From 1926 to his death in 1939, S.S. Van Dine published 12 Philo Vance detective stories. Certain characters were present in almost all of them – Vance himself; the narrator S.S. Van Dine, simply called “Van;” district attorney John F.X. Markham; Currie, Vance’s butler; Emanuel Doremus, the medical examiner; and five policemen who were detectives in the New York Homicide Bureau.
Four of the five policeman have few if any speaking roles. They take orders, put suspects under surveillance, stand guard over murder scenes, and serve as the “muscle” for Vance and Markham. The four detectives are known only by their last names – Snitkin, Guilfoyle, Burke, and Hennessey. Their boss, Sergeant Ernest Heath, has a larger role, and usually accompanies Vance, Van, and Markham as they undertake the various murder investigations.
Heath is drawn as almost a caricature, and the “almost” is the key word. He’s a bit pugnacious, always looks for the most obvious solution (which is never the ultimate solution in a Philo Vance mystery), barks commands at his subordinates, and threatens suspects with “extra-legal” treatment. He also tends to stereotype by national origin, and he’s quick to point out what he perceives as the “natural” deviousness of people with Chinese or Italian ancestry, for example.
In the first two books, The Benson Murder Case and The Canary Murder Case, Heath considers Philo Vance’s musings and observations as worse than useless. He wants action, not psychological analysis, and Vance is full of psychological analysis. Slowly, however, particularly as Vance manages to solve cases that look unsolvable, Heath comes to appreciate what the amateur detective can do.
By the seventh novel, The Dragon Murder Case, originally published in 1933, Heath not only appreciates Vance’s abilities but has come to actually emulate them. He comes to Vance and Markham, having a late Saturday dinner in Vance’s rooftop garden, and tells that there’s something wrong with what looks to be an accidental drowning. He bases his feeling on the undercurrents he senses with the people involved and the suspects seeming to have a fixation on dragons. (The story is notable for being the first in the series where the murder scene is not a brownstone or similar building in the more densely populated part of Manhattan.)
A young man has apparently drowned in a pool at the old Stamm estate, located on the northern end of Manhattan island. At a weekend party, at which there’s been heavy drinking, the man took a dive into the pool and never surfaced. The pool in question is an old body of water fed by a stream and then dammed to make it deeper. It’s also associated with old native American legends, specifically one that claimed a dragon inhabited the pool. Heath has discovered that everyone at the party seemed to hate the victim, and most of them also hated each other.
|S.S. Van Dine|
If it’s a crime, it’s a curious one, with no sign of a body. Markham resists getting involved but Vance, impressed by Heath’s unease, convinces him. When the pool is drained, there’s still no sign of a body. What there is, though, are markings in the mud that look for all the world like those of a dragon’s claws. The subject of a dragon keeps recurring as the still-reluctant Markham and a determined Vance interview the guests and investigate the property. And then they find the body, complete with slashes like claw marks across the chest.
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.”
The Dragon Murder Case was also made into a movie, released in 1934 and starring Warren William as Philo Vance. It’s a cunning story; Van Dine almost gets the reader to the point of believing in and expecting a dragon to appear. But there are different kind of dragons, and this mystery ultimately has a two-legged one.