Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (1926) #1

Major Characters:

  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. X. Markham, district attorney
  • Sgt. Ernest Heath, Homicide Bureau
  • Alvin Benson, wall street broker, dead in his home as story opens
  • Major Anthony Benson, brother of the murdered man
  • Mrs. Anna Platz, housekeeper for Alvin Benson
  • Muriel St. Clair, a young singer
  • Captain Philip Leacock, fiancĂ© of Muriel St. Clair
  • Leander Pfyfe, friend of Alvin Benson
  • Mrs. Paula Bannon, friend of Leander Pfyfe
  • Colonel Bigsby Ostrander
  • Elsie Hoffman, secretary of the firm Benson and Benson

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: District Attorney John F. X. Markham invites Philo Vance along to a murder scene. Broker Alvin Benson has been found dead in his home. Sgt. Ernest Heath is in charge of the investigation. A drawing of the scene is provided:

Not much to go on for clues: a grey Cadillac was seen parked outside with fishing tackle sticking out the back, in the room are found a pair of ladie's gloves and a handbag, with the monogram "M. St.C". The housekeeper, Anna Platz, heard the shot in the night but did not recognize it as such.

The handbag turns out to belong to Muriel St. Clair, who had been to dinner with Benson, but denies any involvement. Muriel, however, is engaged to Capt. Philip Leacock, who was none too pleased to find that she has been stepping out with Alvin Benson.

Vance finds that five people had motive and opportunity to do away with Benson, and examines a theory for each to find the murderer. The five:
  1. Muriel St. Clair, whom Benson had been unwelcomely courting 
  2. Capt. Philip Leacock, St. Clair's fiancé, was at the scene and had threatened Benson
  3. Leander Phyfe, whose car was at the scene
  4. Mrs. Platz, who had best opportunity
  5. Colonel Ostrander
Review: This is the first of the 12 Philo Vance stories, and it is easy to see how it got readers hooked into the series. Vance is quite pedantic through the first half, describing everything in way too much detail. Then when things get interesting, the story tightens up as Vance goes through the list (above) of suspects. The story improves throughout. The method the killer used to get to the scene and back - unseen - is quite clever. My edition has three sketch maps which are quite valuable in following the action.

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