The 'Canary' Murder Case: A Philo Vance Story

by S. S. Van Dine. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1927. viii+343 pp. $2.00.
DETECTIVE stories are usually classified as an inferior branch of fiction; they do not often present characters of individuality or charm, seldom are written with distinction, and depend for their interest mainly on a situation devised to mystify the reader. Ordinarily the solution of the mystery is disappointing: when the characters are wooden or shadowy the disclosure of their ultimate responsibility and fate serves no more significant end than that of setting at rest whatever uncertainty has been flickering in the reader’s mind.
But Mr. Van Dine’s new detective story has not only an ingenious plot but also background and atmosphere and literary distinction. He transfigures drab material and gives it color, sketches character vividly and with deftness, interprets subtleties of thought, and writes with gayety and humor. The incident on which the story is based is squalid enough: the murder of a Broadway courtesan. But the processes of the investigation which follows, and in which Philo Vance, the District Attorney’s friend, is the directing spirit, are fascinating. Vance himself engages the reader’s interest — a young social aristocrat, an art collector, an amateur musician, a student of æsthetics and psychology. Reluctantly the veteran sleuths of the Homicide Bureau defer to the uncanny acuteness of this apparently foppish dilettante. His methods do not faintly resemble those of Sherlock Holmes; he finds the significant clues in psychological indications, not in material facts. By observing the manner in which the persons who are under suspicion conduct themselves in a poker game, he arrives at a conclusion which conflicts with the material evidence. The circumstances which finally establish the correctness of his inference form an extraordinarily effective climax.
There is an air of actuality, of truth to fact, in all the scenes; the various experts who figure in the investigation have the manner and vocabulary of experts; the story is well buttressed in every detail, firmly grounded on an accurate knowledge of the essential matters. The ordinary simple-minded reader of detective stories may wish that the author had n’t felt it necessary to swallow the dictionary before sitting down to write; and he will probably be bewildered by the passages that more sophisticated readers will find delightful for their flavor — such passages as the following: —
‘“You’re always in such haste,” Vance lamented. “Why leap and run? The wisdom of the world’s philosophers is against it. Festina lente, says Cæsar; or, as Rufus has it, Festinato tarda est. And the Koran says quite frankly that haste is of the Devil. Shakespeare was constantly belittling speed: ‘He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes’; and ‘Wisely, and slow; they stumble that run fast.’ Then there was Molière — remember Sganarelle? ‘Le trop de promptitude à l’erreur nous expose.’ Chaucer also held similar views. ‘He hasteth well,’ said he, ‘that wysely can abyd.’ Even God’s common people have embalmed the idea in numberless proverbs; ‘God and quickly seldom meet’; and ‘Hasty men never want woe — ’ ”
‘Markham rose with a gesture of impatience. “Hell! I’m going home before you start a bedtime story.”’
If a good bedtime story is one that frees the reader from the cares and preoccupations of the day, The ‘CanaryMurder Case certainly meets the requirements.