Benson Murder Case

I recently read the novel The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine. It is the novel that introduced the immensely popular character of Philo Vance to the mystery fiction universe. I don’t think he has aged well, though I understand he has devotees to this day.

The novel is set in the 1920s and it deals with Philo Vance, a wealthy art lover and bon vivant helping the dogged Manhattan district attorney solve the baffling murder of poor Mr. Benson, a crooked investment broker. Vance knows from the start who the murderer is (based on some severely dated psychological stereotypes including demeaning and sexist assumptions about women) and even takes a hand at some forensic analysis of the crime scene (which I’ve read is considered faulty by modern standards). The bulk of the story involves Vance leading the district attorney to suspect five different individuals of the crime and then systematically showing the district attorney how each could not be guilty. That leaves only one possible culprit, someone no one (but Vance) had ever suspected. While Vance talks a good game, Van Dine must rely on the easy out of a forced confession to prove his clever character’s certain suspicions.

I have no doubt that the character of Philo Vance struck a chord with the readers of the age. Indeed, the series of Vance novels went on to great success in movies and radio. I don’t think, though, that modern readers would have much use for him even if he were updated, and I don’t know that Van Dine could get the stories published today. Curiously, I think Philo Vance was to be considered gay. As a result of the forced confession, the guilty party calls Vance a “sissy.” In the parlance of the Roaring Twenties, didn’t that mean a man was gay?

S. S. Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright) is noted in mystery writing circles for coming up with his Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, including probably the best known: a mystery must have a murder. (I disagree.) To many mystery writers today, these rules are gospel, though like the Ten Commandments, I’m not sure how many of the faithful can quote all of them. I can’t help but think that S.S. Van Dine (the S.S. supposedly stood for Steam Ship) was having a good laugh by creating these rules. He certainly breaks one of them in his second Philo Vance novel.

Even if Van Dine were serious about his Twenty Rules, I don’t see why anyone should feel obliged to follow them. As I’ve said before, there is plenty of evil that people can do that doesn’t involve murder. All of these crimes need to be solved too.

I may pick up another Van Dine mystery, but there are plenty of other books on the shelf calling for my attention first.

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One Comment on “Benson Murder Case

  1. allen Says:

    Paul,

    I sent out my manuscript to family & friends today and by way of marking the occasion I looked back through my blog from the start of the project. In so doing I saw that you had read through it and posted the occasional comment.

    Just want to say I appreciate it.

    Good luck in your writing.

    allen


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