Created by S.S. Van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright; 1888-1939)
-- Ogden Nash
Yes, yes, yes. As several people have pointed out to me over the years, PHILO VANCE was a private eye, and it would be unfair for me to exclude him from this site.
Granted, Vance was about as far from the commonly accepted vision of the private eye as you can get -- he was an urbane, sophisticated and debonair member of New York's upper crust totally lacking in the common touch. Hell, he even sported a monocle. And get this straight -- he wasn't being played for laughs.
We were meant to take this pretentious upper class doofus -- and the dry, humourless books he appeared in -- seriously. But I guess he was taken seriously -- for years he was America's most popular homegrown detective for years, inspiring games and toys and films and radio and television series and even a daily newspaper comic strip.
He remains one of the most pivotal of fictional detectives, culturally and historically significant, important in the development of the genre as a whole.
Read today, however, Vance comes off as a pompous blowhard; an inexplicably popular character with his monocle and smug sense of moral, intellectual and class superiority whose very existence may have in fact spurred the demand for a tougher, more "realistic" American kind of detective (Vance, Race Williams and the Continental Op were all contemporaries).
But it's not just me who has problems with the dude. Otto Penzler suggested in The Detectionary that the author himself was "much like Vance ... a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism."
And Chandler tagged him as "the most asinine character in detective fiction."
Still, the books kept coming, starting in 1926 with The Benson Murder Case and continuing for eleven sequels. Just three years after the first novel appeared, the second in the series, The Canary Murder Case (1927), was adapted for film, with future Thin Man star William Powell playing the monocoled one in a film that began as a silent film and switched to a talkie midway through production. Powell would go on to reprise the role several times, and other actors would play Vance over the years, including Warren William and Basil Rathbone. Paramount churned out a dozen of them between 1929 and 1939, and Warner Brothers gave it a crack with Calling Philo Vance (1940), while PRC attempted to revive the series in 1947 with three films which re-icast Vance as a hard-boiled (or at least slightly harder-boiled) boiled dick.
His creator, S.S. Van Dine, died at the age of fifty in 1939, leaving less than $15,000 in his estate.
The first Vance film, it started out as a silent film but switched to a talkie midway through production. .
A surprisingly tough little film noir; totally uncharacteristic of the rest of the series.
S.S. Van Dine shares with us mere mortals how it's done.
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