The following is the parody that I wrote of S.S. Van Dine’s (William Huntington Wright’s) detective stories, whose titles follow the pattern of The [Six Letter Noun] Murder Case and which star the wealthy, egotistical amateur Philo Vance, who American humorist Ogden Nash said deserved “a kick in the pance.” (The Vance of the books, whom I find absurdly annoying, should not be confused with William Powell’s portrayal of the character in the movie adaptations, which I find very enjoyable. The Kennel Murder Case, an early success of director Michael Curtiz, perhaps best known nowadays for having helmed the masterpiece that is Casablanca, is particularly good.) I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it! (For more information on Van Dine and Vance, please see Mike Grost’s excellent detective-story website: http://mikegrost.com/vandine.htm.)
The Staple Murder Case
A Philip van der Lyine Mystery
by Karl Salzmann
Of all of the strange and oft-told cases of my friend and virtual owner Philip van der Lyine, the queer, curious, and unforgettable business of the staple killer stands as the most gruesome and mysterious. Who can forget—but wants to—the blood-curdling screams that erupted from the toilet of the public bathroom when it was revealed—by my friend, of course—that ***[this name is whited out for the reader’s enjoyment and pleasure]*** had committed the crime? Who can forget—but still wants to—the genius of my friend van der Lyine, who single-handedly revealed the New York Police Department to be the cretins they are? Who even dare forget the terrible motive or the gruesome and seemingly inexplicable method, both of which were never before seen in human history? It all began when van der Lyine and I were touring his private art gallery, which is located on the top floor of one of the many apartment buildings my friend owns in New York and which is only open to himself and the elect few he chooses to bring there. (It might be recorded, although it be shockingly irrelevant, that those elect few were considered “the blessed” and exalted to nearly godly status by the many van der Lyine-adoring masses on the streets of the city.)
“Vinny, old sport, old son, old boy, old chap, old horse,” he was saying as we walked through, smoking those tiny, invisible Persian cigarettes that he inexplicably fancies, “one of these days I shall retire from the detectin’ business and dedicate my life to the service of that astoundin’ race of animals known as ‘mankind’ through givin’ them art.”
I was about to enquire how one can “retire” from a profession in which one had never been employed, but then I remembered that I did not speak—the reason why I am van der Lyine’s only friend—and promptly shut my mouth. Van der Lyine was about to treat me to a pointless and irrelevant lecture on the masterpieces of the Oriental master Din Sho Tyrung, but he and I were treated instead to a sudden shock when we heard boots ascend the steps and the doorbell ring.
“If I am not mistaken,” said Philip van der Lyine, “—and I never am—that august personage who just rang the bell to this flat is none other than the District Attorney himself.”
“How do I know, you ask, Vinny? Ah, we geniuses need not reveal our secrets to the less fortunate—eh, what? However, since you’re so demned [sic] int’rested, I’m goin’ to do you the honor of answerin’ your grunt. I knew because I have written a monograph on the subject of boots, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those boots which you and I heard are district attorney-boots, which are a special kind known only to police chiefs, district attorneys, and”— he paused and leaned in to look me directly in the face—“Philip van der Lyine.”
It was, unfortunately for my brilliant friend, not the District Attorney who graced the art gallery’s door but rather Sgt. Blockhead, an up-and-coming (“—which means ‘completely moronic,’” van der Lyine had told me) detective-sergeant of the NYPD. (It was our half-crazed butler Curry, an Aborigine who, like myself, is mute, who let the sergeant in.) As always, Blockhead fell to the floor in awe and admiration when he saw my brilliant friend and did not notice me at all.
When van der Lyine had told him to “be a man” and not a chicken, to “get up from the floor, you compleat [sic] ignoramus,” Blockhead had this to say:
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, sir, but the District Attorney is there now.”
“What is it? What is it?” snapped my brilliant friend. “I cannot possibly be expected to solve the crime if I don’t know what it is! Even I—Philip van der Lyine!—cannot do that!”
“Why, yes, sir,” Blockhead reflected, disappointed. “I was maybe hoping you could… Nonetheless! Do you remember, Mr. van der Lyine, how Sir Auguste de Staple, the famous English tobacco millionaire, built a secluded mansion in the middle of Times Square?”
“Indeed I do,” stated van der Lyine. “That was—eh? what?—maybe ten years ago. Well, man, what of it?”
“Do you remember how, when he died in a freak accident, long thought by the surrounding townsfolk to be murder but never proven to be, he left the entire place to his eldest child, a daughter, Salinda?”
“Do you remember that Miss Salinda de Staple, who stayed a spinster her entire life but forced all of her cousins and their children to live with her, sold the place to a private contractor three years ago?”
“All this is ancient history, m’dear chap,” said van der Lyine, bored, taking a long puff of his Persian cigarette. “Give me somethin’ more recent.”
“Do you remember that, after Miss de Staple completed this transaction, mad and haunting screams were heard erupting from the house as the contractor razed it?”
“The nonsensical ravin’s of local fools.”
“Do you remember how the contractor turned it into a gigantic restroom complex and then sold it to the city?”
“Of course. Though I must say,” said Philip van der Lyine, yawning, “that you’ve an awful’ frightful way of gettin’ to the point.”
“Well, sir!” said Sgt. Blockhead, as if having won a debate. “There has been a gruesome murder in that restroom complex!”
Even the great Philip van der Lyine was shocked. He said, “Great scott!”
I would have said, “Great scott!” or something like it, but it came out as “Grr-grr!”
“Indubitably, m’dear Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “Sergeant, when did this gruesome murder take place?”
“Last night, sir,” Blockhead stated. “And do you know who ‘got it,’ sir?”
“None other than Benson Greene, the famous dilettante and ‘man-about-town,’ long suspected—” he leaned in close—“and this is only between ourselves, sir [still apparently not realizing that I was in the room]—of being a criminal mastermind.”
“That’s right, Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “The police considered Greene the consigliere to the Canarie—pro-nounced [sic] ‘Cah-nah-ree-ae’—Crime Family, colloquially known as ‘the Canaries.’ As I, Philip van der Lyine, know from my monograph on the lawyer-choosing habits of canaries—I mean, ahem, crime families—the consigliere was always known as ‘the Bishop.’ Well, m’dear Blockhead,” my friend continued, “have you got any clews [sic] as to who killed ‘the Bishop’?”
“Why, yes, sir!” Blockhead exclaimed proudly. “We have established suspects and found alibis, footprints, fingerprints, ropes, bits of piping—”
“’Pon my word, man!” van der Lyine interposed. “It’s as if you police chaps were all under the spell of the shillin’ shockers. Won’t you ever learn that crimes can’t be solved by—y’know—real clues and actual evidence? The whole thing’s in the mind, and all that! If y’know the psychology behind it—not that either I or the author has ever studied psychology or knows what he’s talkin’ about—then you’ll be able to know the killer instantly.”
“Oh,” said Blockhead, dejected. “But I doubt that would convince the courts, sir.”
“Courts! By God, m’Blockhead, we’re in a detective story, for Pete’s sake, and the guilty is always punished and the innocent always freed. That means that, if the killer don’t get sentenced by the courts, and I don’t like him, then I’ll kill him m’self. And, if I do like him, he’ll go free based on my Godlike judgment and omniscience.”
“Why, that makes perfect sense, sir,” said Blockhead, the policeman. “Still, you’ve got to figure out who the killer is first.”
“Quite,” said van der Lyine, curtly. He called for me (although I was right next to him)—“Vinny!”
“Off we go!”
I shall never forget my first glimpse of that awful and gruesome (am I using the word gruesome too often? My editor tells me that I employ the usage far too liberally. I told him not to discuss politics at the dinner table) sight, the dead body of “the Bishop.” His head, Blockhead had forgotten to tell us, had been severed from the body by a silver sword and placed in a bowl of spices (e.g. thyme, parsley, garlic, cinnamon, oregano—yes, I know this is completely useless, but it takes the place of my genius friend’s lecture on spices and herbs, a topic on which he is an expert*) on his breakfast table. The breakfast room, moreover, had been locked, sealed, and bolted from the inside, suggesting a seemingly impossible crime; though, knowing my friend, Philip van der Lyine, he would figure out a completely prosaic, mechanical, and uninteresting way to solve the locked-room problem. The District Attorney, who has requested not to be named, was pacing up and down the floor, puffing on a huge cigar. He was dressed in opera-clothes for no apparent reason other than to suggest that all of the characters in this story are extremely fancy and upper-class, tricking credulous people into believing in our pseudo-intellectualism.
“Oh, van der Lyine, glad you’re here,” the D.A. said. He puffed some more.
“’Pon my word, m’District Attorney, don’t you know that smokin’ is awful’ bad for your health?” said my genius friend, taking out one of his small Persian cigarettes.
“Why—why, yes, van der Lyine. I think I’ll quit the habit immediately.” The D.A. gave the Cuban to Sgt. Blockhead, who happily puffed away on it. “Either way, van der Lyine, I’m glad that you came alone, for we don’t want this getting beyond the three of us—me, you, and the sergeant here.” Once again, I was so inconspicuous an observer as to blend in with the wallpaper.
Van der Lyine nodded.
The D.A. continued: “The murdered man is Benson Greene, commonly known as ‘the Bishop’ for no apparent reason other than to fit another S.S. Van Dine title into this story. He belongs to the Canarie crime family, who are suspected of having this restroom complex as their center of operations for New York City. This complex has a long, mysterious, and blood-curdling history, about which Blockhead has, I am sure, already informed you. Nonetheless, I doubt that he has informed you that the de Staple family still live here, in this restroom complex in the middle of Times Square!”
We were all shocked, and the shock dramatically affected my delicate sensibilities. Philip van der Lyine, however, hid his shock well and begged the D.A. to go on.
“Miss Selinda de Staple, at the tender age of 108, only sold the de Staple family mansion to the contractor on the condition that the de Staples continue to live here. What’s more, the contractor with whom Miss de Staple did business was none other than Benson Greene, before he received his law degree!”
My delicate sensibilities were so dramatically affected this time that I thought that I would fall over dead, but van der Lyine gave me one withering glance with his powerful eyes, and I flew up to the ceiling.
“So, if I’m not very much mistaken, which I never am,” drawled my friend, “you suspect one of the de Staples of havin’ committed this dreadful deed.”
The D.A. nodded reluctantly.
“Psych’logically,” said van der Lyine, “there are only two kinds of people who could have the nerve to slice off someone’s head. One kind is a member of the de Staple family, and the other—”
We all leant in, ready to hear the deductions of such a genius.
“—the other would be a writer of detective stories. Silly genre, that. Well, on to the de Staples!”
Normally, at this point in the story, we would be treated to two-hundred pages of useless filler material as Philip van der Lyine interviews every single suspect, bores the reader silly, and blathers pointless psychological mumbo-jumbo that has no relation to reality. Suffice it to say that Selinda de Staple was 108 years old, had a hunchback and a huge beard, and could not get out of bed; that her nephew, John de Staple was a crazed Shakespearean actor who truly believed himself to be a warlock; that her niece, Carmilla Verrarrev (née de Staple), was a vampire on whom Sheridan Le Fanu based his famous story; that John’s wife, Inga, was a Russian émigrée who had now taken a job as First Lady; that Carmilla’s husband, Malcolm, was a professional Santa Claus impersonator who wore his trousers up to his throat and was a mathematical genius; that John and Inga’s daughter, Yasmina, was an escaped lunatic from the Times Square Asylum; that Carmilla and Malcom’s son, Bruno, was a professional rapper (in the 1920s) who obviously was a time-traveller; and that I, Vinny, write really long sentences that Microsoft Word’s grammar checker doesn’t like.
“Did we learn anything?” cried Sgt. Blockhead, who had fallen asleep halfway through the interviews.
“Did we learn anything?” cried the D.A., who had drunk 9,000 cups of coffee to keep himself awake.
“Did we learn anything?” I attempted to cry, but was prevented in doing so because I am a mute, so it came out as “Gruh-gruh-gruh?”
“Quite right, Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “The emphasis should be on the thing—for it was a thing that we learned.”
“Only one thing!” The D.A. was exasperated—not irrationally, I might add, for, if I were he, I would similarly be annoyed by my genius friend. (Thank heaven, however, that I am not he and am only a mute and pseudo-slave to the great Philip van der Lyine.)
“Only one thing,” the great man conceded, “but it is the key that unlocks the whole mystery! Think about it—who couldhave committed the crime? Miss Selinda de Staple cannot leave the bed, and, anyway, she is 108 years old. You can verify these facts, I’m sure, m’dear D.A. Inga de Staple, as first lady, would be too busy and too concerned with her reputation to commit it. Ditto with Bruno Verrarrev as a professional rapper. Malcolm Verrarrev wore his trousers up to his throat—he could not have seen well enough to commit the crime. That leaves Carmilla and Yasmina. Yet which of these two had the ability to murder ‘the Bishop’? The Bishop—very interestin’. It suggests a religious figure! Furthermore, how was ‘the Bishop’ killed?—with a silver sword. Mark that—it will have significance in a moment. Mark also, m’dear people,” drawled van der Lyine, “that Greene’s head was placed in a bowl of spices—including garlic. Finally, remember that the door was locked, sealed, and bolted from the inside—’pon my word, are you chaps startin’ to see the light?”
It began to draw on us all.
“He was protecting himself—against a vampire!” said Blockhead. “Thus the garlic!”
“Silver is a weapon that can kill a werewolf or a vampire!” said the D.A. “Thus the sword!”
“The vampire, however, turned on him, killing him with a method by which she could drink a lot of blood!—thus the head-chopping!” I tried to say, but it came out as “Booly-dooly-ding-dong!”
“Vinny is right,” van der Lyine said. “It all depends on the psych’logical bit of it. The murderer can be none other than Carmilla de Staple Verrarrev, who passed in through the door as a cloud of smoke and tried to drink the blood of the man who (she thought) had stolen away her ancestral home, de Staple Manor—Benson Greene, ‘the Bishop,’ our victim!”
We were amazed at this incredible display of logic—it was absolutely foolproof, showing the sheer power of man’s brain at work. (“I’ll slap the handcuffs on right now!” Blockhead cried.) No matter that this story has no literary qualities whatsoever—it showed how brilliant the brain of Philip van der Lyine, that master detective, can be when Mr. van der Lyine puts it to use. Nevertheless—
“I do have to critique your logic one little bit, van der Lyine,” I said. “You know that vampires do not exist.”
Van der Lyine, Blockhead, and the D.A. all stared, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Indeed, it can be said that Philip van der Lyine, who, even when he was shocked beyond all comprehension, always kept his cool, this time was so astounded that his Persian cigarette dropped out of his mouth. Indeed, his pseudo-Oxfordian accent, which was obviously unlike how any real person in the world speaks, vanished too, revealing a basic Midwestern American.
“What the—? Vinny, what’s going on here? You can’t speak—at least, I’ve always thought that you’re mute. I mean—”
“Yeah,” barked Blockhead. “The D.A. and I never even thought you were there—at least, we’ve never seen you before. How long have you been there?”
“The whole time,” I said. “In fact, I’m the chronicler for every one of Phil van der Lyine’s cases. By the way, Philly boy, why don’t you pass me one of those stupid Persian cigarettes that no one can see (but me, apparently)?”
Philly boy’s face dropped again, but he did pass me one. I lighted it and threw my head back.
“Now! We come to the real issue,” I continued. “I’ve been here, as mute as a rock, listening, day after day, to your crackpot analyses and pseudo-sophisticated ravings, van der Lyine! I despise you—I despise your belief that you are somehow superior to the rest of us, that you are special just because you are rich, and attended the ‘veddy, veddy’ best schools, and cater to all sorts of crackpot causes. I don’t like the fact that your plots never use basic common sense, that you don’t even bother to provide a mystery that is somewhat intelligent, that you neglect any kind of good storytelling or characterization, that you never want to let people live, or breathe, in your cases, just that they are dummies to pad out chapters. I especially despise the fact that you think yourself better than everyone else, especially me. You’re the most tiring detective in fiction—you know that? You annoy the reader with twenty pages of pointless rigmarole about your opinions on art, or tropical fish, or politics, when all the poor fellow wants to do is read a good story, have some fun, enjoy being in sheer fantasy for a little part of his life! Well! Well, it’s going to stop right now, van der Lyine, because—”
I removed my gun and shot him.
Blockhead said, “Huh?”
The D.A. said, “Wha—?”
“I killed Benson Greene,” I confessed, puffing on the cigarette. “I killed him so that I could place purposely misleading clues and make Philip van der Lyine deduce a ridiculous and totally erroneous, yet logical, solution. Despite this, if the reader reads back to my opening paragraphs, he will find out that it is all fair-play, at least in terms of motive. Anyway, van der Lyine’s solution couldn’t be real, even by the logic of this story—a vampire cannot enter a locked room unless he or she has been invited in. I’m surprised that van der Lyine didn’t write a monograph on that.” I sighed. “Well, Mr. District Attorney, time to get out the handcuffs. I’m ready to go.”
The D.A. looked at me quizzically. “Now, now, who said anything about ‘handcuffs’?”
Now was my time to be shocked. “You mean—?”
“I mean,” the man continued, taking the gun from my hand, wiping my fingerprints from it, and then putting it near the now-dead Philip van der Lyine, “that, between ourselves, I’ve always hated van der Lyine, especially because we could just as easily solved the case but that he had to come in and mock us all to Kingdom Come. Because he was so popular with the crowds, however, we had to let him do his thing. Anyway! Let’s just tell the reporters, and the de Staples, that van der Lyine killed Benson Greene—that he was a criminal who committed crimes in order to ‘solve’ them and take all the credit (and money, and free publicity) for their solutions! Clever, eh?”
“Clever,” I agreed. “What say you, Blockhead?”
The man chuckled. “As long as it discredits old Philip van der Lyine, I’m all for it, Vinny (if I can call you that, sir).”
“Oh, sure you can call me that,” I said. I looked at the D.A. and Blockhead. “You know, gentlemen”—as we walked out of the de Staple Mansion—“you know, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
*See “Adding Spice to Life: A Nine-Thousand-Page Monograph Written Entirely in Aramaic, Sanskrit, Latin, and Ancient Greek, Without Translations,” by P. van der Lyine (Van der Lyine Publications, 1928).