Philo Vance

Created by S.S. Van Dine
Pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright
(1888-1939)

“Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.”
Ogden Nash

Yes, yes, yes. As several people have pointed out to me over the years, PHILO VANCE was a private eye, and it would be unfair for me to exclude him from this site.

Happy, now?

Granted, Vance was about as far from the commonly accepted vision of the private eye as you can get — he was an urbane, sophisticated and debonair member of New York’s upper crust totally lacking in the common touch who did not suffer fools — or anyone else below his station — gladly (or quietly). He always wore his chamois gloves when he left his swank, book-lined downtown apartment, to tool around town in his beloved Hispano-Suiz. Hell, he even sported a monocle.

And — get this — he wasn’t being played for laughs.

We were meant to take this pretentious upper class doofus — and the dry, humourless books he appeared in — seriously. And he was taken seriously — for years he was America’s most popular homegrown detective, inspiring games, toys, films, radio and television series and even a daily newspaper comic strip.

He remains one of the most pivotal of fictional detectives, culturally and historically significant, and totally important in the development of the genre as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, seemed like a man of his time — an American man of his time.

Except…

Read today, Vance comes off as a pompous blowhard and know-it-all; an inexplicably popular character with his monocle and smug sense of moral, intellectual and class superiority whose very existence may have in fact spurred the demand for a tougher, more “realistic” American kind of detective (Vance, Race Williams and the Continental Op were all contemporaries).

But it’s not just me who has problems with the dude. Otto Penzler suggested in The Detectionary that the author himself was “much like Vance … a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism.”

And Chandler tagged him as “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”

Still, the books kept coming, starting in 1926 with The Benson Murder Case and continuing for eleven sequels. Just three years after the first novel appeared, the second in the series, The Canary Murder Case (1927), was adapted for film, with future Thin Man star William Powell playing the monocoled one in a film that began as a silent film and switched to a talkie midway through production. Powell would go on to reprise the role several times, and other actors also took a crack at Vance over the years, including Warren William and Basil Rathbone. Paramount churned out a dozen of them between 1929 and 1939, and Warner Brothers gave it a crack with Calling Philo Vance (1940), while PRC attempted to revive the series in 1947 with three films which re-cast Vance as a hard-boiled (or at least slightly harder-boiled) boiled dick.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vance’s creator, S.S. Van Dine (real name Willard Huntington Wright), was at various times a respected art critic, a drug addict (opiates, apparently), a columnist, a Harvard dropout (he felt he was smarter than most of his professors), an author of a book on Nietzsche, the literary editor for the Los Angeles Times, a notorious man about town with a taste for women and booze, the editor of H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set, a smoker of marijuana, and was accused of being a spying for the Germans after the U.S. had entered World War I, the result of a prank gone wrong. The resulting scandal, though, cost him his career in journalism, and he spent several years mooching off friends and doing drugs, before deciding to write mysteries. He signed a three-book contract with Maxwell Perkins at Scribners (Perkins as an old pal from Harvard acquaintance), and the rest was publishing history, with sales rivaling his day as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Naturally, none of this went to his head.

Unfortunately, after a good long run, sales began to slip, and Vance, once a man of his time, seemed suddenly dated, as a newer, tougher breed of American detective  began to take hold, and the last few novels veered into formula. Van Dinendied at the age of in 1939, only fifty or so, reportedly a “bitter and disillusioned” man, a victim of years of hard living and drinking, leaving less than $15,000 in his estate, still a considerable chunk at the time.

UNDER OATH

  • “Let’s be fair. Philo Vance’s creator’s ‘less than $15,000′ estate was about nine times the mean annual wage in 1939. How many of the current crop of mystery writers would cash out at $450,000? And would that be relevant to their work?
    More importantly, let’s talk Vance. Yes, he can be irritating. Pretty much everyone resembling a real human being is, sometimes. Which is part of the point. For all the carping—’He’s white! He’s male! He’s educated! He’s straight! (well, maybe)’ —he’s a more credible character than most, sharp as they come, and sometimes shows signs of a conscience. And his cases are legitimate fair-play mysteries. That’s more than I can say for a lot of his contemporaries, and a LOT more than I can say for some of the current flavors of the month.
    Before you beat up on him too badly, try to imagine what will be said in seventy years about the detectives you now praise.”
    — Robert Piepenbrink

NOVELS

  • The Benson Murder Case (1926)
  • The Canary Murder Case (1927)
  • The Greene Murder Case (1928)
  • The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
  • The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • The Casino Murder Case (1934)
  • The Garden Murder Case (1935)
  • The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
  • The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
  • The Winter Murder Case (1939)

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • “The John Riddell Murder Case: A Philo Vance Parody” (1930; by Corey Ford) Buy the book
    Lampoons S. S. Van Dine and various other popular writers and public figures from the 1920s.
  • “The Circle Murder Case” (October 1972, EQMM; by Jon L. Breen)
    Another parody. Predictably, perhaps, Breen nails it.

FILMS

    • THE CANARY MURDER CASE
      (1929, Paramount)
      82 minutes, black & white
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
      Also starring Jean Arthur, Jasmes Hall, Louise Brooks
      The first Vance film, it started out as a silent film but switched to a talkie midway through production.
    • THE GREENE MURDER CASE
      (1929)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
    • THE BISHOP MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
      (1930)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Basil Rathbone as PHILO VANCE
    • THE BENSON MURDER CASE
      (1930)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
    • THE KENNEL MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
      (1933)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
    • THE DRAGON MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
      (1934)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Warren William as PHILO VANCE
    • THE CASINO MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
      (1935)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Paul Lukas as PHILO VANCE
    • THE GARDEN MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
      (1936)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Edmund Lowe as PHILO VANCE
      Also starring Virginia Bruce, Benita Hume, Douglas Walton, Nat Pendleton
      A decent enough entry. Lowe’s no aristocrat, but he gives the character with enough wit and verve — and there’s enough clever banter — to make this one of the more enjoyable entries in the series. 
    • THE SCARAB MURDER CASE
      (1936)
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Wilfrid Hyde-White as PHILO VANCE
    • NIGHT OF MYSTERY
      (1937, Paramount)
      Based on The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Grant Richards as PHILO VANCE
    • THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE
      (1939, Paramount)
      78 minutes
      Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Warren William as PHILO VANCE
      Also starring Gracie Allen, Ellen Drew
    • CALLING PHILO VANCE | Buy the DVD
      (1940, Warner Brothers)
      Based on The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring James Stephenson as PHILO VANCE
      Also starring Margot Stevenson, Henry O’Neill, Edward Brophy, Sheila Bromley, Ralph Forbes
      A rather bizarre war-time entry, with a prologue that has Vance working as an American agent in Vienna. trying to steal some aircraft plans, before he returns home to New York City and ends up investigating the murder of the man he stole the plans from.
    • PHILO VANCE’S GAMBLE
      (1947, PRC)
      62 minutes
      Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
      and a story by Lawrence Edmund Taylor
      Screenplay by Eugene Conrad and Arthur St. Clair
      Starring James Stephenson as PHILO VANCE
      Also starring Vivian Austin, Frank Jenks
      A surprisingly tough little film noir; totally uncharacteristic of the rest of the series or the books.
    • PHILO VANCE RETURNS
      (aka “Infamous Crimes”)
      (1947, PRC)
      Based on The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
      Screenplay by Tom Reed
      Directed by Williams Clemens
      Starring William Wright as PHILO VANCE
    • PHILO VANCE’S SECRET MISSION
      (aka “Philo Vance, Detective”)
      (1947, PRC)
      Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
      Starring Alan Curtis as PHILO VANCE

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • PARAMOUNT ON PARADE
    (1930)
    A musical revue, with Paramount stars letting their hair down. William Powell as Philo Vance, Warner Oland as Fu Manchu, Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath and Clive Brooks as Sherlock Holmes, perform “Murder Will Out.”

COMIC STRIPS

  • PHILO VANCE
    (1930s)
    Drawn (and possibly written) by R.B.S. Davis

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks, as always, to Janice Long for the heads up.

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