The Benson Murder Case.

My ranking of the top 50 prospects in this year’s draft class went up on Friday for Insiders; I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the excellent baseball-themed deckbuilder Baseball Highlights: 2045.

I don’t know how or when I came across Philo Vance, the crime-solver at the heart of a dozen mysteries written by art critic Willard Huntington Wright under the psuedonym S.S. Van Dine, although I suspect it came about when I was researching J.K. Rowling’s favorite detective novels as she did press around the releases of her two Cormoran Strike books. I grabbed the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case, because it’s just $1.99 for the Kindle (and for iBooks too), and at that price it seemed a sure bet to be, as Paddington might put it, very good value. I knocked it out on the flight from Philly to Orlando last month because Van Dine managed to create a ripping dialogue-heavy format, where the brilliant Vance solves the crime in the first chapter via abductive reasoning but waits for the investigating officer to come to the truth via standard deduction (and a lot of dead ends). Vance is maddening in his arrogance and clipped speech, but also very witty and well-suited to a format where the reader is also encouraged in a sense to play along with the lead officer to try to solve the crime.

The Benson Murder Case appears to be very similar to the famous locked-door mysteries of classic fiction; the victim of the book’s title is found shot in his favorite chair, apparently by someone he knew, with no signs of forced entry or any struggle and no direct evidence that anyone else was even in the room. Many people had good, obvious reasons to want him dead, and the lack of evidence pointing to one person being on site effectively opens up the possibility that any of the suspects were there. Vance takes one look at the scene, asks a few questions that don’t even seem to be germane to the crime, and announces shortly thereafter that he’s solved the case – but won’t tell the officer investigating it, stating (correctly, I’d argue) that the detective has to come to the solution himself to believe it, given how much Vance’s own answer relies on logic and how little it depends on physical evidence (which he openly disdains).

Vance’s diction reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonair star of eleven novels and a handful of short stories by Dorothy Sayers; Wimsey engages in more direct investigation, but his own peculiar manner of speech contradicts his high birth and education at Eton and Oxford. Wismey’s speech patterns and pronunciation made reading his dialogue unnecessarily difficult, whereas Vance’s is subtle enough that it was more mild annoyance than out-and-out distraction. That allowed me to focus more on trying to backtrace Vance’s thinking, while avoiding straying too far down the path of the obvious (where Van Dine is only too happy to lead you). So while I never went back for more of Sayers’ work (perhaps unfairly so) after reading her first novel, I’ll keep rolling with Vance, especially since the next two novels are available for Kindle at the same price.

I also read Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum recently, a dreadful account of war in China across three generations, told with horrifying detail of the violence perpetrating by the Japanese invaders on Chinese civilians and soldiers, and by Chinese fighters on each other during the same period. One scene depicts the flaying of a Chinese fighter in eerily similar fashion to the flaying scene in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Murakami’s works have a breadth of tone and emotion that Red Sorghum lacks. The horrors of war are real, but that doesn’t mean they make for fun reading.

Next up: I’ll review David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in the next few days, and have just started Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.


  1. Here’s the thing: the Lord Peter Wimsey novels get better as the series progresses. The Philo Vance novels get worse as the series progresses.

    Also, SS Van Dine had some strong ideas about how mysteries were _only_ supposed to be puzzles and that things like characterization had no place there. It’s hard not to conclude that he was actively preventing himself from doing good work. Meanwhile, there’s hardly a mystery writer from that era who spent more time on characterization than Dorothy L Sayers. Posterity has definitely taken Sayers’s side over Van Dine’s, and I do too.

    • To be clear, I’m really comparing this one book to Whose Body?, not truly comparing the two authors or series.

  2. Fair enough. And I did like _The Benson Murder Case_. Also _…Canary…_ and _…Kennel…_. Vance is fun to follow around and they mysteries are crisp. But the law of diminishing returns sets in after that; just wanted to warn you. I myself have probably followed the series a couple of books past where I should have.