Friday, July 8, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Gracie Allen Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine

Back in the Golden Age of second-hand bookstores (meaning the Pre-Internet age), I used to see this book a lot, and was intrigued. But by the time I got intrigued enough to buy it, it wasn’t there. And soon, neither were the stores.

But a couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Rose City Book Fair, which is sort of throwback to those by-gone days, where I ran into several old friends - and one old book I could no longer resist - The Gracie Allen Murder Case.

Prior to this, my only acquaintance with Philo Vance was seeing William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case, and that was so long ago I don’t remember anything about it, except that he was not playing Nick Charles.

But I was only mildly curious about old Philo. The real attraction was Gracie, one of my favorite comediennes of all time.

Apparently this book came about when, near the end of S.S. Van Dine’s writing career, Paramount asked him for a screen treatment pairing Philo Vance with Gracie Allen. Van Dine delivered a story involving Gracie, her mother, her brother and George Burns and collected his dough. Then everything went sideways. Burns opted out of the movie project and Paramount decided to do their own thing with Vance and Gracie.

I haven’t seen the film (released in 1939), but it sounds fun, with Gracie taking over the action and repeatedly calling Vance “Fido.” In this one, Vance was played by Warren William, the screen's first Perry Mason.

Meanwhile, Van Dine wrote the novel based on his screen story, resulting in a strangely amusing book. As a character, Philo Vance is okay, though he talks funny and goes to the well for too many foreign words and literary allusions. The big surprise was that Van Dine simply did not get Gracie Allen. Her distinct brand of humor should have translated easily onto the page, but Van Dine failed miserably. This could have been a great book if the studio had approached Raymond Chandler or Rex Stout instead.

As presented here, Gracie is ditzy, scatterbrained and lovable, but never funny. I was on the lookout for a couple of good lines I could quote, and failed to find a single one. The best that can be said is that she wanders on and off stage (mostly off) like some sort of magical creature and unwittingly provides Vance will all the clues he needs to solve the case. And Van Dine's handling of George Burns is even more inept. He’s a typical jealous boyfriend who could have been played by anyone out of central casting. It’s no wonder George had no interest in the film.

Want to see for yourself? Download the book for free HERE.

Crave Forgotten Books? Find more at pattinase!


Deka Black said...

This Forgotten Books articles are incredible. There is so many stories and so little time...

Jerry House said...

For me, Philo Vance should be taken in short spurts, preferably one book in every twenty-five years or so. Yet I love the early Ellery Queen; the books were clearly inspired by the insufferable Philo.

Reportedly, GRACIE is the weakest of the Vance ouvre. It is probably the one I would enjoy most, so I will get to it when the twenty-five years or so are up.

George said...

I'm with Jerry: I can only tolerate S.S. Van Dine in small doses. But, at the time he wrote, the public eagerly read these books. The Gracie Allen volume seems to have been a marketing ploy.

Glen Davis said...

SS Van Dine takes some getting used to, but if you can get past all the archaic language, the puzzles are very effective.

Yvette said...

Enjoyed reading your review. I read one or two S.S. Van Dine books years ago but have no memory of them except that I stopped at two and never bothered with more. So that, in itself tells me everything.

Since the download is free, though (and thanks for the link!) I'll take a look. :)

Reminds me to try and find the film. I am a Warren William fan.

Cap'n Bob said...

One Van Dine novel was enough for me, but I have enjoyed the few Vance movies I saw.

Anonymous said...

I have read most of Vance, not Gracie however. Your review doesn't inspire me to do so, and frankly I've never been all that crazy about Gracie's comedy anyway. But I was suprised and delighted to learn that these books are out of copyright, because I've had no luck in finding a copy of Casino, which I've never read and was always curious about, particularly the improbable "scientific" murder method presented in the not-very-good movie with Paul Lukas as Vance. It's now cranking out of my printer and I'll start reading it as soon as the toner is dry.
Art Scott

Evan Lewis said...

Pleased to be of service, Mr. S.

Richard Prosch said...

Haven't seen this before. Looks like fun --reminds me of Ron Goulart's Groucho Marx detective stories.