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The Benson Murder Case: Philo Vance #1 by S.…
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The Benson Murder Case: Philo Vance #1 (original 1926; edition 2018)

by S. S. Van Dine (Author)

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209882,188 (3.2)36
Member:ladycato
Title:The Benson Murder Case: Philo Vance #1
Authors:S. S. Van Dine (Author)
Info:Felony & Mayhem Press (2018), Edition: Reprint, 292 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:read in 2019, murder, research, classic

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The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (1926)

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
I read an annotated version of this book within the massive tome Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s.

I must say, the first chapter of this book convinced me that it was going to be absolutely dreadful. It probably didn't help that preceding information in the book had pointed out that the Philo Vance series eventually withered and died because the insufferable, rambling nature of the lead character became too aggravating to bear. But once I made it past that initial introductory chapter and to the actual murder, the story was much more engaging.

The positives: It's a good murder mystery. The set-up is complex and intriguing, and it nicely utilizes New York City. Alvin Benson is found dead, shot in the head, and the clues in his house are myriad, from the handbag and gloves left on the mantle to the car parked out front during the night. The district attorney invites his friend Philo Vance to see the crime, and on a whim, the insufferable art collector digs into the mystery, and digs in deep. The way Philo Vance psychologically examines people is fascinating. I liked that I guessed the murderer quite early on.

The negatives: Philo Vance. He's aggravating. He boasts throughout that he's known who the murderer is from the time he first viewed the corpse at the crime scene, but he strings along his DA friend for days, relentlessly teasing him and shredding apart his reliance on circumstantial evidence. While the latter is necessary (the DA was ready to convict several people on tenuous evidence), the whole know-it-all aspect gets old really fast.

The choice of narrator felt utterly useless, too. Another of Vance's friends is the observer of everything, and he contributes nothing to the story. He's no Watson, there to offer occasional advice or act as a foil or do medical examinations. No, this guy is just there, a shadow. I can't even remember his name; it only came up at the very beginning, I think.

The annotations probably helped my reading experience a lot, too, providing translations or context for the French and Latin Vance often employs, explaining Vance's commentary on art, and noting what NYC locations were real and fictional. Interestingly, the author muddled a lot of period details himself. By the calendar within the book, the murder should be set in 1918, but various details on geographical locations or police technology didn't exist until the early 1920s. Writers these days can check those kinds of things through Google...

I wouldn't read onward in this series, I think, because the very idea of Philo Vance becoming even more annoying is a big turn off. That said, this book offered me a tremendous boon in terms of research, with fantastic period details and cultural references. ( )
  ladycato | Jan 13, 2019 |
The first of the Philo Vance mystery novels. Vance assists D.A. John F.-X. Markham and the NYPD in investigating the shooting death of crooked Wall Street broker Alvin Benson. Whodunit? Was it the the German housekeeper? The stage personality Benson was paying unwanted attention to? The fiance of that personality? The rascally Long Island type? The brother of the dead man? Vance brags that he's solved the murder within a few minutes after seeing the body, but he hides the ball from Markham, the police, and not incidentally us, for most of the novel. The hiding of the ball is a bit annoying, even if the solution is logical. The real value here is the air that van Dine shows us, the New York of the Jazz Age. (The novel is obviously set after the Armistice and the advent of Prohibition, and seemingly before 1926, when the novel came out.) A drag on the novel is Vance's long theorizing and philosophizing. One could be forgiven if someone had done a more violent version of the suggestion by Ogden Nash: "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance." My 1926 edition from Grosset & Dunlap has a howler in the ads in the back -- they refer to the "Percy" Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. ( )
  EricCostello | Jan 1, 2019 |
Sherlock Holmes want-to-be Lots of untranslated foreign language ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
Yes, as I had read, Philo Vance is annoying. He is also long-winded and loves to draw things out as much as possible. But all great literary crime solvers must have some sort of quirk, and that is his. It doesn't make him lovable, or even likable, but if the story is good enough, the reader comes to accept it. The author's interjections of all sorts of mannerisms into Vance's speech don't help matters either, although at times Vance can put together two or three sentences in a row without them. Again, if the story is good enough, the reader can put up with it.

So, is the story good enough? I have to say, "Yes." An unlikable man has been murdered and Vance, using mostly psychology, avoids leaping to the conclusions the district attorney and police have leaped to. As the book unfolds, we see how Vance was right and they were wrong. It takes a bit TOO long to unfold, in my opinion, but the author fills the book with a rather interesting set of characters to keep things lively. Most of them act as red herrings in the mystery at hand, but still give the author a chance to demonstrate Vance's skill at questioning people in a disarming manner that gets to the truth. Meanwhile, the district attorney, sits and watches in envy and admiration. Also sitting and watching is the narrator of the book, and old friend of Vance's, who other than as a narrator is a complete nonentity. I don't think he has a single line to speak during the investigation! The book would have been stronger had he been more Watson-like. But perhaps Vance's ego wouldn't have put up with a Watson lurking around to grab even 1% of the credit.

In the end, the mystery is neatly tied up, and the clues were there all along if we, the reader, could have been as observant (and used as much common sense) as Vance. This was the first book in the series, and the first one I have read. It is hardly a classic, but it was still an enjoyable read. I wonder if the series gets better from here. If it does, I'll be back. ( )
  datrappert | Jan 25, 2014 |
My favorite of the series. The mystery was tricky, and I enjoyed the interaction of Vance, the D.A., and the police. The setting was also interesting: I was amused by parallels between the 1920's stockbroker activities and modern finance.
  biscuits | May 21, 2011 |
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It happened that, on the morning of the momentous June the fourteenth when the discovery of the murdered body of Alvin H. Benson created a sensation which, to this day, has not entirely died away, I had breakfasted with Philo Vance in his apartment.
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