Monday, May 11, 2020

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

After a rather abrupt change in detective-like behavior by Philo Vance in The Scarab Murder Case, author S.S. Van Dine moved his fictional sleuth back a bit in The Kennel Murder Case. In the first four novels, Vance had been the laid-back, seemingly disinterested onlooker helping New York District Attorney John F.X. Markham, often driving Markham and the police to frustration with his comments about art, literature, and subjects unrelated to the crime at hand. The change in The Scarab Murder Case was striking; Vance took control from the beginning and never let go.

The Kennel Murder Case, published in 1930, is set a few months after its predecessor story. The body of a wealthy collector of Chinese vases and ceramics is found in his bedroom, apparently a suicide. The gun is still in his hand, and he’s been shot in the temple. The room was locked from the inside. But Vance is not convinced; he knew the dead man as someone who was so self-centered and egotistical that he would never have taken his own life. The medical examiner determines the man was already dead when the gun was fired. But how to explain the locked room?

The poster for the movie
The locked room mystery was popular especially during the Golden Age of Mystery in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the earliest was Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories often had a locked-room or “impossible crime” angle, and Van Dine himself had already used the device in The Canary Murder Case. John Dickson Carr made considerable use of locked rooms or impossible crimes in his stories. The idea is still with us; a more recent use is Stieg Larssen’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The locked room problem is a huge obstacle to solving the murder, which becomes murders, in The Kennel Murder Case. Also notable is the role a Scottish terrier plays, and we learn for the first time of Vance’s affection for the dog breed (the novel was dedicated to the Scottish Terrier Club of America). And we learn a considerable amount of information about Chinese ceramics from both the story and the ever-present footnotes, a trademark of Van Dine’s mysteries.

First edition - 1930
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.” 

Ninety years after its original publication, The Kennel Murder Case remains an intriguing story. The locked-room puzzle may seem old-fashioned, but its popularity in the interwar period on both sides of the Atlantic offers a window into the popular culture and public mind of the time.


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