S. S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, once listed “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” The first two rules:
- The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
- No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
In short, crime fiction is a game where you’ve got to play fair. Which is why his series continues to please: all the clues are visible to you as well as to Vance, and there’s a pretty good chance—if you don’t get distracted—that you’ll figure out who-done-it before the culprit is nabbed.
The Philo Vance of film and radio wasn’t quite the same character as the one found in S. S. Van Dine’s books. This was actually a good thing. The man introduced in The Benson Murder Case and stories that followed was an irritating dilettante, prone to Latin quotations and impromptu dissertations on Chinese ceramics, Egyptology, classical music, and Renaissance art. Plus an expert polo player, dog breeder, archer, and golfer.
When Philo Vance was finally picked up for film, producers kept the clever Van Dine plots but retooled the lead’s personality. To get a sense of the improvement, he was first played by William Powell in what wound up as a warm-up for his Nick Charles Thin Man persona.
The first radio Vance, in 1945, was played by José Ferrer. Few of those episodes have survived. But most of the 1948-50 run is available, and Jackson Beck’s approach to Vance works very well: he sounds incisive but not curt, smart but not superior, and his learning is always worn lightly. Just the kind of guy you’d want solving your murder.
If the voice is vaguely familiar, it’s due to Beck’s lifetime of work in radio and the movies, from announcing the orignal Adventures of Superman to playing Bluto in the Popeye cartoons and narrating sketches on Saturday Night Live.
There are 88 complete episodes; running times range from 23:30 to 29:22.