Monday, May 4, 2020

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

After reading the first four Philo Vance mysteries by S.S. Van Dine, the reader might be forgiven for developing a certain understanding of the fictional detective. Vance is something of a Renaissance man, with interests ranging from art and science to popular culture, crime history, ancient peoples, and mathematics. He considers the psychology of a particular crime, worrying less about circumstantial evidence and looking into the mind of a criminal (usually a murderer). At times, he seems maddeningly disinterested in what’s going on, driving the police and New York District Attorney John F.X. Markham to distraction (and a rather sublime aggravation). He wears a monocle, smokes imported Turkish cigarettes, and rarely rises before noon.

With that background from four novels, it’s something of a shock to find a very different Philo Vance in The Scarab Murder Case, originally published in 1930. Many of the expected Vance characteristics are there, but there’s a significant difference. This case introduces us to a far more aggressive Vance, barking our questions and occupying the investigatory spotlight as Markham and the police watch from the sidelines. The more I read, the more I wondered if someone else had written this installment in the Philo Vance mysteries.

In the story, a wealthy philanthropist and art patron is found dead in the small Manhattan Museum of Egyptian Museum of Antiquities owned and operated by Dr. Mindrum Bliss, a renowned Egyptologist and archaeologist. Bliss and his family live above the museum. All of the physical cluses, and a considerable number of them are to be found, point to Dr. Bliss as the culprit. But Vance is not convinced; the clues look planned and planted, and there are simply too many of them. Bliss himself doesn’t help his cause, especially when he tries to flee to Canada.

Diagram of the muder scene
While Markham and the police watch, occupying almost minor roles, Vance proceeds to interview, and do so aggressively, family, servants, and museum employees alike. What becomes clear, to Vance, if not to the reader, is that a second crime is likely imminent.

This installment in the Philo Vance series is unusual for two other reasons. For his story, Van Dine borrowed from what was currently the cultural craze of the moment – Egyptology. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter set off a transatlantic fascination with all things Egyptian. In the previous stories, Van Dine didn’t make such blatant use of popular interests. And second, the previous stories occurred over a period of time, usually days or weeks. In this story, the time between the murder and its solution is barely 48 hours; two-thirds of the book happen in the 14 hours after the murder.

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.” 

S.S. Van Dine
movie version of the novel was released in 1936, starring Wilfried Hyde-White as Philo Vance. Three of the previous movies had starred William Powell, who had changed studios and wasn’t available. Interestingly enough, the previous films were by an American production company; this one was made by a British film studio. And the story is set in England, not New York City.

Perhaps because Philo Vance plays a direct and confrontational role, The Scarab Murder Case is not quite as satisfying as the four previous novels. It has many of the Van Dine trademarks – the New York City setting, the very human passions lying beneath the facts of the story, and the emphasis of criminal psychology. But it seems almost hurriedly written, as if a deadline was looming, and many of the previous books’ subtleties are missing. It’s still a fun mystery to read, but it’s not as entertaining as its predecessors.


Top photograph: a press sheet and ad-sales catalogue entry for the 1936 movie.

No comments: