the many reprints. I so loved it, and the story proper, that I claimed to have lost it in order to purchase it! The 1930 MGM motion-picture version was - is - also a love of mine; I'd skip school just to view it on TV (writing my own excuse slips!). Now, as a "Philo Vance" collector, I have eleven of the twelve first editions (in nice condition, replete with the dust-jackets), various paperback editions, the Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley board games, radio programs, the rare early-Forties comic book with a P.V. entry, et al. - even original 16mm prints of most of the films, including "The Bishop Murder Case" (1930); about 150 8 x 10 stills from it; and the original MGM studio treatment and screenplay! My ultimate prize, however, is the Clark Agnew painting for the magazine serialization and the d/j of the first edition of Van Dine''s "The Dragon Murder Case" (1933), a stunning work Otto Penzler described as "to die for" when he published his fact-simile reprint!

    I consider "The Greene Murder Case" (1928), "The Bishop Murder Case" (1929) and "The Dragon Murder Case" (1933) the scariest fiction I've ever read! And I think I know of what I speak, having written a short story Eleanor Sullivan, then Managing Editor of "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" (the world's largest such publication) considered "a little too terrifying for our readers"! And John Dickson Carr, a master of macabre murder-mysteries, selected that atmospheric old mansion mystery, "The Greene Murder Case", this in the mid-Forties, as being "one of the ten best detective novels"! Van Dine's "The Dragon Murder Case" is so adroitly presented that, if not for the reader's awareness of it being "a Philo Vance story", it could easily be taken for horror fiction!

    So, hence my joy when - albeit rarely - I discover a kindred spirit when it comes to enjoying Van Dine!

    Ray Cabana, Jr.

    P.S. I once put on a "Philo Vance" feature-movie show for the Syracuse Film Convention; wrote of the P.V. motion pictures in my publication, "K'scope" (subsequently selected by the Xerox Corporation for their University Microfilms Program); and penned the liner notes for Radio Archive's CD box sets of the ZIV P.V. programs of the late Forties and early Fifties (these can still be viewed online with the announcement of the second entry).

    1. I agree that it's been fashionable for too long to knock Van Dine. I've now read the first nine Philo Vance books and I loved them all (and I've reviewed most of them here). And yes, The Dragon Murder Case is a corker. I'm also very very fond of The Scarab Murder Case.

  2. P.S. My enthusiasm for this writeup was inspired by its author's closing line! But a more careful reading of the piece in its entirety reveals that it doesn't always favor ole Philo as I do; however, that closing line, as indicated, really caught me, this favorably, tending to override any negative opinions put forth! - Cabana

    1. I can see the things in Philo Vance that some readers react negatively to but these are the very things that make me like him so much. I consider myself to be very much a Philo Vance fan.