Friday, April 17, 2015

Paging Philo Vance

This will be another rather fluffy post to relieve the dreariness of these times, or at least the dreariness of my mind.

As some few of us may recall, Philo Vance was a fictional detective, of a sort, created by Willard Huntington Wright and featured in a series of quite popular books by that author under the pen name S.S. Van Dine.  They were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, though, and so may be forgotten now by most.  They were the subject, at least nominally, of popular films and a radio series.  I've listened to some of the radio broadcasts, and would think that Vance as portrayed in them would be hardly recognizable to readers of the books.

Vance was an odd sort of detective.  He wore a monocle (some stills of the movies show him with a monocle, so perhaps the films are more accurate).  Independently wealthy, educated in Europe, possessing an Oxford accent (he even uses "old boy"), knowledgeable about most everything, expert in most everything, an artiste, a gourmet, a dog show enthusiast; effete, cynical, pretentious, a fop, dandy and a dilettante according to critics.  Ogden Nash was moved to say that Vance needed a kick in the pants.  Writers of the hard-boiled detective fiction who succeeded him, like Raymond Chandler, thought him a contemptible character.  But even so, he displayed on a few occasions a knowledge of martial arts, something which would have been rare at the time, which allowed him to subdue those who underestimated his physical prowess.

The Vance of the radio broadcasts has none of the foregoing characteristics, and in the last episode I heard was beating a suspected killer to make him talk. 

His creator was an unusual fellow himself.  He was an art critic and friend, perhaps even a protégé, of H.L. Mencken, author of books on Nietzsche and art, a proponent of unusual, "modern" writers of the time and of fiction then considered sexually explicit (which got him fired from the magazine The Smart Set).  He also wrote a very odd book I'm currently reading in which he rants against the Encyclopedia Britannica, entitled Misinforming a Nation.  He was infuriated by the editors and writers involved in that encyclopedia, and what he considered to be their irrational and unfair prejudice in favor of English authors and artists they considered representative of the morals of the English middle class.

He was also incensed by the fact the encyclopedia sold so well in the United States although to him it denigrated American and neglected American writers and artists.  It's an interesting if sometimes peculiar read, full of references to authors I've never heard of in addition to those I have read, and if the descriptions of entries in the encyclopedia are accurate it was indeed prejudiced, but I find it odd that someone published a book saying so.

I read these books while a teenager, and was impressed by them.  Now, I'm not so much impressed as amused, entertained.  While in some respects the continuing characters are stock, and duly stupid in the manner Watson is to highlight the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes, Vance and some of the villains are interesting in a weird way, and some of the plots, though contrived, are interesting, and involve such things as classical music and one in particular somehow combines chess, nursery rhymes and the higher mathematics and theoretical physics into motives for murders.

A perpetually perplexed District Attorney who has long been a friend of Vance comes to him with murders and they are presently solved by Vance, who determines the killer primarily by consideration of psychological factors.  Investigations are interrupted by afternoon teas, attendance at concerts, perusal of displays of art, and lunches, dinners and sometimes even breakfasts made up of delectables lovingly described.

It seems to me that some clever person should resurrect Vance as a detective for the times.  Surely we're all weary unto death of the various Law & Order and NCIS spin offs and their copy cats.  The British "mystery" series which we see now and then on PBS are interesting, but we see them only when the local PBS channel is not otherwise involved in soliciting money or broadcasting episodes of such as This Old House.  There are also the Sherlock Holmes derivatives, one of which features Holmes as a smirking know-it-all accompanied by a female Watson, the other of which is much better but still involves the fantasy of Holmes living and investigating in our time, and so necessarily anachronistic.

The TV or movie Vance of today should, I think, remain in his own time.  His rather androgynous character and ambiguous sexuality would have broad appeal in a time where sexuality is of such importance; one can think of him as most anything one cares to, in that respect.  Psychology being something we've all been taught to "practice" in one way or another, his criminal theories would be entertaining.  His erudition would be enlightening, and his stories a welcome relief from the bang-bang, kiss-kiss that characterizes so much of our visual media.  It's true that all the characters in the Vance stories are white, though there are a few Chinese now and then in one or two books, and I suppose that would create some problems, but it would, after all, be a period piece.

If some clever media type really does take this idea and run with it, though, I would hope that at the least some credit for the idea be given to me, Ciceronianus the lawyer and sometimes whimsical blogger.

No comments:

Post a Comment