Monday, June 15, 2020

"The Gracie Allen Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine

People are tempted to do a lot of things when they need money. 

Mystery writer S.S. Van Dine needed money, and he cut a deal with Paramount Studios to write a parody of his own Philo Vance novels. As John Loughery writes in his Edgar Award-winning biography, Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance, Van Dine not only delivered a manuscript suitable for satire, he also agreed to allow Paramount to make any changes they wanted without his approval. 

The manuscript in question was The Gracie Allen Murder Case, using the enormously popular Gracie Allen, the zany half of the George Burns and Gracie Allen comedy duo. To the author’s credit credit, Van Dine’s novel is substantively better than the movie of the same name. The book was published in 1938; the movie was released in 1939. Paramount made big changes, including dropping George Burns altogether and giving Gracie Allen a different boyfriend. 

That said, the character of Gracie Allen is by far the best in the story. Van Dine seemingly channeled her crazy way of thinking and speaking, and he did it expertly.

In the novel, a criminal known as Benny the Buzzard has escaped from prison, and Sergeant Ernest Heath of the New York City Police warns district attorney John Markham that the man has vowed vengeance on the DA. Markham blows off the threat, but Philo Vance does not. He travels to a rural section of New York City (they still had then in the 1930s), where he thinks he might find the criminal. He doesn’t, but he meets a young perfume factory worker named Gracie Allen and charms her with an untrue story about being out in the sticks to kill a criminal (she takes him seriously).

He meets her again that evening at a restaurant known for criminal associations, and the place where the police expect Benny the Buzzard to show up. But it’s a dishwasher from the kitchen who’s found murdered in the boss’s office – and the dishwasher happens to be Gracie’s brother. For a time, suspicion focuses on her boyfriend, George Burns, who also works at the perfume factory. Gracie, kept unaware the deceased is her brother, decides to help Philo Vance and become a detective assistant. She finds useless, unrelated clues that actually help Vance solve the mystery. 

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.” 

The Gracie Allen Murder Case is interesting as an artifact of the period of the big movie studios and the Golden Age of Mystery converging at a point in time. But it’s still the weakest of the Philo Vance novels, even with the laugh-out-loud scenes involving Gracie Allen.


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