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The Benson Murder

January 8, 2009

S.S. Van Dine, AKA Willard Huntington Wright, has the largest vocabulary of any mystery writer I have ever come across. Or perhaps he just likes to show off more than the others. He is also obsessed with detail, which I suppose is a good thing in a mystery writer, except that what Van Dine really wants to give us details about is Philo Vance.

I’ve just been reading The Benson Murder, the first Philo Vance book, and I suppose, since it’s the first book, the author has an excuse to describe his detective in detail. But not this much detail. If you want, I can tell you the measurements of Philo Vance’s skull. No, seriously. His facial angle is 85 degrees.

Later, Van Dine tells us in a footnote (yes, a footnote) that, while Vance’s left eye is practically normal, his right is 1.2 astigmatic. Van Dine is very fond of footnotes — almost as fond as he is of unnecessary detail. Another one reads, in part, “This quotation from Ecclesiastes reminds me that Vance regularly read the Old Testament.”

Fortunately, Van Dine has the virtues that go with his vices. Vance and his friend John F.-X. Markham, the Attorney General, are incredibly condescending to each other, and their conversations, full of words of five syllables, are a pleasure to read. At one point Markham says to Vance, “Would you be so good as to point out, from your dizzy pinnacle of sapience, the errors in my reasoning?” I suspect I’m going to be quoting that one  a lot.

As for the story, it’s a fairly ordinary mystery, with five or six equally plausible suspects and at least one cast-iron alibi. Vance is probably the most infuriatingly condescending detective to ever get himself published. Every time he speaks, I want to kick him. He spends the entire week of the investigation implying that he knows more about the murder than anyone else, and when Markham finally presses him on the subject, he admits that he’s known who did it from his first five minutes at the crime scene. And then he takes another 24 hours before he begins to explain. And then, when he does start to explain, he throws out a few more red herrings. And then, when he’s finally revealed the murderer, he implies that he didn’t tell Markham who it was earlier because Markham was too stupid to believe him.

Let me put it this way: Philo Vance is no William Powell.

Not that I didn’t find The Benson Murder hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable.

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