American art critic Willard Huntington Wright, under the pseudonym of Dine when he wrote detective novels, was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-WWI New York, and under the pseudonym (which he originally used to conceal his identity) he created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, a sleuth and aesthete who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio.
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Warning--although the murderer is not identified by name in this review it does spoil aspects of the book.My short review of this book:By this point in the Philo Vance series S. S. Van Dine¿s writing and plotting has degenerated in something that resembles self-caricature. The ¿subtle¿ ¿diabolical¿ and ¿ingenious¿ murder plot is laughably and unnecessarily convoluted. Vance is allowed free rein at the crime scene and with suspects in a way that would make any defense lawyer ecstatic. Members of the police force do little other than appeal to Vance for direction and he searches crime scenes, pockets evidence and interrogates witnesses without legal or police officials present. The person who any competent police officer would have suspected as having done the crime did indeed commit it. Vance¿s supposed insights and knowledge never advance to two simple questions: who had the opportunity to commit the crime and who would benefit from it. The rawest of police officers would have cut through the nonsense in the first 24 hours and actually been able to arrest the culprit. Since Vance spent most of the book interfering with any credible evidentiary chain of custody the only way to ¿catch¿ the criminal was to have him explain ¿what and why¿ like a bad Bond villain and even then Vance had to arrange that someone else could justifiably shoot the murderer to be sure he didn¿t get away with it. Indeed, given the way in which Vance described his preparations for that last showdown I wonder if Vance himself could have been charged with reckless endangerment.A longer review:I know that one is supposed to suspend disbelief when reading books such as these but Vance¿s behaviour at crime scenes is beyond ignoring. Yes, he often arrives at the scene of the crime with the DA; yes, the books are set long before the birth of modern forensic science; yet I still find it beyond belief that the police would not complain at Vance (with his writer friend) searching a crime victim¿s rooms without any form of supervision and pocketing potential evidence to later present to the police. Again, I am aware that the modern concept of `chain of evidence¿ was not yet fully developed when this book was written however I still believe that any competent defense attorney (and since the characters in these books are almost all from wealth or society they will have legal representation) would tear apart any case based on evidence supposed found by a `friend¿ of the DA.Neither do I find the portrait of Vance as a super detective to be convincing. Vance appears to be more competent than the police because generally the police either do nothing or behave in patently incompetent ways. For example, the police are called to the house of woman who may have been murdered or may have committed suicide. The suicide note was typewritten. The police do not get a typing sample from the machine in the house let alone secure the machine. Matters of police routine are routinely not carried out and thus obvious clues and pieces of evidence lie waiting for Vance to find them hours, and sometimes days, after the initial discovery of the crime.As often happens in the Vance series, Van Dine begins by ¿instructing¿ the reader how she/he is to understand the nature of the story they are about to read. This case, the reader is told, ¿was probably the subtlest and most diabolical criminal problem of his career.¿ This cues the reader to interpret the inability of the police and Vance to immediately solve the crime as evidence of the ingenious nature of the murderer rather than incompetence of the investigators. Without those instructions what the reader might note is that Vance is not particularly good at his job and it is no surprise that the DA, who used his power to interject Vance into police investigations, served only one term in office.