S.S. Van Dine’s first installment of the Philo Vance novels, The Benson Murder Case is a slow read. Written in 1926, The Philo Vance novels ushered in the golden age of detective fiction and remained popular until cozies such as these were replaced by hard-boiled novels with more violent and action-packed storylines. Unfortunately, it does not hold up against contemporary detective novels as Agatha Christie’s masterpieces do. Check out the other Philo Vance novels here.
While the novel itself does not stand the test of time, S.S Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories and The World’s Greatest Detective Stories are still relevant today and continue to be used by contemporary writers and students in high school and college.
The book begins with the locked-room murder of Alvin Benson, who is shot in the head. Vance, the amatuer detective, is called onto the scene by the district attorney, John Markham, and spends the rest of the novel investigating the five plausible suspects. What makes this novel unique is that Vance makes a convincing case for each of the five suspects, explaining their motive and how they could have killed Benson. Each explanation seems viable, and I genuinely believed each explanation, only to have Vance disprove his own explanation and go on to the next suspect. S.S. Van Dine’s ability to make a convincing case for not one, but five suspects, is impressive. Additionally, the book includes several sketches of layouts of rooms that are important to the story. This helps the reader to picture what the narrator is explaining and what the characters are seeing.
A third redeeming factor of The Benson Murder Case is the peculiar narration. Narrated by Vance’s nameless sidekick, who is never spoken to directly by anyone other than Vance, makes it possible for the reader to put themselves in the narrator’s place. All we truly know is that he is a man. In the beginning of the novel, the narrator spends several pages singing Vance’s praises, leading the reader to wonder if he is more than Vance’s sidekick, perhaps there is a romantic partnership between the two. Vance is described as:
“[…] unusually good looking, although his mouth was ascetic and cruel, like the mouths on some of the Medici portraits; moreover, there was a slightly derisive hauteur in the lift of his eyebrows. Despite the aquiline severity of his lineaments, his face was highly sensitive. His forehead was full and sloping- it was the artist’s, rather than the scholar’s, brow. […] Vance was slightly under six feet, graceful, and giving the impression of sinewy strength and nervous endurance.” (pages 15-16)
The Benson Murder Case was made into a movie in 1930, as the Philo Vance detective novels were reaching incredible popularity. Here you can read a New York Times review of the movie and here or below you can watch the film on Youtube. Just as the book does, the film also focuses on psychology instead of material clues like fingerprints. Vance is also portrayed as believing he is smarter than everyone else in the room, and he probably is.
A major overarching theme in this novel is wealth. Several of the suspects are poor and could have killed Benson to inherit money. Others are wealthy and do not want to lose any more of their money to Benson, as he is a known blackmailer. Money- those that don’t have it, want it; and those that do have it, want more of it.
Out of five stars, I would give it two, as it tricks the reader but in a frustrating and nonproductive way. In short, this book is a good read if you like old-fashioned cozies. However, I would recommend picking up an Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle instead.
Hall, Mordaunt. “The Screen; A Flippant Philanderer.” The New York Times. 12 April 1930, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review? res=9E0CE1DC1F39E03ABC4A52DFB 26683 8B629EDE. Accessed 22 Nov 2017.
“Philo Vance.” World’s Best Detective Crime and Murder Mystery Books, https://www .world s-best-detective-crime-and-murder-mystery-books.com/philo-vance.html. Accessed 26 Sept 2017.
“Philo Vance Series (12 Books).” Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/series / 6 5939- philo-vance. Accessed 26 Sept 2017.
“Philo Vance: The Benson Murder Case (1930).” Youtube, Uploaded by tolvis77, 26 Mar 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7f5VJGBNWI&feature=youtu.be.
Van Dine, S.S. (1926). The Benson Murder Case, A Philo Vance Mystery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.