When reading books that were in the past either influential and/or popular it can be difficult for the reader of today to fully understand why the book(s) appealed to past readers. The Philo Vance and Ellery Queen detective novel series are both good examples of this phenomenon. Although I had similar issues reading S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance as I did Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen the long term success of the two series were quite dissimilar. Van Dine’s popularity dropped precipitously several decades after he was first published while Queen, on the other hand, not only continued to be popular but went on to be very influential within the world of mystery writing. What made these books so popular at the time they were published, why were the trajectories of their popularity were so different and why do modern readers "receive" them so differently than did their initial audience.
The two authorial choices unite these series are the nature of the New Yorks in which they were set and the structures used by the authors allow the detective access to sites, evidence and witnesses and the reader access to the thoughts and actions of the detective.
First, the nature of their New Yorks:
It is difficult to keep in mind while reading the early works of Queen and Van Dine that they were published within a few years of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Stout’s Fer-de-Lance. The former was published in 1930 and the latter, the first Nero Wolfe novel, was published in 1934. Those two books seem to have been written about a different universe than inhabited by either Philo Vance or Ellery Queen.
This reader felt that Vance and Queen lived in a country and a city that were strange amalgams of England and the United States. Both detectives work in New York City and both encounter the rather stereotypical individuals of New York: the cops with the broad accents and apparently little education; the cab drivers and waiters who have broad accents and cheerfully know their places. But the New York rich, the upper classes, live with the same “different set” of rules as do members of the British upper class in Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels. It is a New York without anything near the broad ethnic diversity one encounters in Rex Stout and with a degree of deference from police officers towards “their betters" that no one shows in his books. Compare, if you will, Inspector Queen with Stout's Inspector Cramer. Cramer doesn’t always get his man, true, but Cramer would not have put up with the affected manners and sense of privilege of either Vance or Queen.
Reviewers and analysts of murder/detective mysteries refer to a type of novel as a ‘cozy.’ Cozies are set in an alternative universe where all the nice things about the past continue to exist without any of its more unpleasant elements. In some the detectives themselves are an element of that sanitized nostalgia. Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn is the son and brother of members of the aristocracy. He is a card carrying gentleman who interviews the upstairs folks while one of his men (often Inspector Fox) interviews the maids, the butler and the rest of the downstairs staff. Not only do servants defer but often the greatest supporters of the class system are members of the “peasantry” whose adherence to an outdated caste system allows for others (their betters) to be protected against that system being breached while presenting themselves as enlightened and even egalitarian.
S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen can be argued to have been writing the American equivalent of the cozy, although in their cases this is masked by the fact that they set their murders in New York and present their detectives as world traveled and erudite. Make no mistake, though, these are cozies. In the world of Van Dine and Queen there is an attempt to transpose what the authors believe to be the English class system into the world of New York. The run-of-the-mill police officer in Queen's New York treat Ellery with such a degree of respect that one imagines them tugging their forelocks when reporting to him. The idea that any of the monied and well-connected witnesses in the early Queen books would not have called their lawyers immediately upon being detained and questioned by a man whose only authority is a “pass” written out for him by his father is laughable. The idea that no one in the police force or at city hall would direct charges of nepotism and incompetence toward Inspector Queen is similarly ludicrous. However in these books the reader is assured that in a United States much changed over the last few decades, by immigration as well as the farm boys who returned from war duty overseas only to see their families wiped out by the crash of 1929.
Philo Vance is an Americanized version of that stereotype in English fiction, the eclectic, erudite man of the upper class who travels the world, dabbles in a variety of subjects and has the money and connections to provide him access to the crime scenes. The author makes a point of emphasizing that Vance had acquired an accent while studying in England. Those who are merely police officers (as opposed to persons of private means) are described as differing physically, intellectually and even morally from Vance and his friends.
The New York of these American urban cozies seems far more like the moderate sized towns than many readers lived or grew up in. There are important families and, without doubt, those important families can exert pressure on the police. But this pressure isn’t presented as a form of corruption rather as the natural consequence of people being important and monied. The daughter of a rich man may be a “drug fiend”* but it isn’t portrayed as a form of inappropriate wielding of power and influence for the police to treat her differently than they would the daughter of a working class man.
Second, the structural issues of both Van Dine and Queen:
The further frustrating thing about the Ellery Queen novels arose from their very structure. The original conceit is that they are written, years after the actual occurrences by a friend who had not witnessed the actual cases. The manuscripts are supposedly based on the notes that Ellery kept of the cases and from the clippings he and his father kept from contemporary coverage. It thus makes no sense for the writer to not “open up” the mind of Queen throughout the book. Why is the reader kept ignorant of Ellery’s deductions and some of the information he has until the final unfolding of the criminal? The authors may have felt that if the reader was aware of everything Ellery thought and witnessed the reader would not be attempting to solve the problem themselves they would be witnessing Ellery solving it. The books themselves are set up with the premise that at a certain point the reader has all the information necessary to deduce who “did it” and they are invited to work it out for themselves before turning the page. From that point on the reader is supposed to have a front row seat as Ellery demonstrates his superior abilities to deduce.
This structure/conceit will be dropped over time. The problem that the authors face, the difficulty of presented someone as having an outstanding deductive brain and giving that person reasonable access to the information, sites and people necessary to solve the crime remained. Reading these books underlines the brilliance of the formula that Rex Stout devised for his Nero Wolfe books where it is Archie Goodwin’s POV that is presented to the reader and where much of the setup of many books involves giving Wolfe and Goodwin a reason to have the type of access given so unquestioningly to Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.
If you want to amuse yourself imagine the field day any defense lawyer would have with evidence collected by and witnesses interviewed by someone who was not a sworn officer of the court and not a member of the police force. Of course these books were written long before the birth of the CSI franchise and it is likely that few readers would have heard of the concept of “chain of custody” but certainly any adequate lawyer would be able to call into question evidence and information gathered by the son of the man whose job would be in question if someone was not arrested with due speed.
S. S. Van Dine’s alternative to access through nepotism is scarcely more palatable since his detective gains access to persons and places because of a private relationship with the DA. One imagines that defense lawyers would enjoy the opportunities this irregular relationship would give them to undermine any evidence Vance might have had access to and any statements made to witnesses in response to Vance’s questions.
In summary, both the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen series provided for their readers the same type of reassuring universe that the English cozies did for theirs and neither solve the problem of how to entwine a private detective into the world of the police procedural.
* Drug Fiend is the authors term not mine. The demonization of drug taking, including misleading descriptions of its symptoms has a long history in American crime fiction.