“Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ”-
“Hamlet,” William Shakespeare
Society detective Philo Vance is still best described as “puckishly pedantic” ( S. S. Van Dine’s words!) but I enjoyed book 3 in the series, “The Greene Murder Case.” Here, the endangered folk are the wealthy, entitled, vitiated members of the Greene family, (a family where legacy has turned into degeneracy.)
Initially, it appears that an intruder has broken into the Greene mansion and, during a highly unconvincing attempt to make off with the china, has tried to murder 2 of the Greene sisters. Does anyone believe in the “random outsider” theory? It is not a spoiler to say that, like in that old Carol Kane flick with the pre-caller ID babysitter, the problem is always Coming from Inside the House.
Up to this point, S. S. Van Dine, (through Vance and District Attorney Markham) has extolled a world in which wealth and witty quotes from Bartlett’s are the standard to admire. But something odd happens in “The Greene Murder Case,” and suddenly New Yorker socialites seem downright scummy:
“We’re not an ideal home circle, by any means. In fact, the Greenes are a queer collection. We don’t love one another the way a perfectly nice and proper family should. We’re always at each other’s throats, bickering and fighting about something or other. It’s rather a mess—this ménage. It’s a wonder to me murder hasn’t been done long before. And, of course, all of us are too rich to know how to contribute to society or make a decent living. A sweet paternal heritage!”
Things go the “And Then There Were None” way soon, but who could miss the Greenes? They’re assholes one and all! In contrast with this sneering look at high class, the series is ahead of its time in extolling the work of blue collar (literally?) cops. This is atypical for even the best Golden Age whodunits: cops are nameless plebeians to Christie and Sayers, but Van Dine takes time to credit all the lowly interrogators, forensics doctors, and beat cops who may serve no big intellectual role in solving the puzzle but who help gather the pieces for Vance. This is distinctively democratic for the times, interpreting police work as the result of a number of individuals and not just the work of one main officer like Superintendent Japp or Inspector Lestrade in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
P.S.: But here are some demerits. The number of woodcuts, room maps, and footnotes that S. S. Van Dine clutters his plot with may be intended to provide verisimilitude, but the passage of time has not been kind to them. Tell me if you see anything in this list of References below other than a desperate need to prove the author spent some fruitful hours in a trip to the New York Public Library.
“Among the volumes of Tobias Greene’s library I may mention the following as typical of the entire collection: Heinroth’s “De morborum animi et pathematum animi differentia,” Hoh’s “De maniæ pathologia,” P. S. Knight’s “Observations on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Derangement of the Mind,” Krafft-Ebing’s “Grundzüge der Kriminal-Psychologie,” Bailey’s “Diary of a Resurrectionist,” Lange’s “Om Arvelighedens Inflydelse i Sindssygedommene,” Leuret’s “Fragments psychologiques sur la folie,” D’Aguanno’s “Recensioni di antropologia giuridica,” Amos’s “Crime and Civilization,” Andronico’s “Studi clinici sul delitto,” Lombroso’s “Uomo Delinquente,” de Aramburu’s “La nueva ciencia penal,” Bleakley’s “Some Distinguished Victims of the Scaffold,” Arenal’s “Psychologie comparée du criminel,” Aubry’s “De l’homicide commis par la femme,” Beccaria’s “Crimes and Punishments,” Benedikt’s “Anatomical Studies upon the Brains of Criminals,” Bittinger’s “Crimes of Passion and of Reflection,” Bosselli’s “Nuovi studi sul tatuaggio nei criminali,” Favalli’s “La delinquenza in rapporto alla civiltà,” de Feyfer’s “Verhandeling over den Kindermoord,” Fuld’s “Der Realismus und das Strafrecht,” Hamilton’s “Scientific Detection of Crime,” von Holtzendorff’s “Das Irische Gefängnissystem insbesondere die Zwischenanstalten vor der Entlassung der Sträflinge,” Jardine’s “Criminal Trials,” Lacassagne’s “L’homme criminel comparé à l’homme primitif,” Llanos y Torriglia’s “Ferri y su escuela,” Owen Luke’s “History of Crime in England,” MacFarlane’s “Lives and Exploits of Banditti,” M’Levy’s “Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh,” the “Complete Newgate Calendar,” Pomeroy’s “German and French Criminal Procedure,” Rizzone’s “Delinquenza e punibilità,” Rosenblatt’s “Skizzen aus der Verbrecherwelt,” Soury’s “Le crime et les criminels,” Wey’s “Criminal Anthropology,” Amadei’s “Crani d’assassini,” Benedikt’s “Der Raubthiertypus am menschlichen Gehirne,” Fasini’s “Studi su delinquenti femmine,” Mills’s “Arrested and Aberrant Development and Gyres in the Brain of Paranoiacs and Criminals,” de Paoli’s “Quattro crani di delinquenti,” Zuckerkandl’s “Morphologie des Gesichtsschädels,” Bergonzoli’s “Sui pazzi criminali in Italia,” Brierre de Boismont’s “Rapports de la folie suicide avec la folie homicide,” Buchnet’s “The Relation of Madness to Crime,” Calucci’s “II jure penale e la freniatria,” Davey’s “Insanity and Crime,” Morel’s “Le procès Chorinski,” Parrot’s “Sur la monomanie homicide,” Savage’s “Moral Insanity,” Teed’s “On Mind, Insanity, and Criminality,” Worckmann’s “On Crime and Insanity,” Vaucher’s “Système préventif des délits et des crimes,” Thacker’s “Psychology of Vice and Crime,” Tarde’s “La Criminalité Comparée,” Tamassia’s “Gli ultimi studi sulla criminalità,” Sikes’s “Studies of Assassination,” Senior’s “Remarkable Crimes and Trials in Germany,” Savarini’s “Vexata Quæstio,” Sampson’s “Rationale of Crime,” Noellner’s “Kriminal-psychologische Denkwürdigkeiten,” Sighele’s “La foule criminelle,” and Korsakoff’s “Kurs psichiatrii.”