The Green Murder (?) Case

By Phil Dematteis

(As presented at a recent meeting of The Hansom Wheels in Columbia, SC, a scion society of The Baker Street Irregulars)


A couple of preliminary matters. First, there are several related words I’ll be using, and you may be distracted because you think I’m pronouncing them wrong. The words have to do with a method of strangulation that usually involves putting a wire or a rope around someone’s neck from behind and pulling on it. Now, the dictionary gives three acceptable pronunciations, in this order of preference: gah-ROTE, gah-RAHT, and GARE-ut. That’s for both the noun, referring to the wire or rope itself, and the verb, referring to the act of using it. Then there are also gah-ROTE-ing, gah-RAHT-ing, and GARE-ut-ing, and gah-ROTE-er, gah-RAHT-er, and GARE-ut-er, and so on. I checked two older dictionaries and a newer one, and the third pronunciation—GARE-ut, and so on—was only in the newer one. So it’s apparently only become widespread recently. That’s the way I said it, but since gah-ROTE and its derivatives are preferred, those are the ones I’ll use.

Second: the title of my talk. When Bob Robinson asked me to give it, he mentioned that there is an old Philo Vance novel by S. S. Van Dine titled The Greene Murder Case—although there it’s spelled with an e on the end, like Greene Street in Columbia, whereas the Green I’ll be dealing with is spelled without the e, like the color. I also put the question mark in parentheses after the word murder because, as you’ll see, it isn’t totally clear whether murder was involved. Anyway, as you probably know, since you’re all mystery aficionados, S. S. Van Dine, whose real name was Willard Huntington Wright, wrote a series of novels about Philo Vance, who was sort of an American Sherlock Holmes who lived in New York in the 1920s. I read one of the novels when I was a kid–my parents had it lying around the house–I think it might have been The Canary Murder Case, but I’m not sure. The only thing that has stuck with me all these years about the book is Philo Vance’s snooty way of expressing himself, and that is based on the one line that I remember, or think I remember, from the novel: Philo Vance is questioning somebody, and the person says he’ll have to rack his brains to come up with the answer, and Vance says, “Well, then, drum on your old encephalon.”

Anyway, to put off actually starting to work on this paper, I went on the Internet and Googled “Philo Vance.” One of the things that came up was a Web site called The Mysterious Home Page, where I found a review of the Vance books by Grobius Shortling. I kind of got a kick out of what he said, and I thought I’d share it with you. After quoting a few lines of dialogue from The Benson Murder Case that are similar to the “Drum on your old encephalon” one, Shortling says:


            With this pretentious claptrap, Philo Vance burst into the American mystery scene in 1926. S. S. Van Dine (W. H. Wright) (1888-1939) was an art critic and a fascistic snob. . . . However, he was a very intelligent and cultured man, no way as stupid as his characters were. He compiled a classic anthology of detective stories under his real name. The “dotty logic” of the plots and the hero’s immense erudition about any subject conveniently relevant to the plot of any particular book (Impressionists, Egyptian antiquities, Scotch, er Scottish, terriers, tropical fish, etc.), according to Julian Symons, does not detract from his ranking in the Golden Age. Absurd as these books are, they are very readable as “historical novels” in the sense that they reflect a milieu that has totally vanished, if it ever existed at all, in New York City. In that sense, they are as good as old Batman comic books and Doc Savage potboilers and a lot of fun if you don’t mind slogging through elaborate footnotes about Vance’s cephalic indices and the like. . . .

            In spite of the pomposity of the diction and style, these books, at least the earlier ones, are very well written, with some amusing dialogue. . . . The narrator is the invisible S. S. Van Dine himself, who is present in every scene but never says a word, making him almost a perfect Watson because he is just dumb, period. That, and the tolerance of the Law in putting up with Vance—not to mention their incompetence­—helps turn these

novels into fantasies, but the plots in the earlier books are often very good, especially the ones set during the four-year period of Markham’s incumbency as New York District Attorney in some imaginary near past of the early 1920s.

        Sociologically, it is interesting that EVERYBODY smokes–cigarettes, cigars, pipes–wherever they happen to be, even at crime scenes while fingerprinting and other forensic work is going on, and drinks their Napoleon brandies and Scotch highballs at the very height of Prohibition.