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Literature / Philo Vance

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Philo Vance is the primary character of a series of twelve mystery novels written between 1926 and 1939. The novels were written by Willard Huntington Wright under the pen name "S.S. Van Dine".

The Philo Vance novels are more than a bit dated these days, but at least the earlier ones are still considered important "Golden Age" mysteries. They were adapted into a long-running film series, four of which starred William Powell.

These novels contain examples of:

  • Always Murder: At least one corpse per novel, and sometimes more.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish/Elective Broken Language: Liang, the Coe family cook in The Kennel Murder Case, has apparently been pulling this one on the Coes all along. Vance immediately calls him out on it, and Liang goes back to speaking standard English — it was Obfuscating Stupidity, Liang went to Oxford.
  • Badass Bookworm: Vance was an art scholar, translated Greek plays, and bred championship Scotties. He was also skilled at ju-jitsu, and won the Croix de Guerre during World War I.
  • Bitter Almonds: The improvised chemistry lab in The Bishop Murder Case smells of this. And yes, this is where the Cyanide Pill mentioned below came from.
  • The Casino: One of the main locations for The Casino Murder Case (though the actual murder didn't take place there).
  • Casino Episode: The Casino Murder Case isn't exclusively set at Kinkaid's Casino, but several major scenes take place there. Vance goes there in the second chapter because he got an anonymous letter warning him of danger to another patron.
  • Celibate Hero: Vance.
    • In his essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories", Wright argued that this should be a requirement for all detective fiction.
  • Cyanide Pill: At the end of The Bishop Murder Case, the murderer takes homebrewed cyanide.
    • Crossed with Serial-Killer Killer — he intended the cyanide for his final victim, but Vance switched the glasses.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Wright used his pen name as the name of the books' narrator.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Literally in The Kennel Murder Case. The murderer had previously abused a dog, then given it away. At the end of the novel, Vance, the dog's new owner, and the murderer meet up in a park. The dog pulls its leash free and kills the murderer.
  • Doomed Appointment: Tony Skeel misses his appointment in The "Canary" Murder Case, and Vance immediately (and correctly) assumes he's dead.
  • Everybody Smokes: If Vance isn't lighting up one of his imported Regie cigarettes, Markham is handing out cigars to anyone who ran an errand for him.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Vance does this in The Scarab Murder Case to find the opium in Dr. Bliss' coffee. The coffee cup is promptly packed up for a real analysis, which confirms the opium.
  • Friend on the Force: John Markham, District Attorney and friend of Vance, fills a similar role. Most of the novels start with Markham bringing Vance in on a case.
    • By a few novels in, Sergeant Heath has warmed up to Vance and provides a closer match.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting
  • Gentleman Detective
  • In Name Only: The 1948 radio show starring Jackson Beck, which, aside from keeping Markham and Heath, adapts none of the stories and changes the character from a faux-British Sherlock type into a very American P.I. with a personal secretary. Ironically, it has been received by many radio mystery fans as a case of Adaptation Distillation; as the series found its footing, Philo began to rely more heavily on deduction and evidence as well as psych profiling, and embodied the "gentleman" part of "gentleman detective" moreso than Van Dine's chummy but arrogant and condescending Vance, having genuine, warm friendships with Markham and his secretary Ellen Deering.
  • Jerkass: Vance starts out this way. He doesn't bother to mention the one observation that completely demolishes the police assumptions about Alvin Benson's murder because he's amused by watching them flail about trying to solve the case. (He gets better.)
  • Last-Name Basis: Standard for the time period, thus standard in these novels.
  • Magical Native American: In The Dragon Murder Case, someone has been killed at a party and one of the suspects is a man who is half Native American, another suspect - a woman - accuses him of killing the victim using "His mystic Indian skills that allow him to become practically invisible." He is not the murderer, and is not magic.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: During the poker game in The Canary Murder Case, one round ends with Vance holding four kings and losing to Cleaver with a jack-high straight flush. Another round ends with Vance (four aces on the initial deal) being "bluffed" into folding. Justified in that Vance snuck a card sharp into the game, and paid him to deal those specific hands.
  • Police Brutality: Sergeant Heath often suggests beating a confession out of the current suspect (legal at that time period). It doesn't happen, but it's suggested.
  • Tainted Tobacco: In The Gracie Allen Murder Case, criminal Benny the Buzzard is murdered by a poisoned cigarette.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Neither Vance nor Van Dine translate any of Vance's foreign quotes.