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.