Friday, December 11, 2015

S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case

The Kennel Murder Case was the sixth of S. S. Van Dine’s twelve Philo Vance mystery novels. It appeared in 1933. Opinions have always been divided on the merits of the Philo Vance detective novels. Personally I am very much a Philo Vance fan.

Van Dine was very much a devotee of the complex puzzle plot and The Kennel Murder Case certainly has some extraordinarily baroque plot twists.

The book opens with a collector of Chinese ceramics found dead in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside. Superficially it appears to be suicide but Vance blows that theory out of the water very quickly (and very neatly). It is clearly murder. At this point the reader may well be expecting this to be a classic locked-room mystery. This is an entirely erroneous assumption. There is indeed a locked-room mystery here but it is merely one element in a much more complex plot. In fact the mystery of the locked room is the least puzzling aspect of the case and one which Vance disposes of almost as an afterthought.

The biggest puzzle is that the body was found in the bedroom when clearly it should have been found in the library. All the evidence points to the murder having been committed in the library and there is simply no way the body could have ended up in the bedroom. The snag is that the bedroom was where the body was in fact found.

This is in fact much more of an impossible crime story than a locked-room mystery and it’s a very clever variation on the impossible crime idea.

Almost as puzzling as the whereabouts of the body is the discovery of a badly injured Scotch Terrier in the house. The presence of a dog in a household comprised entirely of people who dislike dogs is certainly odd, and even odder is the fact that someone apparently attempted to murder the wee beastie. No-one can see how the presence of the dog could possibly be significant. No-one, that is, apart from Vance. He is convinced the dog is a vital clue, and fortunately he happens to know a very great deal about Scotch Terriers. He knows almost as much about this breed of dog as he knows about Chinese ceramics, and his knowledge on that subject is positively encyclopaedic.

I am always delighted by golden age detective stories that include floor plans so you can imagine my joy when I discovered that this novels includes two floor plans, a map and a diagram of an ingenious criminal device!

Whether you enjoy the Philo Vance books depends to an extremely large extent on how you respond to Vance himself. He is either, depending on your tastes, exasperatingly pompous and affected or delightfully erudite and witty. I think he’s a wonderful character but this is a case where your mileage may vary very considerably.

Van Dine’s books sold in immense quantity during the late 20s and early 30s but by the time of his death in 1939 his popularity was starting to decline and after his death he fell from critical favour in a spectacular fashion (although critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of the genre Bloody Murder had very high praise for the first six Vance mysteries). Van Dine’s eclipse has never been satisfactorily explained. It may have been a change in public tastes or it may simply have been due to his early death. Of course it might also have something to do with the fact that for some reason critics who disapproved of puzzle-plot mysteries seemed to take a particularly violent dislike to Van Dine’s books and to his detective hero (with Symons being an honourable exception to this rule).

The Kennel Murder Case does incorporate a certain plot device that might disturb readers who like detective stories to adhere very strictly to the rules (the rules as laid down by Van Dine himself). This element does not disqualify the novel as a fair-play mystery but it might be seen as sailing a little close to the wind. 

The Kennel Murder Case is typical of Van Dine in his prime - it features a truly byzantine plot with some characteristically outrageous twists and it gives Vance the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of everything from Chinese ceramics to small dogs. It’s all great fun. Highly recommended.

9 comments:

  1. This has been the only Vance mystery, so far, I actually loved and wish I had read it as my introduction to the series instead of the first three trio of books.

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    1. The earliest Vance mysteries seem to be the most highly thought of. I personally prefer the mid-period books but they're too outrageously over-the-top for many readers.

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  2. Thanks for this review. My only experience with Van Dine was the Greene Murder Case and I was not thrilled. But I think I will try this one to see if I like it better. I do appreciate your comments on how differently readers react to the Philo Vance character, and I think it will help that I know what to expect the next time I read one of these books.

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    1. My favourite Van Dine is The Scarab Murder Case but I seem to be the only one who loves that book!

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  3. I'm always fascinated by the nose-dive that Van Dine's popularity took, especially given how well the reputations of so mnay of his contemporaries fared. This is a great example of so much he did so well - though maybe that's part of the problem, because if you ask someone to recommend a Van Dine book they inevitably say The Kennel Murder Case (which, when compared to Queen, to Carr, to Christie, to Stout, to Crispin...).

    I haven't read him for a little while, and will use this as a nudge to pick up a Philo Vance book before too long. Much appreciated!

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    1. I'm always fascinated by the nose-dive that Van Dine's popularity took, especially given how well the reputations of so many of his contemporaries fared.

      I sometimes suspect that his contemporaries have had more lasting reputations simply because they lived longer and ended up with a much bigger (and more varied) body of work. The early Ellery Queen books are very much in the Van Dine mould but their style evolved in their later work.

      The one that really puzzles me is Rufus King - he was terrific but he's even more thoroughly forgotten than Van Dine.

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  4. "The Kennel Murder Case" is arguably the best of the Philo Vance mysteries. It was made into an excellent movie in 1933 with William Powell as Vance. As for Van Dine's fall from grace, Vance is the least likable detective in all of fiction. As the old rhyme goes: "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pants".

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    1. I agree the movie adaptation was terrific. I just can't imagine anyone else as Vance.

      The least likable detective in all of fiction? Actually I like Vance but that might be a good topic for discussion. My pick for least likable fictional detective would be Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley. Anyone want to defend Mrs Bradley? I know she has her fans.

      It's interesting the way some detectives really rub some readers up the wrong way - Julian Symons' spectacularly negative reaction to Lord Peter Wimsey is a case in point.

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    2. There are also people who really dislike the early 1930s incarnation of Ellery Queen. I find him to be quite amusing and endearing.

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