Van Dine, S. S.: The Bishop Murder Case
(researched by Catherine Andrews)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
The book was first published in New York, New York in 1929 by Charles Scribner's Sons.
Copyright 1928 The Crowell Publishing Company
Copyright 1929 Charles Scribner's Sons
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
First edition published in trade cloth binding.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
188 leaves, pp. [6][i-iv]v-viii[2]1-28[2]29-242[2]243-349[7]
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
No editor or introduction; however, on the title page, there is the following quote from Joseph Conrad: "The Earth is a Temple where there is going on a Mystery Play, childish and poignant, ridiculous and awful enough in all conscience."
Four pages after the title page (pp. vii-viii), there is a two-page list of all the characters in the book.
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
Facing p. 28 on an unnumbered, fold-out leaf that is twice the size of the normal pages, there is a black-and-white-and-shaded illustration/diagram of two apartment buildings and three houses - the general area where a murder in the book took place.
p. 123 contains a small illustration of a scrap of paper with two math equations on it. The illustration is in the midst of the page's text.
p. 241 contains a detailed map of the area of the murder scene.
There is another unnumbered, fold-out leaf facing p. 242 containing an extended, more detailed black-and-white version of the map on p. 241.
The illustrations are not accredited to anyone anywhere in the book.
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Readability is easy and clear, with large margins and average-size, dark print. The pages are faded to a slight yellow-brown, but the binding and pages seem to be holding up very well. The chapters are numbered and titled, each including the date and time at which the chapter takes place. There are various lists and quotes throughout the book in a smaller, bold typeface.
Measurement of Page: 7.25" x 5"
Margins: Top & Side, 7/8". Bottom, 1"
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
The paper used is slightly textured and thick, and has become somewhat yellow/brown, especially at the edges. The vertical edges of the paper are rough-cut and uneven.
The pages used for the fold-out illustrations are very smooth and thin and in good condition, but creased where they have been folded to fit into the book.
11 Description of binding(s)
No dust jacket. The front and back covers are black cloth. Front cover has title and author's full name stamped in blue with a blue border around both. The spine has title and author's last name stamped in the same blue at the top. At the bottom of the spine the publisher's name is stamped in the same blue.
Transcription: Cover: THE BISHOP|MURDER CASE|S.S. VAN DINE
Spine: THE|BISHOP|MURDER|CASE|VAN DINE
12 Transcription of title page
THE BISHOP MURDER CASE|A PHILO VANCE STORY|By|S.S. VAN DINE|The Earth is a Temple where there is|going on a Mystery Play, childish and|poignant, ridiculous and awful enough|in all conscience.--Conrad.|NEW YORK|CHARLE'S SCRIBNER'S SONS|MCMXXIX
Title page verso transcription: Copyright, 1929, by|CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS|COPYRIGHT, 1928, BY THE CROWELL PUBLISHING CO.|Printed in the United States of America.|[publisher's crest]
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
Wright's letters are at the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia (Williard Huntington Wright Collection), and his scrapbooks (68 volumes) are at Princeton University Library. Manuscript collection information could not be found.
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
In 1932 there was apparently a very small edition of the book printed in Paris by The Albatross. It was only ten copies, done on hand-made paper, specified not for sale and printed only for the author.
S.S. Van Dine was actually an alias for Willard Huntington Wright.
The Bishop Murder Case is part of a series of mysteries written by Van Dine, focused around a main character, the detective Philo Vance.
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
Through WorldCat, I discovered that in 1983, Charles Scribner's Sons released a paperback edition of The Bishop Murder Case. From WorldCat:
AUTHOR: Van Dine, S. S.
TITLE: The Bishop murder case :
a Philo Vance mystery
PLACE: New York :
PUBLISHER: Charles Scribner's Sons,
YEAR: 1983 1929
PUB TYPE: Book
FORMAT: 256 p. ; 18 cm. There was also an edition released that includes a frontispiece of a scene from the MGM motion picture. In 1930, Scribner's released a set of four of Van Dine's "Philo Vance" novels: The Canary Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case, The Bishop Murder Case, The Scarab Murder Case.
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
After much research, the only evidence I found of another printing was this, through bibilofind.com:
Van Dine, S. S.: The Bishop Murder Case: A Philo Vance Story ; NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929. 2nd printing, cloth, VG sans DW, Mystery (UR#:BOOKS013090I) Offered for sale by Gutenberg Holdings at US$20.00
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
1929, Collier
1929, 1930, 1937, Grosset & Dunlap (New York)
1929, 1933, Cassell (London)
1945, Pocket Books
1954, Benn Brothers
1957 Fawcett Publications
1970, Lythway Press Ltd.
1980, Gregg Press
1982, Remploy
1984, Thorndike Press
1932, Albatross (Paris) - 10 special copies were printed for author's use only.
6 Last date in print?
In print as of April 2000. amazon.com has an active record of the book, and Books In Print has this active record:
The Bishop Murder Case. Van Dine, S. S., 0000, ISBN: 089190512X, Amereon, Limited, US Dollars 25.95., Active Record.
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
After extensive searches through such publications as Publisher's Weekly and in Hackett's 80 Years of Bestsellers, amongst others, I could not find sales information for the book.
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Same as above. However, I noted through my research that the book is advertised everywhere as selling for $2.00.
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
In Publisher's Weekly, ads from Scribner's Sons:
A full-age ad saying, "February 20th will be the big fiction date of the year when The Bishop Murder Case will be published by Charles Scribner's Sons." Full page ad: "Coming! February 20th (picture of the cover of book with title and author) Backed by the biggest advertising and promotional campaign ever placed on a detective novelÖ" Small quarter-page ad amongst ads for other Scribner's Sons books. Ad has a small silhouette of Mother Goose and a quote from Walter Yust, a journalist: "The ne plus ultra of modern detective storiesÖthe very aristocracy of murder mysteries." The New York Times had several ads in its Sunday Book Review Section. The ad was essentially the same design every time, varying in size from full-page to no more than a small corner of the page, and sometimes having different promotional quotes from reviewers. I found an ad in every Sunday Book Review of The New York Times from February 21 - April 14, and since the ads did not seem to vary too much or give any publishing information, I stopped there. Following is description of the basic ad:
The Bishop|Murder Case|A new Philo Vance Novel|by|S.S. Van Dine (and usually following this, there was a mention of three of Van Dine's earlier novels, The Greene, Canary and Benson Murder Cases). Behind the words was a black silhouette of Mother Goose.
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
11 Other promotion
No further advertisement was found, except for the fact that The Bishop Murder Case was often advertised in conjunction with Van Dine's three earlier novels, The Greene, Canary and Benson Murder Cases.
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
Film: The Bishop Murder Case. 1930, MGM, 91 min, B&W. Stars Basil Rathbone (as Philo Vance), Leila Hyams, Roland Young, Charles Quartermaine and Clarence Geldert. Directed by David Burton and Nick Grinde; adapted by Lenore J. Coffee. Television: Although The Bishop Murder Case was not one of the episodes created, there was a TV show based around the character of Philo Vance:
PHILO VANCE (DRAMA)
NBC aired this series from 07/05/45 to 09/27/45 with Jose Ferrer starring as Vance. The series was then picked up by ABC beginning on 07/23/46 for a short West Coast run. Finally, Frederick Ziv syndicated the series from 1948 to 1950 starring Jackson Beck. Last minute clue-gathering would lead to last minute revelations and solutions. Original novels were by S.S. Van Dine.
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
Biskop Mordet, K¯benhaven og Oslo, 1931. Danish. Le Fou des Èchees, Paris, Gallimard, 1932. French L'enigma dell'Alfiere, Verona, A. Mondadori, 1933. Italian Los crimenes del "Obispo", Buenos Aires, Liberra Hachette, 1942. Spanish Kravovske vrazdeni, Prague, Delnecki, 1947. Czech Sojo satsujin jiken, Tokyo, Shinjusha, 1950. Japanese Sojo satsujin jiken, Tokyo, Hayakawashobo, 1955. Japanese Sojo satsujin jiken, Tokyo, Tokyosogensha, 1956. Japanese Piosenka smierci, Warsaw, Czytelnik, 1961. Polish Mordakte Bischof : ein klassischer Kriminalroman, Munich, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 1972. German Biskopmordene, Copenhagen, Lademann, 1977. Danish Os crimes do Bispo, Lisbon, Edicoes Livros do Brasil, 1980. Portuguese Los crÌmenes del Obispo, Havana, Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1983. Spanish Der Mordfall Bischof, Koln, Dumont Buchverlag, 1987. German L'affaire du l'ÈvÍque, Paris, Union GÈnÈrale d'?ditions, 1987. French Zlio genii Niu-lorka, Moscow, MP Firma Rita, 1991. Russian Chu chiao sha jen shih chien, Taiwan, Lien pu wen hua chëu pan, 1998. Chinese
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
Searches in Publisher's Weekly did not indicate that this work was serialized.
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
The Bishop Murder Case, although not a sequel or prequel, is part of a series of mystery novels based on a main character - detective Philo Vance. Following are all the books in the series: The Benson Murder Case, 1926
The Canary Murder Case, 1927
The Greene Murder Case, 1928
The Bishop Murder Case, 1929
The Scarab Murder Case, 1930
The Kennel Murder Case, 1933
The Dragon Murder Case, 1933
The Casino Murder Case, 1934
The Garden Murder Case, 1935
The Kidnap Murder Case, 1936
The Gracie Allen Murder Case, 1938
The Winter Murder Case, 1939
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
Willard Huntington Wright (alias S. S. Van Dine) was born in Charlottesville, Virginia on October 15, 1887 to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Wright. Wright grew up in Virginia and went on to do rather short stints of education at St. Vincent's and Pomona College in California. In 1906, Wright applied to do post-graduate work at Harvard. Although he was accepted without question, Wright's application included the blatant lie that his tutor and reference was writer W.C. Morrow, although the two had never even met. Due to his unruliness and academic failure, Wright was quietly and politely dismissed from Harvard in 1907. He returned to California, where he took on various jobs such as a ticket-taker. Eventually, through connections and friendships, Wright landed the job of Literary Editor and Art Critic for the L.A. Times. Around the same time he held similar positions at the publication of Town Topics from 1910-1914, and was editor of Smart Set from 1912-1914, where he wrote vicious columns that revealed some of his strongest dislikes - current bestsellers to female novelists (in fact, Wright lectured on the case against women's suffrage). In 1915, Wright published Modern Painting, a volume of art criticism. During his time as a cultural figure, Wright was an enormous fan of the Synchronism movement (his brother was the painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright), and Wright was also associated with other artists of the abstract and modernist movements in America. However, after publishing various poorly-received works about art and other topics, and after his only attempt at serious fiction, 1916's Man of Promise which was also received poorly, Wright turned to popular culture. From 1920 until 1923 he tried to break into Hollywood and the movie business, but never truly succeeded. In fact, in 1923 he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the next two years in bed, where he read over 2,000 volumes of criminology and detective stories. When he recovered from this breakdown, Wright took on the alias of S. S. Van Dine in order to make a fresh start as he attempted to make a mark in the area of detective fiction with a series of novels about suave investigator Philo Vance. With Charles Scribner's Sons publishing and Maxwell E. Perkins editing, Wright wrote The Greene Murder Case 1928, The Bishop Murder Case 1929, The Scarab Murder Case 1930, The Kennel Murder Case 1933, The Dragon Murder Case 1933, The Casino Murder Case 1934, The Garden Murder Case 1935, The Kidnap Murder Case 1936, The Gracie Allen Murder Case 1938 and The Winter Murder Case 1939. Wright reached the height of his popularity in 1930 after the publication of The Bishop Murder Case, which is considered by many to be his finest novel. He was so popular that one year UVa used a novel of his as the model case for its annual "trial." However, after 1930 Wright's popularity started declining and by the 1960s he had become all but forgotten. In 1910, Wright had married Katharine Belle Boynton after a two-week courtship. Their marriage was a tumultuous roller coaster of many separations and infidelities. They had a daughter, Beverly, whom Wright eventually all but disowned. In 1930, Wright asked for a divorce from Katharine, and three days after the divorce was finalized, he married Claire de Lisle, with whom he lived in Manhattan. They lived there together until Wright's death at age 51 on April 11, 1939, due to myocardial infarction. Many of his papers and manuscripts are located in the Special Collections Department at Alderman Library. Sources: Seymour-Smith and KimmonsWorld Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4, p. 2959 http://members.aol.com/MG4273/vandine.htm Jon Tuska, The Life and Times of S.S. Van Dine, 1971 John Loughery, Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
S.S. Van Dine's novel, The Bishop Murder Case, was published in February 1929 to largely positive reviews. Having already established himself as a popular mystery writer with three previous Philo Vance detective books, expectations and anticipation for The Bishop Murder Case ran high - and Van Dine did not disappoint. Both at the time of publication and years later upon reflection, many readers and critics consider The Bishop Murder Case the best of the Philo Vance series. In glowing reviews immediately after it came out, the book drew inevitable Sherlock Holmes comparisons and Van Dine was praised for his ability to weave such a complex and intricately structured plot. The New York World called The Bishop Murder Case "a performance of such brilliance as bids fair to rank as the best mystery novel of the year?Van Dine writes detective fiction of a brand no author has rivaled since Holmes went to his reward." The New York Times apparently agreed with the World, calling the book "an almost perfect detective story." The New York Evening Post, although not quite as enthusiastic as other reviewers, said, "In spite of his rather pretentious culture and occasionally pompous psychoanalyzing, Mr. Van Dine has constructed an intricate mental enigma that deserves great praises." In fact, although most reviews unrelentingly praised Van Dine and The Bishop Murder Case, many also found fault with the book's pomposity and highbrow intellectualism - and especially with the detective, Philo Vance. If people did not like the book, it was mostly due to the character of Vance, whom many considered an insufferable bore. American critic Gilbert Seldes said, "Vance, with his implausible English accent, his unparalleled erudition, and his swank, would be enough to turn anyone away from the stories after five pages were it not that the stories, by that time, are more interesting than the detective." A review in Outlook goes on to say, "We have never been as enthusiastic a Van Dineite as some, and the present example induces no change of mood. Philo Vance is to us a long-winded, pedantic bore, and we do not believe that the New York police are as long-suffering as their deference to him would indicate." Interestingly enough, many believe that Vance was a reflection of Van Dine himself, which may have led to such remarks as Ernest Boyd's, who said about Van Dine that "He was the most interesting and attractive unlikeable man I ever met." Philo Vance no doubt proved an easy target to make fun of, as I found at least one parody of the Philo Vance series by author John Riddell, called The John Riddell Mystery Case, published in 1930. Unfortunately, I was unable to find what exactly the parody consisted of. After the 1960s, the Philo Vance series, including The Bishop Murder Case, seemed to be gone from memory. Roger Rosenblatt, in an essay analyzing Vance's character, remarks that Scribner's attempted to re-release the series but got nowhere, and Fawcett Publications remade the first four books (up until The Bishop Murder Case) in paperback but sold few. Some hypothesized that the advent of a multitude of other detective writers pushed Van Dine out of the scene; others say the public simply lost interest. However, Rosenblatt, when he wrote his essay, thought the time was ripe for a return of the Philo Vance series because the American economic state emphasizes class so much that snobs may come back into cultural favor; because interest in serious fiction has decreased and people enjoy fun, clever riddles; and because the Philo Vance series, including The Bishop Murder Case, are simply good books. Sources: Book Review Digest pp. 976-8 included the following reviews:
New York Evening Post, March 2, 1929
New York World, March 31, 1929
Outlook, February 27, 1929
New York Times, February 24, 1929 20th Century Literary Criticism, pp. 353-7 Roger Rosenblatt, "Philo Vance" New Republic, vol. 173 no. 4, July 1979
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
S.S. Van Dine's novel, The Bishop Murder Case, was published in February 1929 to largely positive reviews. Having already established himself as a popular mystery writer with three previous Philo Vance detective books, expectations and anticipation for The Bishop Murder Case ran high - and Van Dine did not disappoint. Both at the time of publication and years later upon reflection, many readers and critics consider The Bishop Murder Case the best of the Philo Vance series. In glowing reviews immediately after it came out, the book drew inevitable Sherlock Holmes comparisons and Van Dine was praised for his ability to weave such a complex and intricately structured plot. The New York World called The Bishop Murder Case "a performance of such brilliance as bids fair to rank as the best mystery novel of the year?Van Dine writes detective fiction of a brand no author has rivaled since Holmes went to his reward." The New York Times apparently agreed with the World, calling the book "an almost perfect detective story." The New York Evening Post, although not quite as enthusiastic as other reviewers, said, "In spite of his rather pretentious culture and occasionally pompous psychoanalyzing, Mr. Van Dine has constructed an intricate mental enigma that deserves great praises." In fact, although most reviews unrelentingly praised Van Dine and The Bishop Murder Case, many also found fault with the book's pomposity and highbrow intellectualism - and especially with the detective, Philo Vance. If people did not like the book, it was mostly due to the character of Vance, whom many considered an insufferable bore. American critic Gilbert Seldes said, "Vance, with his implausible English accent, his unparalleled erudition, and his swank, would be enough to turn anyone away from the stories after five pages were it not that the stories, by that time, are more interesting than the detective." A review in Outlook goes on to say, "We have never been as enthusiastic a Van Dineite as some, and the present example induces no change of mood. Philo Vance is to us a long-winded, pedantic bore, and we do not believe that the New York police are as long-suffering as their deference to him would indicate." Interestingly enough, many believe that Vance was a reflection of Van Dine himself, which may have led to such remarks as Ernest Boyd's, who said about Van Dine that "He was the most interesting and attractive unlikeable man I ever met." Philo Vance no doubt proved an easy target to make fun of, as I found at least one parody of the Philo Vance series by author John Riddell, called The John Riddell Mystery Case, published in 1930. Unfortunately, I was unable to find what exactly the parody consisted of. After the 1960s, the Philo Vance series, including The Bishop Murder Case, seemed to be gone from memory. Roger Rosenblatt, in an essay analyzing Vance's character, remarks that Scribner's attempted to re-release the series but got nowhere, and Fawcett Publications remade the first four books (up until The Bishop Murder Case) in paperback but sold few. Some hypothesized that the advent of a multitude of other detective writers pushed Van Dine out of the scene; others say the public simply lost interest. However, Rosenblatt, when he wrote his essay, thought the time was ripe for a return of the Philo Vance series because the American economic state emphasizes class so much that snobs may come back into cultural favor; because interest in serious fiction has decreased and people enjoy fun, clever riddles; and because the Philo Vance series, including The Bishop Murder Case, are simply good books. Sources: Book Review Digest pp. 976-8 included the following reviews:
New York Evening Post, March 2, 1929
New York World, March 31, 1929
Outlook, February 27, 1929
New York Times, February 24, 1929 20th Century Literary Criticism, pp. 353-7 Roger Rosenblatt, "Philo Vance" New Republic, vol. 173 no. 4, July 1979
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
The Bishop Murder Case was published in 1929 to much popularity and acclaim. The fourth in what was to eventually become a series consisting of twelve novels, The Bishop Murder Case, like the three preceding it, involved the story of a murder that was analyzed and inevitably solved by the incomparable detective and main character, Philo Vance. By the time of the publication of The Bishop Murder Case, S.S. Van Dine, the author, had created a name for himself with the three previous, very popular Philo Vance books. This fact produced an anticipation and excitement for The Bishop Murder Case that was unparalleled for a detective novel. Additionally, the publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, backed the novel with a huge advertising campaign that pushed sales for the novel over the top. The murders in the novel focused on the upper class, erudite world of scholarly mathematicians in New York City during the 1920s. Playing off the plot, the book was constructed in a very mathematical, rigid formula that was intertwined with a nursery rhyme theme. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case was one of the first detective novels to have so structured and complex a plot; in fact, Van Dine, with his book, started to forge a new school of detective novels with such followers as Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbott, Rufus King, Stuart Palmer, C. Daly King and Rex Stout. Along with starting a new school, Van Dine played off the popularity of the classic detective story by creating a novel that included clever twists and riddles and a full range of intriguing and mysteriously motivated characters. However, as interesting as these characters were, it is undeniable that many of them fall into stock character categories of murder mysteries - but this may have made the book all that more appealing to the public who enjoyed murder mysteries of that sort. Clearly, The Bishop Murder Case falls into three categories that helped it to become a bestseller: it was written by an established, popular author who had a massive publishing house backing him; it partakes from the classic detective/murder mystery genre while infusing the genre with new ideas; and it possesses stock characters that appeal to the public. Van Dine's first three novels, The Benson Murder Case, The Canary Murder Case, and The Greene Murder Case were an important beginning to Van Dine's career as a detective writer. Van Dine had originally plotted them as a trilogy in novella form, but when famed editor Maxwell Perkins accepted them, Van Dine expanded them into full stories and they were received very well upon publication. In fact, The Greene Murder Case was #4 on the bestseller list in 1928. Like many other authors and books, such as Joseph Heller and Agatha Christie, the enormous success of previous novels ensured the monetary success of future publications, and the example of The Bishop Murder Case was no different. The public had devoured the three earlier Philo Vance novels, and Van Dine made sure not to disappoint with The Bishop Murder Case. The book reached #4 on the bestsellers list for 1929 and was received extremely well by both the public and the critics. In fact, many called it the best Van Dine novel to date, and it is still widely regarded as so today. Although the plots in all four of these Philo Vance novels were original and quite different, Van Dine used the same qualities that the public came to know and love in his novels, such as highbrow intellectualism, unexpected plot twists, and wealthy, fascinating characters. As Donna Jacumin notes in her essay on Louis Joseph Vance's mystery novel The Brass Bowl, the same phenomenon of a series of books possessing similar qualities was what helped to make Vance's trilogy of The Brass Bowl, The Black Bag, and The Bronze Bell so popular. Clearly, because the public had come to expect a certain type of story from Van Dine, he learned to fulfill their expectations and did so very successfully with The Bishop Murder Case. Additionally, because so much was expected of The Bishop Murder Case from the public, the critics and the industry, Van Dine's publisher, Charles Scribner's and Sons put an enormous amount of effort into pushing the book. They placed frequent ads in Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times. These ads made such grandiose statements as "February 20th will be the big fiction date of the year when The Bishop Murder Case will be published by Charles Scribner's Sons" and "Coming! February 20th! Backed by the biggest advertising and promotional campaign ever placed on a detective novel?The Bishop Murder Case." Charles Scribner's and Sons was a considerable publishing house at the time that they published The Bishop Murder Case. They had published other big-name authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Furthermore, Maxwell Perkins, the renowned editor whom Van Dine worked with from Scribner's, developed a close relationship with the author and therefore helped Van Dine to continue creating quality work while gauging the reception the books would have. Scribner's domination in the publishing world, combined with their advertising savvy and close relationship to Van Dine certainly helped to push sales of The Bishop Murder Case over the top. The time in which The Bishop Murder Case was published, the 1920s, was a time of enormous prosperity in both the United States and England. Also at this time, the popularity of the mystery novel was at an all-time high. Along with the "roaring" 20s, often referred to as the Golden Age, a Golden Age of detective stories was also formed. Some Golden Age detective writers besides Van Dine were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and John Dickson Carr. Any writer who wrote detective fiction during the Golden Age came to be known for using a certain style that consisted mostly of a prescribed formation with little variation. This style is comprised of an aristocratic, brilliant, British or British-wannabe detective who solves mysteries that involve usually fairly bloodless, intellectual, puzzling crimes - all while remaining reasonably detached from the crime itself. The Bishop Murder Case certainly follows a great deal of this formula, which probably lead to much of its success. Philo Vance, the detective and main character, is the upper crust Manhattanite who is called in by the NYPD department on a regular basis to solve certain crimes. The crime in the case of The Bishop Murder Case is that of a the murder of a young man named Joseph Robin Cochrane, known as Cock Robin to his friends, by an archery arrow at the house of Professor Dillard. Vance sees right away that the murder corresponds to a particular nursery rhyme that reads: "Who killed Cock Robin? / 'I,' said the sparrow, / 'With my bow and arrow.' / I killed Cock Robin." Vance's deduction is confirmed when a note concerning the murder is received, signed by THE BISHOP (hence the title of the book). What ensues is a twisted, intellectual murder mystery, involving several more deaths based around nursery rhymes, several suspected characters, a bit of a love triangle, intellectual theories about math and chess, and a complete surprise ending where the reader's deductions are utterly flipped upside down. Some constructions of the plot are similar to other mystery novels of the time, such as Christie's Ten Little Indians and some of Carr's short stories. However, Van Dine prided himself on being an original while still sticking to certain rules that he believed should apply to all detective novels. In fact, he is well known for having written "Twenty rules for writing detective stories" in 1928, which you can read here. The intro to this essay reads, "The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more--it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws--unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience." Van Dine goes on to state such rules as "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described" and "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person--one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion." The final rule of his credo states,
"And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that he intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth." While Van Dine did, in my opinion, follow some of the familiar mystery novel methods, he also infused the detective genre with new techniques that created a school of followers. His specialty was construction of interesting, complex, book length plots, in which detail upon detail piled up on each other, finally resulting in a an explanation and deconstruction of the intricate reasonings behind the mystery. The book is written in a verbose, grand English prose style, which is very in contrast to the Hemingway-type vernacular that was popular in the 1920s. However, what is most original about The Bishop Murder Case is that it seems to be the first detective novel based on a nursery rhyme. Christie's Ten Little Indians followed this scheme later. Furthermore, the entire style of The Bishop Murder Case is very geometrical and formal, playing off the fact that the plot is centered on a group of mathematicians and chess players whose lifestyles and ways of thinking reflect their professions. Ellery Queen and Ngaio Marsh, both members of the school of Van Dine that follows the puzzle plot and intuitionist tradition used these methods. So while Van Dine often employed the traditional rules of the mystery genre, The Bishop Murder Case is not only the first nursery-rhyme mystery book, but the first of any sort of mystery novel constructed around a formal scheme, therefore showing how Van Dine imparted new methods into the conventional detective story. Although, in my opinion, Van Dine did infuse new techniques into the detective story, he also made use of stock characters in The Bishop Murder Case that appealed to the public. The most obvious stock character is that of Philo Vance, the erudite, upper crust, intellectual detective with a debonair personality, impeccable grooming and a perfectly gentlemanly attitude. In his spare time, Vance works on "the uniform translation of the principal fragments of Menander found in the Egyptian papyri during the early years of the present century" (Van Dine, p. 1) and the like. Van Dine describes him physically as "a marked Nordic type, with a long, sharply chiseled face; gray, wide-set eyes; a narrow aquiline nose; and a straight oval chin. His mouth, too, was firm and clean-cut, but it held a look of cynical cruelty which was more Mediterranean than Nordic...it was the face of a thinker and a recluse; and its very severity - at once studious and introspective - acted as a barrier between him and his fellows" (Van Dine, p. 5). Vance comes off as an aristocrat in every sense of the word, and perhaps it was his pomposity and snobbery that turned the critics off from his character. American critic Gilbert Seldes said, "Vance, with his implausible English accent, his unparalleled erudition, and his swank, would be enough to turn anyone away from the stories after five pages were it not that the stories, by that time, are more interesting than the detective." Despite the critics' unfavorable reaction to Vance, the public seemed to love him. Perhaps his qualities seemed to perfectly embody the time period of the Golden Ages - his dashing, wealthy, suave ways and brilliant mystery-solving skills probably inspired readers to want to be like him, instead of being provoked by him. Many other mystery novels' main characters seem to be similar in various ways to Vance. The first one that comes to mind is Christie's Hercule Poirot. While Belgian and not as physically imposing as Vance, the little detective had the same dignified, impeccably erudite ways as Vance. Ms. Marples, another of Christie's creations, was the same sort of proper, intellectually brilliant British crime-solver. Ellery Queen's novels had a main character detective named, aptly enough, Ellery Queen, a somewhat pompous scholar who reminds one of Vance. Dorothy Sayers' main character was Lord Peter Wimsey, who wore a monocle and was reputedly a wonderful lover and a charming ladies' man. Philo Vance clearly fits into the standard formula for a detective who was proper, brilliant, erudite, charming and debonair - and who could solve difficult crimes without getting his suit rumpled. Despite the fact that it is not an exemplary literary novel, The Bishop Murder Case is simply entertaining, well written and interesting. It clearly fits into many of the genres of bestsellers. As a mystery novel that took from both the old and new styles and employed a stock detective, written by an established author and backed by a major publishing house, The Bishop Murder Case teaches about certain genres of bestsellers and why they are so popular. Sources: http://members.aol.com/MG4273
mysterynet.com
John Loughery, Alias S.S. Van Dine, 1992
20th Century Literary Criticism, pp. 353-7
Donna Jacumin's Assignment on Louis Vance's The Brass Bowl
Tebbel, John. History of Book Publishing in the United States. Vol. II. 1975
http://www.webfic.com/kriminyt/art/twenty.htm
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