Monday, June 8, 2020

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

Of the 12 Philo Vance mysteries by S.S. Van Dine, only two weren’t made into movies. Several actors played the detective in the various films, including William Powell (also known for The Thin Man movies with Myrna Loy), Basil RathbonePaul LukasWarren WilliamEdmund Lowe, and Grant Richards. Powell played in four, the most of any in the group. 

The novels were suited for adaptation to the big screen. They often read like expanded movie scripts. Settings were almost all interiors, making them easy to recreate in studio stages. Of the 10 adaptations, only one – “The Scarab Murder Case” – hasn’t survived. In the early 1930s, Warner Brothers hired Van Dine to write a series of scenarios for 12, two-reel films, each about 20 minutes. Released in 1931 and 1932, they featured Dr. Crabtree and Inspector Carr as investigating detectives. The films have all survived, but the scenarios written by Van Dine have not.

The Kidnap Murder Case is one of the two Philo Vance stories not filmed (the other is The Winter Murder Case, Van Dine’s last work). First published in 1936, it is built upon the kidnapping cases that were, unfortunately, common and sensationalized in the 1920s and 1930s (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping being the most famous). 

Kaspar Keating is something of a playboy and gambler, and he’s apparently kidnapped from his home in Manhattan. But the kidnapping features some odd clues, as Philo Vance soon ferrets out. His pajamas and toothbrush are also missing. A ladder is found leaning against the second story window of Keating’s bedroom, but little weight has been placed on it, judging by the ground indentations. Keating’s wife Madelaine heard someone moving around the room and called out, but there had been no answer. And Keating was desperate to raise money for a gambling debt.

The household is filled with odd characters as well. Madelaine’s mother and brother live on the third floor, and neither liked the missing Keating. The butler seems shifty; with a name like “Weem,” he’s something straight out of Dickens. Keating’s brother Kenyon lives not far away, and he controls the family purse strings. He’s also in love with his brother’s wife. A plan to catch the kidnappers is foiled with Madelaine’s mother attempts to retrieve the money in Central Park, and then Madelaine herself is kidnapped.

S.S. Van Dine in his later years
The story ranges far afield from the Keating brownstone, and that may be one reason why it didn’t lend itself as readily to a film adaptation. But it has all the classic Philo Vance attributes – the New York City setting, a psychological approach to finding the criminal, Vance confounding and surpassing the investigating policemen, and the detective’s rather famous nonchalance and projection of boredom. 

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 Kidnap Murder Case is one of the few in which the villain becomes apparent sooner than Van Dine likely intended. But it is a fascinating story nonetheless, including scenes of gun violence and one in which Philo Vance and the narrator Van come very close to being killed.


Top photograph: S.S. Van Dine and William Powell on the set of one of the early Philo Vance films.

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