338. The Benson Murder Case

I just read The Benson Murder Case for the second time. It was an accident. All of the Philo Vance mysteries are titled The (whatever) Murder Case, and they are mostly indistinguishable on the library shelf. I didn’t recognize Benson as one I had already read.

The setting is New York City in the twenties, among the upper class and the demi-monde. Since I’m an ex-Okie farm boy, these people would look down on me as white trash. That places the novel somewhat outside my comfort zone, but it also gives a kind of anthropological interest to the proceedings.

Anyway, there aren’t that many non-bloody and non-cozy mysteries to choose from, and Philo Vance is good fun.

The author is Willard Huntington Wright. The putative author is S. S. Van Dine, who also appears in the novel as the narrator. We are told that Philo Vance, the main character, is a pseudonym for a famous real person who will never be named, so we start out with layers of misdirection. I like that touch. It is as if Conan Doyle had used John Watson, M.D. as a pseudonym. We already know that Holmes was real; just ask any genuine fan.

Vance is an aesthete, immaculate in dress, loquacious, self-centered, quite convinced of his own superiority, and independently wealthy. If an actor were to play him on television today, enunciating all the words that Wright put into his mouth, he would be seen as gay as hell.

I need to explain that. In a sex-ed class I was teaching, during a question and answer period, a student asked me if I had any gay friends. It was a teachable moment. I said, “I don’t know,” then pointed out that a gay person could pass for straight, and a straight person could pass for gay, if either wanted to. We control how we present ourselves. It is a form of communication.

That exchange took place back in the era of Will and Grace, when LGBT portrayals were rare and relatively unsophisticated, but even then the behaviors we associate with gayness were mostly learned from television.

So I repeat, if Vance were portrayed today as he appears in the books, he would not look straight. That’s probably our prejudice. I see no evidence that he was perceived that way in the twenties when the novels were published, except, perhaps, when the villain at the climax calls him “you damned sissy.”

I don’t really care if the author was presenting Vance as gay, or just snooty with a British education, but it does cause a bit of disconnect. Like reading a book in translation, the sub-text can get a bit muddied. This is especially true since this first novel is less about solving a crime than it is about the friendship between Vance, the layabout, and Markham, the hard working District Attorney.

Alvin Benson is shot. Vance tags along with his friend Markham to the scene of the crime, and Van Dine, Vance’s shadow, tags along as well to narrate the story. Vance instantly knows who did the deed, working from his understanding of psychology. Markham is confused by clues. For the next 348 pages, Markham suspects a half dozen people, and Vance follows along showing him the error of his ways, finally leading him to find the murderer.

It sound dumb in précis, but it works. Even the first time I read the story, when I was distracted by Vance’s irritating personality, it worked. The second time through the book, I realized that the real story, hidden behind the unfolding of the mystery, was Vance at work keeping his good friend from making a fool of himself, or worse, enduring the guilt of sending an innocent person to execution.

C. J. Verburg, in a one star Goodreads review, calls Vance a more smug and racist version of Lord Peter Wimsey. She really doesn’t like him, and I can’t say I blame her. She probably speaks for the typical modern reader.

Those who do like him, like him a lot. I’m rather in that camp — I think. Most Goodreads reviews are stellar or stinking, with very few in the middle.

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