I love Philo Vance and have read all these mysteries, some of them three times. I still remember how happy I was when THE CASINO MURDER CASE, the last mystery I hadn't found, turned up in paperback briefly, and I bought it. I love that the mysteries are always a murder case with a six-letter name, like GARDEN, or BISHOP or GREENE. (The author had to change the pattern for GRACIE ALLEN, complete with movie tie-in, but he went right back to it.)
Having established that, I must add that they are downright laughably terrible. Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote them under the pen-name S. S. Van Dine, was a good scholar of the Nietzschean school who had written one modestly successful novel. He had a breakdown and was advised to read nothing but mysteries and equally light books for a year. When the year was up he wrote three mysteries of his own and had such amazing success that he spent the rest of his life continuing the series.
He has a pompous, clumsy, overelaborate style which impressed readers of the time. There were even footnotes! The readers thought they were getting an education by reading Vance mysteries. And some of them admired Vance himself, who has a fake British accent (he was a Rhodes scholar), is immensely wealthy, and looks down on everybody in the world. He lounges around collecting expensive art works at auctions; his books are narrated by his legal advisor, who doubles as a Watson, though he has no character whatever and barely even runs errands: he's just there so that the books can be written in the first person. I can't imagine a modern reader doing anything but laugh at Vance's absurd snobbery.
Julian Symonds says the books are excellently constructed, and they do go by very fast. But Symonds also speaks of Vance's "dotty logic," and he is sure right about that. The two top mysteries, GREENE and BISHOP, are solved in the following ways: In GREENE, Vance waits around till almost everybody in an eight-person family has been murdered. He picks the least likely of the two suspects who are still alive! In BISHOP, he has a long speech, not quite Ayn Rand-length, but five or ten pages, explaining how having a certain job just naturally makes everyone who has that job likely to commit murder. And that's how he solved the case: he observed what job the murderer had. If I could give away the solution, it would sound even more ridiculous than that.
Still, at the very same time, Wright invented the "pattern" detective story. The killer in BISHOP kills people in accordance with nursery rhymes. This "pattern of the insane killer" business has gone on from Vance's day to this, and he's no worse than anyone else who fools with it.
And somehow, to crazy people like me, all this is an amazing amount of fun.
The first six books are better than the last six. By the last six, Wright had ordered his butler to bring him a drink every half-hour on the half-hour, and was writing articles about how he got trapped into doing nothing but find cases for Vance to solve. The cases are so silly that it's best, I find, just to go with the flow and laugh (or cry) at the silliness page by page; there's no escaping it. It is perfectly possible to hate Philo Vance, and that can be fun too.
P. S. The formatting errors other reviewers complain of -- question marks in boxes -- do not appear in my Kindle version, downloaded to my Kindle 1 on June 18, 2010. I notice one reviewer says they appear on every other page and another says they appear here and there. Someone seems to have gotten rid of them.
P. P. S. Just reread THE SCARAB MURDER CASE yesterday, in the Kindle edition. Only one or two typos.
Vance arrives with the District Attorney and the police at a house where a man has been murdered. There's a lot of evidence against one suspect, but Vance says there's too much evidence: it looks like a frame-up. So the DA doesn't arrest the prime suspect. We are now two hours into the case (the author gives dates and times at the head of each chapter). Everybody panics! Two hours into the case and no one is arrested yet.
Now, if the prime suspect didn't do it, there are about four other suspects. Each of them, arguably, had some sort of motive. Everybody panics! The case is incredibly complex! There are too many threads to follow! It may be another four or five hours before they can arrest someone!
Vance doesn't remain cool either, but that's not because no one is arrested yet, or because after six hours there is still more than one suspect. Vance knows who did it. He's just afraid he won't be able to stop that person's sinister plot. If he tells who did it (it's okay to tell that he KNOWS who did it, and he does tell that) he would only further the sinister plot. So we just have to take the risk that someone else will get killed.
And so it goes. Brilliant and laughable, all at the same time. And if you ask me where the brilliance is -- I won't be able to tell you for another six hours.