Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

August 21, 2009

The Van Dine Decline and Fall Narrative

Filed under: literary qualities,modern trends,Snobbery,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 2:10 am

I know this idea is pushed by Van Dine’s own biographer (who, granted, seems to
have loathed Van Dine and had little interest in the mystery form), but is it
really accurate to see his later books increasingly as artisitc and financial
failures? Is there any actual hard data on the sales of Van Dine’s detective
novels? I know that Canary, Greene and Bishop were actual bestsellers in the
1920s, a rare thing for detective novels in those days (their being mostly
borrowed from rental libraries). But I get the impression that many of his
later books were selling pretty well and were quite respectfully reviewed. It’s
clear he wasn’t the toast of the intelligentsia in 1935 like he was in, say,
1929, and that he had vocal detractors but I think he was seen still by many as
a major figure in the genre. Does it break down rather like this?

Benson Murder Case, 1926 (introduction to Philo Vance catches people’s eyes,
though relatively spartan compared to the following books; still, Vance is as
Vaneish as can be)
Canary Murder Case, 1927 (broadens appeal, poker game considered brilliant
device)
Greene and Bishop, 1928/1929 (height of Golden Age Baroque (GAB), with bizarre
situations, elaborate footnote lecturettes and multiple murders)
Scarab, 1930 (continuation of GAB in Egytptology setting, though Van Dine has
crested in popularity)
Kennel, 1933 (three year gap, Van Dine driven by lavish lifestyle to writing
again? not quite as baroque though lots about terriers and ceramics; best of
Vance films made from this one, Vance films still getting top people)
Dragon, 1933(return to full GAB style, though with a less elaborate plot)
Casino/Garden 1934/1935 (a break here, Vance a bit less Vanceish and much less
baroque settings, though still emphasis on odd, wealthy families; but still
quite solid plotting)
Kidnap, 1936 (same as above, though intrusion of action and violence suggests to
his biographer that Van Dine is aesthetic ceding ground to the hardboiled
school)
Gracie Allen/Winter, 1938/1939 (the film scenario novels, more of a sharp break,
with Vance second banana to a comedienne and a Scandinavian ice skater;
suggestion Van Dine running out of creative steam?)

I’m rereading Casino and actually finding quite enjoyable. Shorn of the more
elaborate footnotes and lecturettes of the earlier books, as well as Vance’s
more kick-in-the-panceish mannerisms, it’s actually rather like a English
Humdrum work, which is a complement form me!

I don’t think it’s fair to say Van Dine was a “goat” in 1934-35 though, do you?
I’d rank the real running out of steam period from 1936-38 (certainly death
would qualify).

Curt

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22 Comments »

  1. Re: The Van Dine Decline and Fall Narrative

    Have a look at David Shavit’s “‘The Greatest Morale Factor Next to the Red
    Army’: Books and Libraries in American and British Prisoner of War Camps in
    Germany during World War II”:

    http://64.233.169.104/search?q=cache:NtpMYWr4x4IJ:sentra.ischool.utexas.edu/~lcr
    /archive/fulltext/LandC_34_2_Shavit.pdf+%22prisoners%22+%22popular+reading%22&hl
    =en&ct=clnk&cd=20&gl=us

    In this article, Shavit states that in the camps that held officer POWs, the
    most popular sleuths were Perry Mason, Van Dine’s Philo Vance, and Ellery Queen.
    He also states that mysteries were a big part of the library at Stalag Luft III
    (the scene of “The Great Escape”).

    Max Perkins (Van Dine’s editor at Scribner) also makes several references to Van
    Dine’s success in the _Editor to Author_ collection edited by John Hall
    Wheelock.

    Elizabeth Foxwell
    Managing Editor, _Clues: A Journal of Detection_
    http://www.cluesjournal.com

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  2. Curt

    My general impression was not that the books changed as much as the reading
    public did. Van Dine followed a formula to some degree and at least in my
    opinion, it worked well for a few books, but it became tiresome after so many
    books. The first few books did have some unique turns, but after those, they
    became fairly standard fare, IMO.

    Vance knew everything about everything. Here he’s spouting off Egyptology, now
    he’s talking about dog breeding or Casinos. The character was a bit too perfect
    and a bit too God-like (Greene established that) to tolerated in big doses. Most
    of the time that I hear that the 2nd 1/2 of the series was not up to the
    standards of the first 1/2, it is the critics who are talking about it.

    I do enjoy reading the books. They can be fun, but Vance can be too much in
    large doses. I have an eternal fondness for Scotties based on The Kennel Murder
    Case.

    Jeff

    Jeffrey Marks
    http://www.jeffreymarks.com

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  3. Jeff,

    Yes, I think the critical consensus now is that the second six are greatly
    inferior to the first six, indeed, that the second six are inconsequential or
    even poor works; but I’m not sure the critical view at the time was in agreement
    with that. I’ve read a lot of reviews that still viewed Dragon and Casino, at
    least, as major works by a master of the genre.

    Now, I think it’s clear that Van Dine had fallen from the twenties, when the
    books were actual bestsellers and the toast of the (well, some) intellectuals.
    After all, Van Dine was able to support an extremely lavish lifestyle from
    publishing just one book a year. Look how other successful authors, like
    Christie, Carr, Street, for example, were often publishing four books a year
    (sometimes more).

    While the later books did not sell as much and were not such cause celebres, so
    that Van Dine began lending his name out for tire endorsements and such, they
    were not necessarily dismal failures either. It’s just that to support his
    lifestyle, Van Dine needed them to continue to sell like the 1930s successes,
    and I gather they weren’t (it would be interesting if there were hard data,
    actual sales figures from Scribners).

    I think Dragon, Casino and Garden, at least, are all solid enough works, if one
    is a Van Dine fan (I’m actually not a great fan myself). With Kidnap, one
    starts to see a shift with the (not very convincing) attempt at tough stuff. I
    do think that shows a loss of faith by Van Dine in his own formula. And then the
    last two are in their own odd category. Having “Fido” play second fiddle to
    Gracie Allen surely was not a sign of confidence.

    I guess I’m just saying that this narrative

    Van Dine popular in 1920s, puzzle novel popular
    Van Dine not popular in the 1930s, puzzle novel not popular

    is exaggerated. There were a lot of people still producing puzzle novels in the
    1930s, and they were successful at it. Though I think it’s fair to say there
    was a Van Dine decline in the 1930s (which accelerated most steeply with the
    last three books), amidst the rise of the Hammett school. Though even Hammett
    gave us The Thin Man, which is his take on the cocktails-and-murder society
    crime novels so common in the thirties and which owe something to Van Dine,
    surely.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  4. Even in Britain, Van Dine was seen as a major writer in the late 1930s. Casino
    and Garden were both praised for their skill in plotting and misdirection,
    although several critics (Torquemada and Sayers among them) loathed Vance, “the
    author’s bad Fortune”.

    My rankings:

    A:
    The Greene Murder Case
    The Bishop Murder Case
    The Scarab Murder Case

    B:
    The Benson Murder Case
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    The Kennel Murder Case

    C:
    The Winter Murder Case

    D:
    The Dragon Murder Case

    Haven’t read (I have these coming from the States, so will have by the end of
    the year):
    The Casino Murder Case
    The Garden Murder Case
    The Kidnap Murder Case
    The Gracie Allen Murder Case

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  5. Curt wrote:
    Yes, I think the critical consensus now is that the second six are greatly
    inferior to the first six, indeed, that the second six are inconsequential or
    even poor works; but I’m not sure the critical view at the time was in agreement
    with that. I’ve read a lot of reviews that still viewed Dragon and Casino, at
    least, as major works by a master of the genre.

    Van Dine has been reported as having said that no one could have more than six
    good detective novels in his head. Maybe he actually believed it.
    I like all the 12 Van Dines, but I find the first six clearly better. Van Dine
    is at his best in the surreal (Greene, Bishop, Scarab) and the imaginative
    (Benson, Canary, Kennel)

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  6. I am rereading Kennel and Casino and finding they hold up well. Kennel has a
    quite tricky plot, in contrast to many of his other ones, where you can deduce
    the murderer right off. In Benson, for example, the whole case it seems to me
    should have been solved very quickly, if the police had not been such boneheads.
    But they had to be so that smartypance Vance could show everyone his superiority
    with “psychological” methods. I think I now agree with Hammett on this one.

    Casino’s poisonings seem quite interesting to me, I’m enjoying rereading it.
    I’ll admit the less elaborate footnotes are fine by me. I find that kind of
    thing in Greene, Bishop, Scarab and Dragon rather tiresome, but I know a lot of
    people like it. Greene and Bishop are so fanciful they don’t appeal to me too
    much anymore, though the situations are nice (and I love those maps). I
    reviewed Greene last year, where I went over some of my objections to it. I
    think I have become more of a realist in the last decade (at least surface
    realism). My favorite Queens and carrs too tend to be ones that are a bit more
    toned down (I liked Dutch Shoe better than Egyptian Cross, for example). Call
    it the Humdrum Effect! On the other hand when Queen tried to go completely
    realistic I think he just got boring.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  7. From memory, Scarab and Kennel have some of the best in-depth detection in the
    Van Dine books – lots of clues, and a satisfyingly elaborate but clear plot.
    This is also what makes Queen’s French Powder and Greek Coffin Mysteries great.

    Carr’s romantic trappings – impossible murders apparently committed by
    supernatural forces – are a huge appeal, but I’ve been a devout Chestertonian
    since the age of ten! The Carrs I find disappointing are those of the 1950s
    which have been toned down too far. I think, though, that many of the 1940s
    books are excellent, both as detective stories and as stories – Carr’s
    experience in writing radio plays meant that the post-1930s books are often
    constructed as dramatic scenes, with the clues revealed through dialogue. and
    the hero emotionally involved in the mystery.

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  8. I too enjoy Van Dine novels from throughout his career. Don’t know why some
    critics are so down on the later ones.

    Trying to figure out why a book is popular or not popular is a frustrating,
    inconclusive business. There often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.
    It generally has little correlation with a book’s quality.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  9. I guess I’m thinking that had Van Dine spent his money more prudently and lived,
    say, twenty more years and not run out of inspiration, he probably could have
    kept the Vance series going for much of that time? Although it is a bit harder
    to imagine Vance in the 1950s. But if all the John Rhodes could get published
    in the US through the end of the series in 1961, why not Van Dine?

    Imagine Van Dine in the 1950s! Here are some of the lost possibilities:

    The Atomic Murder Case (murder by means of a poisoned martini in a swanky
    fallout shelter)

    The Rothko Murder Case (murder at a modern art museum)

    The Monroe Murder Case (murder in Hollywood! a sweet, dumb, bosomy blonde helps
    Vance crack the case)

    The Hefner Murder Case (murder at notorious pad of hepcat bachelor)

    The Slinky Murder Case (crazed toy manufacturer dispatches his victims with
    sundry fifties fad icons, including a slinky and a hula hoop)

    I wanted to fit The Beatnik Murder Case and The Drive-in Murder Case in here,
    but that would have been cheating.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  10. Jon said:
    “I suspect that critics and reviewers (and maybe the public too) probably suffer
    from overload; if too many books of a particular type, or by a particular
    author, arrive in too much of a rush they will tend to be undervalued, even
    though each book considered in isolation might be excellent ”

    True! I read twenty-two Christopher Bushs between 2003 and 2004, and was sick
    of him well before the twenty-second. I read Seven Bells in 2005, and didn’t
    read another by him until the start of this year, and have read half a dozen
    since, and enjoyed most of them – because I came to him with a fresh mind.

    On the other hand, I read all but one (Photo-Finish) of Ngaio Marsh’s books in
    1997, and forty-odd Carrs in 1998 – and thought most of them were brilliant.
    Much depends on the author!

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  11. Hmm, looks like I was wrong!

    Here’s a list of “phantom” Van Dines:
    http://newportvintagebooks.com/help/firstedition_errors.htm

    Taxicab Murder Case (between Canary and Greene)
    Autumn Murder Case (between Scarab and Kennel)
    Purple Murder Case (between Garden and Kidnap)
    Linden Murder Case (between Kidnap and Gracie Allen)
    Powwow Murder Case (between Gracie Allen and Winter)

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  12. Yeah, and the Purple Murder Case became the Kidnap Murder Case (remember, it’s
    the Purple House in the book). Hadn’t heard of the others, is there a Linden in
    the Gracie case?

    One thing I love about Van Dine is that with each book he announces that this is
    the most horrifying, amazing, nerve-shattering, shocking case ever, just like
    the last one was!

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  13. I like Van Dine’s imposing prologues – they really set the tone, and raise the
    reader’s expectations. Bailey often does something similar at the start of his
    stories – see, for instance, the opening of “The Broken Toad”.

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  14. My last email has sent itself without warning. Sorry. The complete version:

    I like all the 12 Van Dines, but I find the first six clearly better. Van Dine has been reported as having said that no one could have more than six good detective novels in his head. Maybe he actually believed it. His first six novels are something new, in the second half-dozen he seems to have been recreating the earlier ones. Van Dine is at his best in the surreal (Greene, Bishop, Scarab) and the highly imaginative (Benson, Canary, Kennel). The later six novels are much more commonplace and artificial: the solution in Dragon seems contrived, the gangsters in Kidnap are unconvincing (although I find it hard to say they are out of place in 1920s New York; at least Van Dine can’t be accused of setting his books in Neverland), Gracie Allen in Gracie Allen doesn’t really fit in, Garden, Winter and Casino are much less memorable than any of the earlier six. I, too, would like to have some evidence that his popularity actually declined significantly in the
    thirties (his critical decline seems beyond dispute) . In many ways he was quite ahead of his time and his best novels were more an influence on thirties writers than influenced by twenties writers.

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  15. I am rereading Kennel and Casino and finding they hold up well. Kennel has a quite tricky plot, in contrast to many of his other ones, where you can deduce the murderer right off. In Benson, for example, the whole case it seems to me should have been solved very quickly, if the police had not been such boneheads. But they had to be so that smartypance Vance could show everyone his superiority with “psychological” methods. I think I now agree with Hammett on this one.

    Casino’s poisonings seem quite interesting to me, I’m enjoying rereading it. I’ll admit the less elaborate footnotes are fine by me. I find that kind of thing in Greene, Bishop, Scarab and Dragon rather tiresome, but I know a lot of people like it. Greene and Bishop are so fanciful they don’t appeal to me too much anymore, though the situations are nice (and I love those maps). I reviewed Greene last year, where I went over some of my objections to it. I think I have become more of a realist in the last decade (at least surface realism). My favorite Queens and carrs too tend to be ones that are a bit more toned down (I liked Dutch Shoe better than Egyptian Cross, for example). Call it the Humdrum Effect! On the other hand when Queen tried to go completely realistic I think he just got boring.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  16. >From memory, Scarab and Kennel have some of the best in-depth detection in the Van Dine books – lots of clues, and a satisfyingly elaborate but clear plot. This is also what makes Queen’s French Powder and Greek Coffin Mysteries great.

    Carr’s romantic trappings – impossible murders apparently committed by supernatural forces – are a huge appeal, but I’ve been a devout Chestertonian since the age of ten! The Carrs I find disappointing are those of the 1950s which have been toned down too far. I think, though, that many of the 1940s books are excellent, both as detective stories and as stories – Carr’s experience in writing radio plays meant that the post-1930s books are often constructed as dramatic scenes, with the clues revealed through dialogue. and the hero emotionally involved in the mystery.

    Nick

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:18 am | Reply

  17. The following is taken from the back of the first edition of The Dragon Murder Case (Scribner’s, 1933). It would be fascinating to compare these reviews with those from the second set of six (Dragon – Winter). Can anyone oblige?

    Nick

    ASHEVILLE TIMES
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “It comes as near perfection as it has been my pleasure to find in any such work. An extraordinarily fine specimen of its kind.”

    The Bishop Murder Case
    “Every whit as good and as captivating as its predecessors, and if it be not better, that is only because those earlier ones had reached a level hard to surpass… Perfect in conception, structure, and execution.” (Edwin Björkman)

    EDWIN BJÖRKMAN
    The Greene Murder Case
    “One of the most cleverly conceived and executed detective novels ever produced.”

    BIRMINGHAM MAIL
    The Benson Murder Case
    “A book which is a pleasure to read from a literary point of view as well as for its story.”

    BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB NEWS
    The Scarab Murder Case
    “Certainly one of the best of Mr. Van Dine’s detective yarns; perhaps the best so far.”

    The Kennel Murder Case
    “Quite one of the best of the well-known series… In the mid-winter harvest of detective stories Mr. Van Dine’s ingenious tale is distinguished for close vivid reasoning and will be acceptable to all seasoned readers.” (Christopher Morley)

    THE BOOKMAN
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Essentially he has struck a rich vein… The method of eduction is fresh and the incidents are exciting.” (Gilbert Seldes)

    BOSTON TRANSCRIPT
    The Greene Murder Case
    “Once again S.S. Van Dine has written a detective story that is inimitable and a joy to read. Let it be shouted from the housetops that here is a fine mystery story. And it is written, footnotes and all, as only Mr. Van Dine can write, with characters as he alone can imagine.”

    The Kennel Murder Case
    “For the sixth time S.S. Van Dine has come, and for the sixth time S.S. Van Dine has conquered.”

    BUFFALO TIMES
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “The perfect type of detective story. This book deserves rank with the best in this field at any time. The story has so many excellencies one is embarrassed to know which to mention first.”

    CHICAGO POST
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Those of us who have hitherto considered the novel of crime and mystery solely as a source of surcease in a dull or troubled hour, may, after reading Mr. Van Dine’s new story, be willing to admit that the writing of such a novel can be raised to high art.” (Robert John Bayer)

    EDINBURGH SCOTSMAN
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Reflects every credit upon its author’s skill in inventing an enjoyable detective story.”

    GLOBE-DEMOCRAT (St. Louis)
    The Benson Murder Case
    “Among the best of its kind. The reader will be thrillingly interested in all the details.”

    HULL EASTERN MORNING NEWS
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Philo Vance will rank as one of the great detectives of fiction.”

    LIVERPOOL POST AND MERCURY
    The Greene Murder Case
    “Mr. S.S. Van Dine is one of the most ingenious of detective-story writers…a master at the game.”

    LONDON DAILY MAIL
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Well above the average of detective stories; technically it is almost flawless.”

    LONDON DAILY NEWS
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “The affair is so well worked out, so coherently, tidily, imaginatively, and ingeniously, that Mr. Van Dine deserves almost every compliment.” (Rose Macaulay)

    LONDON SPHERE
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “A model of everything a detective story should be—a monument, a cathedral amongst detective stories.” (Arnold Palmer)

    The Greene Murder Case
    “S.S. Van Dine, an American, is the best living writer of detective fiction.” (Arnold Palmer)

    The Bishop Murder Case
    “The author of The ‘Canary’ Murder Case has already drawn from me most of my superlatives. But The Bishop Murder Case has an added quality of horror… The execution is faultless, and the ratiocination is faultless too.”

    MILWAUKEE JOURNAL
    The Kennel Murder Case
    “The best since The “Canary” Murder Case.”

    MINNEAPOLIS JOURNAL
    The Bishop Murder Case
    “Has all of Van Dine’s other ‘murder cases’ beaten completely.”

    NATION AND ATHENÆUM
    The Greene Murder Case
    “My favourite detective writer. His new book is flawless. This is the best detective story I have read this year.” (Raymond Mortimer)

    NEW STATESMAN
    The Greene Murder Case
    “Extraordinarily ingenious… Rarely do we have a chance of recommending a book of this class with so much confidence.”

    NEW YORK EVENING POST
    The Greene Murder Case
    “S.S. Van Dine is far and away the mos skilful deviser of shuddering, mystifying, and plausible tales of murder now thrilling the spine of a nation.” (Bruce Gould)

    NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE
    The Bishop Murder Case
    “A thriller worth reading for its lucidity, suspense, legitimate mystery, and miscellaneous entertainment.”

    The Scarab Murder Case
    Mr. Van Dine has never written a better detective tale.” (Will Cuppy)

    The Kennel Murder Case
    “One of those drop-everything mysteries—you’ve got to read it whether you have time or not… Contains all those virtues which have made the Van Dine brand famous throughout the habitable globe.” (Will Cuppy)

    NEW YORK SUN
    The Greene Murder Case
    “One of the best mystery novels published in recent years… Read the book, marvel, and be enthralled.”

    NEW YORK TIMES
    The Greene Murder Case
    “A more ingenious series of murders than those related in this book would be difficult to imagine, and the steps which Philo Vance takes to solve the mystery are equally ingenious.”

    NEW YORK WORLD
    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “Not only a rattling good yarn that holds you to the end—it’s an education in itself… Belongs to the aristocracy of detective fiction.” (Harry Hansen)

    NEWS (Buffalo)
    The Benson Murder Case
    “A very nearly perfect mystery story which can be placed with the masterpieces of its kind… Positively, we feel inclined to place this in the first fifteen or twenty or even less of the very best crime stories which have been produced.”

    NEWS (Detroit)
    The Benson Murder Case
    “A detective story that is really different. Not only a detective story, but literature, also.”

    NOTTINGHAM GUARDIAN
    The Bishop Murder Case
    “In subtlety and ingenuity this American author’s work is unexcelled… The Bishop Murder Case is an extraordinary, closely knit story of crime upon crime and suspicion upon suspicion. The unravelling of the tangle by Philo Vance is related with consummate skill.”

    THE OUTLOOK (London)
    The Benson Murder Case
    “Will put Vance high in the respect, if not the affection, of connoisseurs.”

    THE OUTLOOK (New York)
    The Benson Murder Case
    “An engrossing mystery tale.”

    The Scarab Murder Case
    “The best story we have yet read by Mr. Van Dine.” (Walter R. Brooks)

    WILLIAM LYON PHELPS
    The Benson Murder Case
    “One of the best detective stories I have ever read.”

    The “Canary” Murder Case
    “One of the most ingenious and chilling tales of crime that I have seen. Philo Vance is an original and fascinating person.”

    PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC LEDGER
    The Bishop Murder Case
    “The ne plus ultra of modern detective stories… Has the movement and emphasis of a twentieth-century limited… Gird yourself for a stormy and utterly compelling yarn.”

    The Scarab Murder Case
    “The Van Dine mysteries are the best of this overstocked day, the best by a large margin. And they are better each year.” (Walter Yust)

    The Kennel Murder Case
    “The star murder mystery of the season.”

    PHILADELPHIA RECORD
    The Benson Murder Case
    “In workmanship and interest one of the outstanding mystery tales of the last two years.”

    The Kennel Murder Case
    “Has unquestionably the finest plot situation of the six Van Dine novels.”

    PORTLAND EXPRESS
    The Scarab Murder Case
    “His latest book is, by far, his best.”

    PUNCH
    The Bishop Murder Case
    “Both in construction and for exciting incident it is really remarkable.”

    ST. PAUL DISPATCH
    The Scarab Murder Case
    “Far the best mystery story of the year… The Scarab Murder Case is the best of its kind.”

    SAN FRANCISCO NEWS
    The Kennel Murder Case
    “The Kennel Murder Case, by S.S. Van Dine, is the best modern detective novel this reviewer has ever read.”

    SATURDAY EVENING POST
    The Kennel Murder Case
    “The Kennel Murder Case is another highly entertaining exploit of Philo Vance. I believe S.S. Van Dine still to be, on all accounts, one of the best of mystery-yarn spinners. His new book gives no reason for a change of opinion.”

    SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE
    The Scarab Murder Case
    “Not only his best but…very close to the top of all detective stories… A joy to read and ranks number one in the season’s mysteries.” (Eugene Reynal)

    SAVANNAH NEWS
    The Scarab Murder Case
    “Far and away the best of the Van Dine Murder Cases.”

    THE SCOTS OBSERVER
    The Benson Murder Case
    “Full of the unexpected and remarkably well told. An original detective story of very high order.”

    SPRINGFIELD REPUBLICAN
    The Benson Murder Case
    “The story is absorbing in interest, pushing steadily to its surprising climax and revealing Philo Vance as a new and delightful member of the little coterie in which Sherlock Holmes is the most familiar name.”

    The Scarab Murder Case
    “S.S. Van Dine is at his best in The Scarab Murder Case.”

    SUSSEX DAILY NEWS
    The Benson Murder Case
    “Seldom has one been so captivated by a murder case which really does thrill.”

    TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
    The Benson Murder Case
    “Philo Vance is a real addition to the great company of amateur detectives.’

    The Bishop Murder Case
    “The murders are all carefully and, for the most part, neatly committed. Mr. Van Dine makes a fine and well-sustained mystery out of it all.”

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:19 am | Reply

  18. I have “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” under its reprint title of “The
    Smell of Murder”. Here’s what the copy on the back says:” It isn’t funny ..not
    when a lovely young lady messes with a fortune teller who dabbles in
    blackmail.. .with an escaped convict who has nothing to lose but his life… & with
    the boss of a widespread crime ring , as clever as he is cold-blooded… &
    certainly not when a corpse , carrying the wrong cigarettes & wearing the
    wrong perfume, drags the young lady smack into the middle of a big-town mob
    slaying. Philo Vance at his cleverst… Gracie Allen at her gayest… in this
    spine-tingling murder mystery.”An interesting curiosity – written at the
    height of Gracie Allen’s popularity, if you can imagine Philo Vance taking a
    backseat to Gracie Allen!! I understand it was filmed in 1939. Has anyone ever
    seen this film ??.

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:19 am | Reply

  19. Curt,

    The plot is not bad but thin and somewhat commonplace. The book begins with DA Markham under menace of an escaped convict. Vance then casually encounters Gracie Allen during a countryside walk. The two threads are linked when Gracies’s brother is found murdered in a surveilled room inside a gangster-infested restaurant where the police were hoping to find the escaped convict. Things get complicated because Gracie herself was having dinner at the same restaurant, as well as two of her suitors. A cigarette case belonging to one of them is found with the murdered man. This takes almost half of the book, so you can see the pace is really leisurely, but Van Dine manages to make it seem much livelier by relying heavily on dialogue. There aren´t many clues, and both investigation and solution are unremarkable.

    My main problem with this book is precisely the Gracie Allen stunt. The plot device used to pop her into the story is contrived and Vance’s behaviour towards her is out of character; her intrusion upsets the whole equilibrium of Vance’s universe and paradoxically exposes its intrinsic irrealism. Other problem is that she looks, acts and speaks exactly like Gracie Allen the actress, but in fact she is Gracie Allen, worker at a cosmetics manufacturer, whose brother gets killed and whose family is introduced to the reader. It looks like Van Dine was giving a broad hint to the movie industry: “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice to film this with Gracie Allen as the lead?”. I imagine it must have been a good way of assuring the film rights would be selled — as if a waning Dan Brown would write The Hugh Grant Connection, in which an awkward young flower-shop assistant called Hugh Grant would find himself in the middle of a Rosicrucian conspiracy. However, Gracie Allen
    may work as a rage-deflector — her lines are so preposterous that Vance’s detractors will find him less irritating.

    Anyway, the book is a good read if you don’t mind Vance (I don’t). I’ve just checked it and I found Van Dine’s prose remarkably clear and direct, much more than in the earlier books. As usual in Van Dine, each character speaks with his/her own voice (this is a very rare quality even among mainstream writers) and the dialogue is effective. It *doesn’t* start by a mention of the spectacular nature of the case (in fact, quite the opposite). Almost no footnotes.

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:21 am | Reply

  20. Henrique, Thanks for the description. I have still never read this and Scarab and was wondering if I should bother with it. I read that the book and the film (Gracie Allen Murder case) were “flops,” so, if so, the experiment doesn’t seem to have worked out well. It may have sent the message that if Van Dine didn’t take his creation seriously, why should his audience?

    In a 1938 article Van Dine is bracketed with Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie as belonging to the group of the most popular authors of mysteries: those selling over 10,000 copies per title in the United States. He is said at that time to have averaged 30,000 copies sold per title since Benson. However, since we know that both Greene and Bishop were the #4 bestsellers of their years in the US, we can assume that those earlier books sold on average a good deal over 30,000. Say the first five books sold 250,000 copies, that would be an average of 50,000 sold per title. That would mean the next five would have sold around 10,000 a title, for a total of 50,000 copies. So Van Dine in the thirties would have been trying to live his lavish lifestyle off, say, a fifth of the book income he had been enjoying in the 1920s (I’m assuming the $2 for a hardcover book was steady over the period).

    10 books averaging 30,000 copies each equals 300,000 copies
    5 books averaging 50,000 copies each equals 250,000 copies
    5 books averaging 10,000 copies each equals 50,000 copies

    This would be a big come-down for Van Dine, but it would still put him in the upper echelon of mystery sellers. In those days most of the book reading public did not consider a mystery novel something to purchase; it was something to be borrowed from a rental or public library. This is why so many of these books are so rare today (the library copies were eventually read until they were worn out and incinerated as waste). Two thirds of the books published by the Crime Club in the US sold from 2000 to 6000 copies, so a title selling 10,000 would have been at the very high end. Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise sold only 9000 copies, but after the success of Gaudy Night she was able to double her readers with Busman’s Honeymoon, selling 20,000 copies in the US. If Van Dine was still selling 10,000 copies a title in the US in the 1930s that would have been very respectable (though not enough to support the second wife, penthouse apartments, pedigree scotties, exotic tropical fish, horse race betting, etc.). It would be more accurate to say not that Van Dine now was unpopular and unread, in that case, but that he had lost his briefly-held dominant, “colossus” status from the 1926-30 period. But Van Dine’s status in that period was something really exceptional in the Golden Age.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:21 am | Reply

  21. Well, Mike, the aesthetic has changed. It doesn’t mean that Van Dine now is a bad writer, just that the way people make judgments about these things has changed. Certainly an admirer of Van Dine can take consolation in the fact that Van Dine was fantastically popular for a few years, a rage of the twenties, like the foxtrot or swallowing goldfish. And I think the idea of his collapse has been somewhat exaggerated. Obviously Van Dine’s personal story was pretty disastrous, but I think that the later books up through Kidnap at least are by no means the artistic disasters Symons makes them out to be. Van Dine had a good deal of formal skill as a mystery constructor that never left him.

    As for the changes, I don’t believe Philo, like Reggie Fortune, translates very well today. I think too that on the whole the books lack the amazing cleverness of, say, Carr or Queen (though Queen is out of print too and Carr was last reprinted in the 90s, I believe, so maybe the problem extends way beyond Van Dine!).

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — August 21, 2009 @ 2:22 am | Reply

  22. Glad to be preserved!

    I’m still trying to make sense of these stray bits of Van Dine sales figures.

    The interesting but frustrating John Loughery biography of Wright is very impressionistic on these matters. He lists at one time or another Benson selling 50,000 copies, Canary 60,000, Greene 60,000 (it’s implied it went on to sell at least 120,000), Scarab 80,000 and implies that each sold even more than this. “Hundreds of thousands of readers bought” Kennel, he writes. By the time of Scarab, sales had passed the 1,000,000 mark, he writes. Since he doesn’t footnote these statements, what he says can’t be verified from his book.

    The 1938 article I referenced previously states that the ten Van Dine books published up to the beginning of 1938 averaged 30,000 in sales per title and that Van Dine is one of the few authors who sells more than 10,000 copies per title.

    Attempting to make sense of the latter, I hypothesized an average of 50,000 sold for the first five books and 10,000 for the second five. This would mean that sales had shrunk by a fifth but were still more than respectable.

    However, trying to square this with Loughery’s figures is problematical. If 1,000,000 copies of the first five Van Dine titles were sold, that would be an average of 200,000 copies per title. Even if the next five books had sold nothing, the average would drop only to 100,000 copies per title. How does this square with the 1938 statement that the average was 30,000 and that Van Dine was still selling more than 10,000 per title? Very confusin’, my dear GAD readers. I do wish this Loughery chappie had substantiated his figures, don’t you know.

    It’s a great irony, when one thinks about it, that a Van Dine biography failed to use footnotes!

    By the way, Loughery follows the Van Dine decline narrative to a T, insisting that Scarab, Kennel, Dragon and Casino are exponentially worse than the volume preceding it. I say bosh to this! He agrees with most that Bishop is the best. I have to be honest that I have tried to finish Bishop twice and lost interest both times. The lectures of chess and math and whatnot just bore me to tears. I like the idea of the book, but I don’t really like the book. I liked Greene better, though the whole enterprise strikes me as too fanciful and false. Canary is okay, but Philo lectures are pretty unbearable (the way he talks is really absurd) and the “psychology” of the poker game seems less impressive noe than it must have in the 1920s. Of the early group I like Benson best, though I do get tired of the Vance psychology lectures and anyone today can spot the murder immediately (Hammett said anyone back then could too).

    I’ve about finished Casino and like better, because Vance is so much more toned down and the family murders are so much less over the top than in Greene. It’s actually a pretty nicely carried out plot (with yet another one of those hateful mothers–did Wright have Freudian issues, or what?). I love how by this time Vance is running the entire police investigation, which Markham just twiddling his thumbs, evidently, most of the time. Vance orders police officers, doctors, suspects, witnesses, everyone! around. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an amateur detective afforded this level of absolute investigative authority. He’s the Cincinnatus of sleuths!

    I started Kennel again too and I think this holds up nicely. A toned down Van Dine is quite bearable to me. Now in Garden and Kidnap Van Dine went too far in the other direction, having Van Dine get smitten (not by a terrier or ceramic but by a real live lady) in the one and in the other becoming an action hero. The gangland stuff reads more like 1920s Edgar Wallace than 1930s hardboiled, but it’s still out-of-place in a Van Dine.

    I suppose I should read Scarab, but knowing the solution to it has held me back (also the Egyptology lectures). I’m not sure it has enough intrinsic interest to read after knowing the solution. But then I reread Casino knowing the solution, so maybe so….

    Curt

    Comment by Jon — August 21, 2009 @ 5:33 am | Reply


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