Having done a bit of research into the Golden Era of detective fiction, I primarily knew S. S. Van Dine from his article “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”. Since the rules seemed sensible enough, when I came across some of his writing I thought that I’d check out how well he could put his teachings into practice.
When playboy stockbroker Alvin Benson is killed, his social circle are in a furore trying to figure out who could have murdered him. Enter art enthusiast and amateur detective Philo Vance, who immediately notices some interesting features of the crime scene that the police seem to be overlooking. But will he be able to convince the police of the right culprit before an innocent citizen is arrested first?
This could have been a decent enough detective story, if it weren’t for the detective. There is nothing even remotely likeable or interesting about Philo Vance. Admittedly, the fact that the first chapter does nothing but sing his praises and talk about his art collection didn’t incline me positively towards him, and I found that further reading only confirmed my worst fears. Philo Vance is the snob that is quite happy to watch you work through a problem slowly and steadily, only to trash your work and declare that they knew from the start what the solution was. He bases his workings entirely on psychological profiling, despite appearing to be entirely alien to actual human emotions and drives. His singular emotion appears to be smugness, perhaps cynicism if I’m generous. I couldn’t hate him more if I tried.
Additionally, the author-named character, Van Dine, is entirely pointless. He makes a big deal about his experience as a lawyer, and then does nothing with it. In fact, I forgot that he was even a character until right at the end, because he contributes absolutely nothing to the storyline. His entire purpose is to follow Vance around like an obedient puppy with a notebook and an obsession with noting down every possible detail about an encounter.
What could have been at least an average murder mystery is completely ruined by having the detective be an odious snob with no redeeming qualities, joined by a chronicler who might as well not be there. Don’t bother with it. 1/5
Next review: Weekend by Christopher Pike