This is a guest post by Allen Nguyen, a Widening the Path intern in the Library’s Publishing Office.
Ambitious and daring showgirl Margaret O’Dell, nicknamed the “Canary,” has earned the ire of multiple men. When she is found murdered in her apartment, the blame quickly falls on the men entangled in her aspirations; all were near her home on the night of her death. But the apartment is securely locked when the body is found the next day. The police are baffled.
Such is the setup of the “The ‘Canary’ Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine, the latest in the Library’s Crime Classics series. Originally published in 1927, the novel follows Philo Vance, a man of high intuition and powerful psychological analysis, as he discovers the culprit behind this locked-room mystery. He observes not just the facts, but also the minds of the suspects, delving into the realm of psychology. He dissects their personalities and behaviors, and, in the climax of the novel, analyzes how they play their cards when under the watchful eyes of the law, deducing who among them could have the wits — and bravado — to pull off this seemingly impossible murder.
S. S. Van Dine — a pen name for Willard Huntington Wright — not only serves as the author but is also the narrator and assistant to the sleuth. Wright, born in 1888 in Virginia, began his writing career as a literary editor for the Los Angeles Times, eventually becoming an influential art critic. Facing financial instabilities, in the mid-1920s he turned to writing detective fiction and assumed the name of S. S. Van Dine, penning a dozen novels featuring Philo Vance. The majority of these novels became bestsellers, alleviating Wright of his financial troubles.
Published during the golden age of detective fiction, “Canary” was the second book in this eventual 12-volume series. As Kirkus wrote in their review of our Crime Classics reissue, the novel is an “undeniable landmark in the history of the genre.” Philo Vance’s popularity placed him alongside other great sleuths of the time, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like them, Philo Vance appeared in multiple film adaptations.
Just two years after the publication of “Canary,” it received a film adaptation in 1929 starring William Powell as Philo Vance and Louise Brooks as Margaret O’Dell. But it came at a difficult moment in film history — the switch from silent to sound films, or “talkies.” The first was the landmark Al Jolson film, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. Silent films then in production scrambled to add sound, which required scenes to be reshot; that was the situation for “Canary.”
But after Paramount reneged on a salary increase promised in Brooks’ contract, she refused to reshoot her scenes.
Contract disputes between actors and their studios were common in this period. Hollywood saw the transition to talkies as “a splendid opportunity … for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars,” as Brooks put it.
This frustration had been years in the making. Several of the biggest stars of the day had banded together in 1919 to create their own production company, United Artists. At the helm were renowned Hollywood figures D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. (The National Audiovisual Conservation Center at the Library houses a wealth of resources on this significant era of film.)
Fast forward a decade later to talkies. Brooks’ efforts were not successful. Paramount planted a lie in the papers about her voice being unusable for talkies, irreversibly damaging her reputation in the new era of sound films, and hired actress Margaret Livingston to voice over Brooks’ original scenes. Despite critics panning the overdubbing, the film was fairly successful, and the series — both books and film — continued to be popular. Eventually 17 Philo Vance films would grace the silver screen, leading the American Film Institute to nominate Vance to their list of “100 Years … 100 Heroes & Villains” in 2003.
Van Dine contributed significantly to the detective fiction genre, and “The ‘Canary’ Murder Case” stands out as one of his most popular works. This most recent publication of the Library’s Crime Classics series will give readers a taste of Philo Vance as they seek the truth alongside this inimitable detective.
Library of Congress Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library. Each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger. “The ‘Canary’ Murder Case” is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.