S.S. VAN DINE. The “Canary” Murder Case (1927).

10 Jan

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. CanaryMurder.gif 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.


Posted by on January 10, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


8 responses to “S.S. VAN DINE. The “Canary” Murder Case (1927).

  1. Cavershamragu

    January 10, 2013 at 2:27 PM

    I used to be a great fan in my teens but it’s been 30 years since I read this one – I think I need a refresher! Great review Mike.

  2. Mike

    January 10, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    Hi, Sergio. I actually didn’t read any of the Philo Vance novels during my teen years. Even though I eagerly read quite a few Golden Age authors (Christie, Carr, and Queen being foremost among them), I’d somehow gathered than SSVD was too silly, too dated, to warrant my attention. Anyway, when I started reading the PV books as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised by how readable they are. They do have flaws, as I note, but if you haven’t read any of them in a long while, you should definitely give one of them a try. (“Canary” is as good a pick as any, although I’d probably cite “Bishop” as my desert-island choice of the whole lot.)

  3. Richard

    January 11, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    I tried this one about 30 years ago, but the annoying character faults made me put it down.

  4. Mike

    January 11, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Hi, Richard. I don’t blame you for dismissing the Philo Vance books because—well, because there’s too much Philo Vance in them. He really is annoying. In this case, I was able to read past that aspect of the books and to see things that I like in them. But there certainly are series characters (some of them very popular) who have qualities that are real deal-breakers for me.

  5. John

    January 12, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    I keep saying I’m going to read the rest of this series every year. I keep putting it off because I fear Philo Vance would irritate me. I have trouble reading the early Ellery Queen books with all their pedantry these days. Queen and Vance are so similar in that regard. I have all the Vance books but have only read the first six. I have to tackle DRAGON, GARDEN, CASINO, KIDNAP. GRACIE ALLEN, and WINTER. I read most of them when I was in high school. I still like GREENE and BISHOP because they were so bizarre and Gothic.

  6. Mike

    January 12, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Hi, John. I haven’t read any of the later PV books, either, and from everything that I’ve heard about them, I gather that there’s no reason to read them unless you’re a die-hard PV enthusiast. I can accept the pedantry of the PV and early EQ novels because there are many other things that I like about them—in particular, the focus on straight detection and the evocation of a place and time (Manhattan in the 20s and 30s) that has always fascinated me. But, again, I don’t blame anyone for deciding that they’re just way too pretentious.

  7. wileng

    February 2, 2013 at 8:18 PM

    Interesting how other detectives like Holmes, Poirot and Nero Wolfe aren’t particularly likable but yet Vance seems to be the one that gets under people’s skin the most.

  8. Mike

    February 4, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    That’s a fair point, wileng. Tastes will differ, of course, but I do see why people view Vance as not just arrogant and occasionally obnoxious—as Holmes, Poirot, and Wolfe certainly can be—but also downright annoying. For my part, I enjoy reading the Vance books, and the Vance character doesn’t really undermine that enjoyment. But I wish that the author could have dialed those affectations down by a couple of notches.


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