21.11.10

S. S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case


During the 1920s and 30s, S. S. Van Dine (pseudonym for William Huntington Wright) published 12 mysteries featuring the amateur detective, Philo Vance. Novels such as The Benson Murder Case, The “Canary” Murder Case, The Bishop Murder Case, The Green Murder Case, and The Dragon Murder Case were among the most popular mysteries of their time, helping Scribners stay afloat during the Great Depression. Van Dine was even a favourite crime writer of two American presidents (Symons 1992, 115). His novels were made into profitable movies and helped popularize the American detective novel at a time when British mysteries dominated.

Van Dine, who published the article “I Used to Be a Highbrow But Look at Me Now,” began his career writing literary criticism and “serious” novels. In 1909 he became literary editor of The Los Angeles Times but subsequently abandoned the position (as well as his wife and child), moved to New York, and became editor-in-chief of the literary journal Smart Set. Addicted to alcohol, cocaine and opium, Van Dine eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised by his doctor to abandon writing. For two years he did nothing but read detective novels. In order to make money, he decided to write six mysteries of his own, then return to “highbrow” writing. His mysteries proved to be so popular and lucrative that he continued to write them.

The first Philo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case (1926), went through eleven printings and sold over 50,000 copies, a huge number at the time. The book was based on the actual murder of a prominent New York stockbroker. The novel begins with the discovery of Alvin Benson’s body in the living room of his New York brownstone. Vance, a close friend of the district attorney, helps investigate the case.

The setting of the novel is New York during the roaring twenties. Van Dine depicts restaurants and gentlemen’s private clubs reminiscent of earlier English novels. These places evoke an old-world atmosphere of leisure and affluence. Vance spends his time at New York symphonies, art exhibits, and fine-dining establishments. Knight points out that Van Dine brings sophistication and polish to the detective novel (2004, 94); the atmosphere and setting of the story contribute to this impression of urbanity and refinement.

Rzepka identifies Vance as the “sleuthing art connoisseur” (155), and like Ngaio Marsh, Van Dine combines the world of art with that of detection. By doing so, both authors highlight the artifice and deception that underpins crime. Van Dine’s plots, Knight points out, “usually centre on financial advantage and the dark side of the American acquisitive dream” (2004, 94).

A man of leisure with no occupation, Vance is a person of quick intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge. But he is also cynical and pompous, revealing an attitude of “languid world-weary superiority” (Symons 1992, 116). Like Sherlock Holmes, he possesses superior reasoning powers and knows the culprit well in advance of everyone else. The narrator is identified as Van Dine, a lawyer and constant companion to Vance. This narrator acts as a foil to the clever Vance, adopting a Watson-like role.

Although The Benson Murder Case follows the tradition of the clever but contrived intellectual game, it also strives for realism. The narrator, in his “Publisher’s Note,” claims to publish true facts from records he has kept:
It gives us considerable pleasure to be able to offer to the public the ‘inside’ record of those former District Attorney Markham’s criminal cases in which Mr. Philo Vance figured so effectively. The true inwardness of these famous cases has never before been revealed; for Mr. S. S. Van Dine, Mr. Vance’s lawyer and almost constant companion, being the only person who possessed a complete record of the facts, has only recently been permitted to make them public.
The narrator also claims that he is not permitted to divulge Vance’s true name; he even provides footnotes to his “records.” The use of diagrams and floor plans, as well as chapters that start with the date and time all create the impression of an actual murder case.

With its focus on psychological methods of analysis, The Benson Murder Case is a forerunner to the modern psychological mystery. Instead of pursuing material clues, Vance concentrates on the psyche of the killer. He explains to Markham, “Every human act – no matter how large or small – is a direct expression of a man’s personality, and bears the inev’table impress of his nature” (106).

The Benson Murder Case is a cleverly conceived story with an interesting psychological focus and an urbane old-world setting.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.

Van Dine, S. S. The Benson Murder Case. New York: A. L. Burt, 1926.