Monday, April 27, 2020

"The Bishop Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine

The 12 mystery novels of S.S. Van Dine, published between 1926 and 1939, have a number of unusual features, but the most unusual is likely the prolific use of footnotes.

In The Bishop Murder Case, published in 1929, elements of the narrative rely upon mathematical theory, physics, chess, and plays by Henrik Ibsen. Philo Vance, who helps the police and district attorney’s office solve a series of crimes, is a type of Renaissance man whose intellectual interests are wide and rather dazzling. He can discuss music, art, science, chess, psychology, the history of crime, and just about any other subject you care to manage. He also likes translating from the original ancient Greek. 

Van, or S.S. Van Dine, is a character in the stories. He’s attorney who’s left the family practice to work with Vance full time, and it is he who is actually recording the events that happen. The stories are written in retrospect, including an editorial review by Vance himself. The footnotes imply this account is what we call true crime today, but, of course, it’s fiction. 

Basil Rathbone played Philo Vance in the movie.
Here’s an example: “Vance’s M.A. thesis, I recall, dealt with Schopenhauer’s ‘Ueber die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde.’” This is a reference to an actual philosophical work by Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.” Almost all of the footnotes refer to real works, events, or people. The use of footnotes builds a fascinating impression that what you’re reading really did happen.

In The Bishop Murder Case, New York City District Attorney John F.X. Markham is called to the home of Bertrand Dillard, a physics professor who lives with his niece and an adopted son (who’s also a professor, but of mathematics), A friend of the family and especially of the niece, J.C. Cochrane, has been found in the home’s archery range, with an arrow through his heart. The victim’s full name is Joseph Cochrane Robin, teasingly known as “Cock Robin,” the avian victim in “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

It’s a bizarre crime, soon supplemented by more bizarre crimes with overtones of the same and similar nursery rhymes. A sinister mind is at work and is going so far as to send notes to the newspapers connected the deaths to the rhymes. Even Vance finds himself perplexed and stymied, with no obvious motive for the murders except madness. 

S.S. Van Dine
Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. In 1926, he published the first Philo Vance story, The Benson Murder Case, with Scribners. And he used the pen name “S.S. Van Dine.” 

But in The Bishop Murder Case, Vance will eventually ferret out the culprit, whose identity keeps changing as first one, then another, then still another possibility is identified. A fascinating story with all of its twists and turns, it’s one of the best of the S.S. Van Dine mysteries.


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