The Canary Murder Case

The Drink 

Canary

This cocktail was ‘Fiendishly plotted, with murder in mind’

1/2 JIGGER DRY GIN
1/2 JIGGER COGNAC
1/2 JIGGER YELLOW VERMOUTH
1 JIGGER ORANGE JUICE
1 DASH ORANGE BITTERS
Shake Well

-From So Red the Nose

So Red the Nose was published only two short years after Prohibition ended. So when you see the word “cocktail” in this blog, start getting used to thinking long-island ice tea over strawberry daiquiri. My first attempt at a 1930’s cocktail tastes more like a shot with a little orange flavoring, and you can see that the ingredients list tips more toward liquor than mixer. You will either need to nurse this drink over several chapters, or risk misreading “apathetically,” spending several minutes puzzling over how the main character could “admit” something “alphabetically.” Not that I would know anything about that.

CanaryLineUpNeither I nor the salesmen at BevMo! know what “yellow” vermouth is; the only thing their labels will admit to being is either “dry” or “sweet.” I ended up just eyeballing the bottles for the yellowest color, under the assumption that Van Dine was more interested in staying with the canary theme than achieving any actual taste.

Like the book it is named after, The Canary Case cocktail is enjoyable, but not that original. The orange juice and bitters sweeten the liquor just enough to make it go down easy, without making it as disgustingly sweet as many modern cocktails. For me this is definitely a plus; however, if you belong in the daiquiri crowd, know that this drink has a distinct hard-liquor flavor.

The Book

CanaryCover

‘…when material facts and psychological facts conflict, the material facts are wrong. In this case, they may not actually be wrong, but they’re deceptive.’

-From The Canary Murder Case

Written in 1929 by S.S. Van Dine, The Canary Murder Case is the second in a series of now-mostly-forgotten-but-not-yet-out-of-print books following the foppish sleuth Philo Vance. Google tells me that Vance became a very popular character at the time, and his exploits were adapted to both film and radio.

A poster for a 1930 Philo Vance film. The film version of The Canary Murder Case is available on YouTube.

A poster for a 1930 Philo Vance film. The film version of Canary is available on YouTube.

Like Sherlock Holmes and his approximately 6 million fictional replicas, Vance is an amoral genius; he doesn’t care one bit about justice, but consents to working with the police because he cannot not resist the allure of solving an intriguing human puzzle.

Unlike Holmes, this detective scorns science and logic in favor of intuition, spiritualism, and “psychology.” Vance’s version of psychology has as much in common with a scientific field as a seánce (with which he is also apparently familiar) does. For instance, at one point in the book he diagnoses a suspect’s untrustworthy natured based on his “wide rectangular forehead, his irregular eyebrows, and….split lobes.”

Earlobe-reading skills notwithstanding, Vance is your typical fictional detective, and as such he is always one step ahead of the clueless supporting characters. Hard-bitten District Attorney John Markham and practical-to-a-fault Sergeant Ernest Heath are good foils to the more intellectually-inclined main character and stop the book from being completely taken over by Vance’s obnoxiousness.

Canary_murder_caseOh, did I not mention that Vance is a spectacularly pretentious douche? He has a maddening tendency to hint that he has figured out a clue, and then acts smug when the other characters can’t guess it for themselves. He never misses a chance to mention his education in Europe and and — though American — has apparently picked up a British (of course) accent. No matter what Van Dine claims, though, with Vance’s unceasing “don’t y’ knows’s” and habit of leaving g’s off words (“astonishin’!” “charmin’!” “touchin’!”), my brain can only read his accent as identical to Tennessee William’s.

Van Dine also wrote himself into the story as narrator and completely useless attorney to Vance; he follows Vance through every phase of the investigation, but literally does not speak once in the entire book. He even writes himself out of playing a climatic poker game that every other character is participating in (“You don’t play poker,” Vance assures his silent sidekick), avoiding even the tiniest bit of interaction.

The victim of the murder case itself is the eponymous Margaret O’Dell, a lovely and popular philo-vanceballet starlet. Our heroes quickly narrow down the list of suspects to the four men who were keeping — ahem — “appointments” with her (and, truly, the book is completely uncreative in their motives), but the crime scene evidence suggests that it was impossible that any one of them could have been there at the time she was killed. All four have shady alibis and all four have something to hide.

Forgotten classic or best left to the past?

If you have seen an episode of SVU, then this book will offer absolutely no surprises for you. I saw every major “twist” coming at least a chapter ahead of time.  And this book was worse than a Scooby-Doo episode in repeatedly drawing attention to the actual culprit with many a throwaway, “Well, there is no way it could be that guy” and “I’m pretty sure we can rule him out.”

oldcanarycaseIf you are a fan of the murder mystery genre — of which I am decidedly one; Agatha Christie all day, every day —   you may enjoy seeing an early version of a familiar story. It’s well-written and, though there are no real shockers, the puzzle of the crime scene offers enough intrigue to make it passably enjoyable.

The atmospheric New-York-in-the-20’s vibe is very fun and, obviously, feels much more authentic than similar modern stories written as historical fiction.

Now that I think about it, my above comparison to Law & Order is very apt. This book is enjoyable, but forgettable, the literary equivalent of background noise while doing the dishes. Like its namesake drink, I enjoyed as I was partaking, but I never craved it afterword.

The Canary Murder Case is available on Kindle.

Next time: They were giving Pulitzer Prizes to women in 1931? Find out why with the Years of Grace book/cocktail.

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