I feel like every book I read deserves at least a few words in this space, and yet it has taken several days to gather up the energy to write about The Benson Murder Case, the first of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. Vance was an enormously popular detective in the 1920s and ‘30s, inspiring many film and radio adaptations. His popularity has declined precipitously, and upon reading, it is not difficult to discern why.
Many people categorically dismiss mystery novels as silly and frivolous affairs and Philo Vance lives down to all of their expectations. The conceits in this novel are absurd. Vance is described by Van Dine (which is actually the fictional narrator’s name, and serves as a pen name for the true author, an art critic named William Huntington Wright) as a dilettante and a man about town. He is of independent means and lives a luxurious existence, flitting from art gallery to dining club. He is prissy, fussy, and entirely aggravating.
Nearly all of the worst aspects of detective fiction are present in The Benson Murder Case. The police are incompetent beyond measure, only the outsider with intelligence can actually solve crime. Vance believes in psychology as opposed to physical evidence, except when he has to use physical evidence to actually solve the crime. Oh, and he does that annoying thing where he figures out the murderer instantaneously but doesn’t reveal any of his thoughts until the last minute.
Looking up Vance online, it was amusing to hear how detested the character was by some of my favorite detective writers. Both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett found the character asinine and Chandler even wrote in mocking references to Vance in several of his novels.
The Benson Murder Case was a complete chore to finish, despite its relatively short length. I can’t imagine fighting my way through another one.