Philo Vance is mighty annoyin’, don’t y’know? He needs, as Ogden Nash famously wrote, “a kick in the pance.” And yet, a single kick would probably be enough—especially if it got Vance to stop dropping his g’s in words like “annoying.” For beyond the surface affections that render him a cartoon of pomposity, beyond the fumes that issue from his Régie cigarettes, and beyond the whiff of dandyism that clearly arises from authorial wish fulfillment, Vance presents a vivid picture of the genius detective in action. To the problem of who killed a theatrical demimondaine named the Canary, and how, the outwardly frivolous Vance applies a blend of intelligence, intuition, and imagination that reflects a serious and powerful mind. (That question of “how” is especially vexing: A bolted door, a watchful telephone operator, and a scream in the night combine to make timely entry to the victim’s lair appear downright impossible.) Despite his off-putting verbal tics, Vance marches through his analysis of each deductive conundrum with wit and flair; his performance exemplifies fictional detection at its best.
The handling of clues in this effort, unfortunately, falls short of that high standard. Van Dine, in his description of the crime scene, withholds any mention of the most essential physical fact in the case—a fact, moreover, that police investigators would be unlikely to overlook. For that violation of the fair-play ethos, the author deserves his own “kick in the pance.”
In sum, “Canary” features a flawed but compelling protagonist and an intriguing but flawed plot. One other feature of the book stands out: Like most early Van Dine titles, this one manages both to evoke a bygone era and to display a spirit of intellectual freshness. It’s a snapshot, crisp in some parts and hazy in others, of a long-lost Gotham in which modernity was still thrillingly new.